Sep 21

Defeating Hussein Without Government

The aftermath of 9/11 is a hard time to be an anarchist.

For many years before the WTC came down I believed that America
could be better defended by have no government than by the system we
have now, I imagined a nation of heavily armed militias, without
the power-projection capabilities of a conventional military but
with the capability to inflict a world of grief on an invader — and
with nobody having the authority to tell them to surrender. We
could have a home defense better than Switzerland’s, our larger
population and longer distances doing for us what mountainous terrain
does for the Swiss.

There would still be a place in an anarchist America for
professional soldiers — not many, but a few heavy troop formations
would be kept on retainer by consortia of insurance companies. Yes, I
said insurance companies, that’s because how free markets socialize
shared risks. Normal law enforcement would be funded by pools set up
by vendors of crime insurance looking to reduce their payouts;
national defense and overseas power projection (to the extent the term
still had meaning in a stateless society) would be funded by people
who bought war insurance (say, businesses with overseas assets to

These measures, I was and am convinced, would stop conventional
wars of conquest dead in their tracks. Invade a nation of 350,000,000
libertarians, most of them routinely armed? Yeah. Right. Any
War-College-trained military officer will tell you that urban warfare
against guerrillas on their home ground chews up armies faster than
anything else. Witness Stalingrad.

Without a government, many of the reasons people might go
to war against America would also vanish. No entangling alliances, no
foreign policy to object to. Conventional terrorism would become a
lot dicier proposition in a libertarian anarchy, too — as in
Israel, where armed civilians have on numerous occasions thwarted
attempted massacres by shooting back. And, of course, the WTC would
probably still be standing if the passengers had been

I grew up in the shadow of the Soviet threat. Theirs was an evil,
evil system, but they were at bottom geopolitically rational. They
calculated their chances very cold-bloodedly, and never pushed the
big red button. An ungoverned America would have stood them off, I
believe, long enough for the inevitable Hayekian collapse to remove
the problem.

But now we face the prospect of weapons of mass destruction dropping
into the hands of people who are behaviorally indistinguishable from
stone psychotics. That prospect poses problems of a different nature
than Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union ever did. Because what Al-Qaeda
wants is not driven or constrained by geopolitics, by pragmatism, by a
rational estimation of risk and reward. They have no population to
answer to even in the limited sense that Hitler and Stalin did. They
were madmen, but they were constrained by the necessities of leading
a country.

Under the present system, I see no alternative to state action as a
way to suppress this threat, up to and including conventional warfare
and the proconsular occupation of significant parts of the Arab world.
I am not happy with this evaluation; war is the health of the State,
and statism is the most lethal enemy humanity will ever know short of
a giant meteor strike (those who think this statement hyperbolic are
recommended to read Robert Conquest’s “The Great Terror”). The
question that drives this essay is whether, supposing the
U.S. were to become a market anarchy, there would be other means to
the same end.

It’s a tough case. Al-Qaeda would not hate us any less; it is not,
at bottom, U.S. policy that enrages them, it is the fact of our wealth
and freedom and refusal to submit to the One True Way of Allah. An
ungoverned America, more wealthy and more free by the exact measure
that its productive capacity is spent efficiently on a network of
security agencies and judicial associations rather than being wasted
on the support of parasitic government, would hardly enrage them

Al-Qaeda in itself is not an exceptional threat; in a properly
armed society the 9/11 hijackers would never even have tried
their stunt, because they would known that the certain outcome was
death in a hail of civilian bullets. It is the combination of
Al-Qaeda-like suicidal fanaticism with state sponsorship (specifically
the ability to produce chemical/biological/nuclear weapons) that
strains the anarcho-libertarian theory of national self-defense, It
does so by dramatically lowering the cost of aggression for both
sets of bad guys; the fanatics get the capability to strike a
hammer-blow at the Great Satan, and their state sponsors get
deniable cat’s paws.

It is worth pointing out, however, that it strains the statist
theory of self-defense almost as badly. A governed U.S. has the
neo-imperialist option (conquer Iraq, install Colin Powell as
miltary governor, and try to transform the place as we transformed
Japan), and that may even appear to be the option with the lowest
odds of catastrophic failure, but we don’t actually have any clue
whether this will actually work — Al-Qaeda might well
be able to get their bombs from the failing states of former-Soviet
Central Asia, or from North Korea. The historical situation
is truly unprecedented.

Harder than the theoretical problem, perhaps, is the practical one.
How to oppose that expansion of state power without acting as an
unwilling enabler for the terrorists? In some ways that’s easy;
pushing to abolish all the police-state bullshit at airports is
a no-brainer, since tiger-team tests of the system consistently show
that none of it has made smuggling weapons on board more difficult
(now, as before 9/11, approximately 30% of attempts succeed).

In a wider sense, though, it’s a very difficult question. One I
will be thinking about — and possibly writing about — in the
coming months.

Blogspot comments

Sep 19

Imperialists by necessity?

Steven den Beste wrote a long, intelligent and insightful essay on who the enemy is. I think he is right to see Afghanistan, Iraq, and the suppression of Al-Qaeda as phases of longer, wider war — a clash of civilizations driven by the failure of Islamic/Arab culture (though I would stress the problem of the Islamic commandment to jihad more than he does). I think he is also right to say that our long-term objective must be to break, crush and eventually destroy this culture, because we can’t live on the same planet with people who both carry those memes and have access to weapons of mass destruction. They will hate us and seek to destroy us not for what we’ve done but for what we are.

I wonder if Steve sees what this implies in the longer time horizon, though? The cultures that produced Al-Qaeda, despite swimming in oil wealth that should have made it easy, have failed in all essential ways to join the modern world. They mutilate the genitalia of the female half of their population, they educate only a vanishingly small number of scientists and engineers, and their politics is a perpetual brawl conducted by tribes with flags. Their capability to get with even the 20th century on their own has been tested and found wanting, let alone the 21st.

Steve may well be right that the only solution to a festering boil like Iraq or Saudi Arabia starts with military defeat, Western occupation, and a forced restructuring of society along the lines of what Douglas MacArthur did to the Japanese after 1945.

I used to think we could corrupt Islamism out of existence, make it fat and lazy with cheap consumer goods and seduce it with porn. Maybe that would be the best way to go if we had two generations to solve the problem. But if the likes of Hussein are breeding botulism and about to get his hands on nukes, we’ve run out of time. We can’t afford the soft option if the price of futzing around might be a mushroom cloud over Manhattan, or over Tel Aviv.

We must win. And we must impose our will and our culture on the losers, not for old-fashioned reasons like gold or oil or craving conquest, but because the likely alternative is nuclear megadeath, plague in our home cities, and the smell of Sarin in the morning. Is there anyone left who doubts that Saddam Hussein, who nerve-gassed Iraqis by the hundreds of thousands in the 1980s, would use nukes if he had them?

There’s a word for the process of conquering a third-world pesthole and imposing your culture on it. It’s called imperialism.

In the 19th century, the Western powers built empires for prestige and economic advantage. In the 21st century, we may be discovering that we need to get back into the imperialism business as a matter of survival. It may turn out that the 20th century was an interlude doomed to end as cheap transportation made the world smaller and improving weapons technology made large-scale destruction inexpensive even for barbarian thugs like Saddam Hussein.

Envy the British of Sir Richard Burton’s time. They could conquer half the world for simple gain without worrying about the Fuzzy-Wuzzies or the Ndebele aerosol-dropping pasteurella pestis on Knightsbridge. We — and I mean specifically the U.S. now — may have to conquer the Islamic world a second time, simply because the risks of war and the moral hazards of imperialism are less threatening than the prospect of some Allah-crazed Islamofascist detonating a knapsack nuke on the Smithsonian Mall.

I’m not joking about the moral hazards of imperialism, either. They may be a more serious danger to a free society than the short-term exigencies of war. Witness the fact that I, a radical libertarian anarchist for more than twenty years, find myself arguing for a position not all that easy to distinguish from reactionary military expansionism. Urgent survival threats make strange bedfellows. And it is all too plausible that. if we take this path, we might degenerate from imperialists by necessity to imperialists by habit and predilection.

Still. Reality is what it is. If there’s no way short of straight-up imperialism and nation-building all over the Islamic world to prevent a holocaust on American or European soil that would make 9/11 look like a garden party, then that’s what we’re going to have to do — civilize the barbarians at the point of a gun.

There is precedent; the British did a pretty good job of civilizing India and we did a spectacularly effective one on Japan. And the U.S. would be well equipped to do it again; our economy is now so large that we could run a globe-spanning empire from the petty-cash drawer. Seriously. The U.S, a hyperpower so dominant that no imaginable coalition of other nations could defeat it at conventional warfare, spends a ridiculously low percentage of GNP (6%, if I recall correctly) on its military.

Civilizing the barbarians needn’t even be a bloody process if you start the job right after their will has been smashed by a major defeat in war. The U.S. burned essentially every major Japanese city except Kyoto to the ground with incendiaries during World War Two and then atom-bombed two of them. This seemed to help. It would be nice if we didn’t have to get so drastic this time, but it might come to that yet; judging by measures like relative GDP and number of Nobel prizes earned, the Arab/Islamic world is actually further behind the civilization curve than the Japanese were in their militarist phase. They may need to be smashed flatter before a latter-day MacArthur will be able to do anything with them.

Some of my readers will be creaming in horror. Imperialism? Barbarians? How dare I use such language? How dare I argue that the U.S. has the right to commit deliberate cultural genocide?

There’s a big hole in the ground in Manhattan. That’s my argument.

If Pearl Harbor was good enough reason for us to conquer Japan and run it like a proconsulate until the Japanese learned manners, then 9/11 was damn good and sufficient reason for us to do the same number on the Islamists. That meant Afghanistan, it means Iraq, and down the road it may mean Saudi Arabia as well.

History is not over.

Blogspot comments

Sep 18

So, Howell Raines isn’t a complete waste of air

The NYT ran a
pro-Linux editorial

That’s good. They had to slip their “communitarian” spin in there, though, as if Linux hackers are all a bunch of PBS-worshiping Mother Jones readers and natural suckers for the fuzzy-sweater cause of the week.

Hah. If they only knew. I’m not going to say my gun-toting
red-meat libertarianism is typical, because it isn’t. Actually
the mass centroid of hackers’ politics is a lot like the
blogosphere’s, a sort of soft-libertarianism-leaning-towards-conservatism or vice-versa
(the centroid used to be further left but a lot has changed in the last decade).
Much less radical than me, but still enough to give the likes
of Raines a bad case of the vapors.

But let’s keep that our little secret, OK? If Raines wants to believe that open-source people are some kind of cross between Greenpeace and the Ethical Culture Society, that’s just fine. We’ll
take the Gray Lady’s backing. It’s another small step on the road to world domination.

The day will come when we will be the guys running the
world’s entire digital infrastructure (not such a stretch; we
already run the Internet). Our example will teach Howell’s
kids stuff about the power of decentralization and voluntary cooperation, all the things leftists pay lip-service to until the
last second before they’d have to actually apply them. And
the world will change out from under him. Subtly. Powerfully.
And in ways he can’t guess at yet.

It should be a fun ride.

Sep 17

Living With Microsoft

In today’s episode of the Microsoft follies, we learned that
Media Player 9
is un-uninstallable
. Deliberately.

A A Microsoft spokesthing confirmed that Media Player 9 is so deeply
integrated into the operating system that it cannot be removed without
doing a `system restore’. Which, incidentally, will wipe out your
Office installation.

It’s at times like this that, contemplating Microsoft users, one
feels as though one is wandering among people lashing themselves with
stinging nettles until blood runs off them in rivulets. One wants to
know why they don’t just stop. One is told “But it’s the

One shakes one’s head bemusedly.

They pay heavily for the privilege of lashing themselves, too.
Except for those blessed, blissful occasions on which they pay still
more, grease themselves, bend over, and prepare to be buggered by a
chainsaw. That’s called a “System Upgrade”.

One contemplates the uptime figures on one’s Linux box and
feels — admit it! — a bit smug.


Sep 13

When there’s nothing left to say, self-parody is the way

I’m just, barely, old enough to remember the anti-war Leftists of
the 1960s and 1970s. I disagreed with them over Vietnam then, and
I disagree with the anti-war Left’s agitation against a war on Iraq
today. But as I read what comes out of minds of people like Robert
Fisk and Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag these days, I wonder if I’m
getting old and allowing a golden haze to cloud my recollection of
past decades. Because I find myself feeling almost nostalgic for
the anti-Vietnam-war Left.

Yes, yes, I still think “Hanoi Jane” and her crowd were basically
wrong. Wrong about the consequences of a North Vietnamese victory
(Communists turn out to be murderously repressive — what a shock!);
wrong about the motives and interests of the U.S.; wrong about almost
everything except the level of incompetence, buffoonery, and myopia
afflicting the generals and politicians running that war.

But there was one important difference. The anti-Vietnam-war Left
may have been deluded and prone to masturbating in front of Che
Guevara posters…but if you sifted through enough of their ranting
you could detect the outlines of a principled case, or several
principled cases. There was one argument on which they persuaded me;
though I was not of draftable age, I found I agreed with them that the
military draft was an intolerable form of slavery years before I
encountered Robert Heinlein’s pithy objurgation that “A nation that
cannot find enough volunteers to defend itself will not survive
— and does not deserve to.”

But try as I might, I can’t detect a principled case anywhere in today’s
anti-war Left. Which is all the more curious since I think they
could be making one. Several, in fact: starting with the argument
that we should abandon the path of war not even because of what it does
to our enemies but because of what it does to ourselves. At every
level from the personal to the political, warfare is a brutalizing
experience that erodes our freedoms and empowers the nastiest elements
of human psyches and societies.

There are principled responses to that case, but that particular
argument is not my point. My point is that today’s anti-war
rhetoric, as exemplified by reports on a planned September 11
“Teach-In and Panel regarding Oppression” at UCLA, never seems
to even confront the question of whether war against Afghanistan and Iraq
is justified by the Islamist threat. Instead, the topic is “U.S. Law
and Policy Against Immigrants of Color”, as if there is any kind of
equivalence between the U.S.’s border policies and the catastrophic
mass murder of 2,500 people.

There is a curious kind of evasiveness at work here. We can see it
at work in the arid deconstructionism of Susan Sontag’s NYT op-ed, Real
Battles and Empty Metaphors
. Even the title announces that she’s
going to lucubrate about the relationship between language and
reality, not confront reality itself. A similar denial is evident
it the rhetoric of Noam Chomsky; prodded for commentary on the war,
he recites a litany of past American wrongdoing as if that somehow
banishes the question of how soon Saddam Hussein will have nuclear
weapons and what he will do with them when he gets them.

Maybe I’m getting senile, but it seems to me that the Left of my
teens was in better contact with reality than today’s crew. There
really was a military-industrial complex and the desire for war
profits probably did drive some of the political support for the
Vietnam war. The military-industrial complex is still with us today,
but the Left seems to have forgotten even the little it once knew
about political economics and isn’t even bothering to raise that
issue. Perhaps this amnesia is a post-traumatic effect of watching
Marx take a header into the dustbin of history; we’ve come to strange
days indeed when I have to conclude that my libertarian self could
easily write a better Marxist critique of Dubya’s war propaganda than
anyone on the Left has yet issued in public.

Instead, what we’re seeing is a rhetoric that is half a retreat
into language-chopping and half an expression of contempt for the
U.S. — contempt so out of balance that it’s doomed to be tuned out by
anyone less far to the left than the unlamented former Congresswoman
Cynthia McKinney.

When did the Left descend into such empty self-parody? And why?

Watching “real existing socialism” self-destruct must have been
part of it. I speculated on the psychological effects of that
political collapse in a previous essay Socialists
to the Stars
, about Scottish SF writers Ken McLeod and Iain Banks.
But something weirder and more diffuse happened to the Left on
this side of the pond, and I’m not sure what it was.

Some days I wonder if Greg Egan, the reclusive West Australian
author who has produced some of the best hard SF of the last decade,
may not have called it right in the following passage from his novel

“Feminism was working, and the civil rights movement was working, and
all the other social justice movements were getting more and more
support. So, in the 1980s, the CIA […] hired some really clever
linguists to invent a secret weapon; an incredibly complicated way of
talking about politics that didn’t actually make any sense, but which
spread through all the universities in the world, because it sounded
so impressive. And at first, the people who talked like this just
hitched their wagon to the social justice movements, and everyone else
let them come along for the ride, because they seemed harmless. But
then they climbed on board the peace train and threw out the driver.”

“So instead of going to the people in power and saying, `How about
upholding the universal principles you claim to believe in?’ the
people in the social justice movements ended up saying things like `My
truth narrative is in conflict with your truth marrative!’. And the
people in power replied `Woe is me! You’ve thrown me into the briar
patch!’ And everyone else said `Who are these idiots? Why should we
trust them when they can’t even speak properly?’ And the CIA was
happy. And the people in power were happy. And the secret weapon
lived on in the universities for years and years, because everyone
who’d played a part in the conspiracy was too embarrassed to admit
what they’d done,”

Egan’s account is implausible only because it seems unlikely that
the CIA is quite that subtle. But he’s right in pointing out that the
rise of the language of postmodernism — the sterile, involuted,
pseudo-profundity famously skewered by the Sokal Hoax
— seems to be an important correlate of the decline of the
American Left.

Self-parody is where you end up when you have nothing left to say.
And when all you can talk about is `discourse’ that’s a damn short road,

Bogspot comments

Jul 29

Right back at ya, Captain

Last Saturday morning in San Diego I had breakfast with Steven den
Beste, the redoubtable captain of U.S.S. Clueless. One of the
side-effects of that meeting was a long
of open-source development. Herewith my response.

Steve and I agree on the scaling problem that has pushed software
development efforts to the ragged edge of what is sustainable even by
corporations with lots of money. Software project sizes are roughly
doubling every eighteen months, and for reasons Steve alluded to the
expected bug count per thousand lines is actually rising.

My assertion is that software development has reached a scale at
which (a) even large corporations can often no longer afford to field
enough developers to be effective at today’s project scales, and (b)
traditional methods of software quality assurance (ranging from formal
methods to internal walkthroughs) are no longer effective. The only
development organizations that seem to thrive on today’s complexity
regime are open-source teams.

Note that I am not claiming that open source is a silver bullet for
the software-complexity problem. There are no silver bullets, no
permanent solutions. What I am claiming is that at the
leading edge of large-scale software, closed-source development
doesn’t work any more. The future belongs to open source plus
whatever other practices and technologies we learn to use with
it to develop at ever-higher scales of complexity.

Steve’s analysis of the open-source phenomenon is very intelligent,
but doesn’t quite understand either the mode of organization, the
associated technology, or the factional politics within the movement.
Diagnostic of the slight disconnect is when he writes “For [the
zealots], the only true “Open Source” is governed by the strong form
of the GPL, and all other forms and licenses are harmful dilution of
the concept.” In fact, the people he’s talking about reject the term
“open source” entirely and insist on the ideologically-loaded term
“free software”.

A more serious error is when he writes “It is plausible that an OSS
project would require each participant to sign an NDA before being
given access to the source.” It is not plausible. The licenses
and community values of the open-source community would not permit this.
His two bullet points characterizing open source are missing its most
important characteristic: the entire practice is designed to facilitate
scrutiny by people with no institutional or contract relationship to the core
development team. The astringent effect of peer review by people who
have nothing to lose by reporting bugs is precisely the
point of the whole game.

Steve doesn’t undertand the importance or the power of this effect. This
slightly skews his whole essay; much of it is talking past what open-source
people do, rather than addressing us. He’s also unaware of a lot of the
real-world evidence for the success of the method. Some of the things he
thinks are technologically or economically impossible are actually being
done, routinely.

He’s correct when he says that most contributors are self-selected and
self-motivated. He overestimates the cost of training newbies, though. They
self-train; normally, the first time a core developer hears from a newbie
is typically when the newbie sends a patch — self-evidence that the newbie
has already acquired a critical level of knowledge about the
software. The “sink or swim” method turns out to work, and work well.

It’s incorrect to imply, as he does, that open-source development
is unsustainable because the people doing it are flaky amateurs.
Steve hasn’t absorbed the implications of the Boston Consulting
Group study that shows that about 40% of contributors to core projects
are professionals getting paid for working on open source by patrons
who need to use the results. In fact, what the open-source community
is evolving into is something very like a huge machine for bringing
newbies into apprenticeship contact with experienced developers and
professionalizing both groups.

He also writes “OSS by its nature tends to be reactive rather than
predictive. It doesn’t look into the future, try to predict a problem
which doesn’t exist now but will exist then, and be ready with a
solution. Rather, it tends to see problems that exist now and work on
solutions for them.” This is false — or, at any rate, no more true
than it is for closed-source development.

The open-source community built the Web and the Internet before it
had acquired a name for itself and full consciousness of its own
practices. Today, the cutting-edge work in operating systems
languages, desktop user interfaces, relational databases and many
other areas is being done either within the open-source community or
in cooperation with it by academics. These prodigious efforts of
imagination dwarf any “prediction” produced by closed-source software
development in the last two decades.

Steve’s “open source is reactive” claim strikes me as ironically
funny, because I can remember when the standard knock on my crowd was
that we’re great at innovation but can’t actually field product. How
quickly they forget…

He’s right enough about the difficulty of planning and high cost
of face-to-face meetings, though. These are real problems. It’s
a testimony to the power of our practices that we manage to ship large
volumes of high-quality software despite these obstacles.

What Steve called “player-killer” tactics have been tried — there
was a famous incident a few years back in which a TCP-wrappers
distribution was Trojaned. The crack was detected and the community
warned within hours. The black hats don’t seem to bother trying this
any more; our reaction time is too fast for that game to be very
rewarding. The technical design of Linux helps here in ways that
I won’t go into here — suffice it to say that it’s intrinsically
much harder to get a Trojan to do anything interesting than it
is under Windows or other single-user operating systems.

So far, the supply of open-source developers seems to be pretty
elastic — we’re not limited much by lacking bodies. Other factors
loom much larger; patents, the DMCA, intrinsically hard technical
problems. I don’t understand why this is as well as I’d like to, but
the facts are undeniable; the community is ten times the size my
wildest high-end scenarios predicted a decade ago and seems to be
growing faster as it gets larger.

Steve’s whole argument that open-source can’t win in embedded
systems is very curious, since it predicts exactly the opposite of
what is actually happening out there. Linux is taking over in
embedded systems — in fact, many observers would say it has already
won that space. If Steve had worked in the field within the last
three years he would probably know this.

Here are some data about the demand; the only non-general-purpose
open-source software magazine in existence is the Linux Embedded
Systems Journal. Open-source embedded developers like Monta Vista
Software are bucking the recession by growing like crazy. The first
cell-phone prototype running entirely open-source software just
entered beta testing.

I was in California to meet Steve partly because Real Networks
wanted me to be on stage when they announced the open-sourcing of
their RTSP engine. Their CEO, Rob Glaser, was quite frank about the
immediate business reasons: they needed to get ports to forty
different Nokia cellphones and just couldn’t figure out how to muster
the resources for that short of inviting every stakeholder on the
planet to hack the problem. Scaling bites. Hard.

In fact, some of the very characteristics that Steve thinks make
embedded systems like cellphones safe for closed development seems to
be the factors that are driving increased open-sourcing. The close
tie to hardware actually decreases the value of secrecy,
because it means the software is typically not easily re-usable by
hardware competitors. Thus open sourcing is often a great way to
recruit help from customer engineers without a real downside risk of

In fact, it’s an open secret in the industry that the most
important reason most closed-source embedded and driver software
remains closed is not nerves about plagiarism but fear of patent
audits on the source code. Graphics-card manufacturers, in
particular, routinely swipe patented techniques from their competitors
and bury them in binaries. (This is generally believed to be the
reason nVidia’s drivers aren’t open.)

Another trend that’s driving Linux and open-sourcing in embedded
stuff is the shift from specialty embedded 8-bit processors to 32-bit
chips with general-purpose architectures. Turns out the development
costs for getting stuff to run on the 8-bit chips are sickeningly high
and rising — partly because the few wizards who can do good work on
that hardware are expensive. The incremental cost for
smarter hardware has dropped a lot; it’s now cheaper to embed
general-purpose chips running Linux because it means you have a
larger, less expensive talent pool that can program them. Also,
when your developers aren’t fighting hardware limits as hard,
you get better time to market (which, as Steve observes, is

Steve is right about the comparative difficulty of applying
open-source methods to vertical applications. But the difficulty is
only comparative; it’s happening anyway. The metalab archive carries
a point-of-sale system for pizza parlors. I know of another case in
which a Canadian auto dealership built specialized accounting software
for their business and open-sourced it. The reasons? Same as usual;
they wanted to lay off as much as possible of the development and
maintainance cost on their competitors.

This is the same co-opetition logic that makes the Apache Software
Foundation work — it’s just as powerful for vertical apps, though
less obviously so. Each sponsoring company sees a higher payoff from
having the software at a small fraction of the manpower cost for a
complete in-house development. The method spreads risk in a way
beneficial to all parties, too, because the ability of separate
companies to sustain development tends to be uncorrelated — unless
they all sink, the project endures.

The way to solve the problem of not exposing your business logic to
competitors is to separate your app into an open-source engine and a
bunch of declarative business-rule schemas that you keep secret.
Databases work this way, and websites (the web pages and CGIs are the
schema). Many vertical apps can be partitioned this way too — in
fact, for things like tax-preparation software they almost have to be,
because the complexity overhead of hacking executable code every time
the rules change is too high.

Steve thinks the differences between Apache and Mozilla are bigger
than they are. In fact, the core groups of both projects are
full-time pros being funded by large users of the software.

So, let’s address Steve’s objections point by point:

For embedded software, OSS has the following problems:

  • It can’t be scheduled; timely delivery can’t be relied

    Timely delivery can’t be relied on for any software; see
    De Marco and Lister’s excellent book Peopleware: Productive
    Projects and Teams
    on the delusion of deadlines, especially
    the empirical evidence that the “wake me up when it’s done” strategy
    of not setting them actually gets your project done faster (also the
    implication of a recent Harvard Business School study of software
    project outcomes).

    Open source is at least not noticeably worse than closed-source on this
    axis. Arguably it’s better, because the rapid release cycles allow users
    to pick up on project results as soon as they’re good enough.

  • Debugging requires access to custom hardware which usually
    can’t easily be accessed across the net.

    There aren’t good solutions to this problem yet, but the increasing
    use of “overpowered” 32-bit processors using standard busses is
    tending to reduce it in scope. The development tools and interface
    hardware used in embedded stuff are rapidly getting more generic and closer
    to what’s used in general-purpose computers.

  • Active participation even for junior people requires substantial
    amounts of project-specific knowledge which isn’t easily acquired,
    especially remotely.

    This one puzzles me, because I think Steve ought to be right about
    it — but I’m not hearing the kinds of noises that I’d hear if it were
    slowing down the move to Linux and open source significantly.

    At least part of the answer is that embedded-systems work is
    getting de-skilled in a particular sense — more of it’s being done by
    application specialists who are training up to the required level of
    programming, rather than programmers who have acquired expensive
    application-specific knowledge.

  • A great deal of proprietary information is usually involved in
    the process, and if that’s released the company can be seriously

    It’s a question of tradeoffs. As RealNetworks found out when
    costing its Nokia contract, the choice is increasingly between giving
    up control of some of your proprietary IP and being too resource-bound
    to ship at all.

    There is no market for secrecy. There’s a market for product. If
    you can’t ship product, or your customers aren’t confident that you
    can maintain it after shipping, all that proprietary IP amounts to is
    a millstone around your neck.

    There will be more stories like RTSP in the future. Count on it.
    In fact, the day will come when most of your contract partners simply
    won’t accept the business risks of having someone else hold
    proprietary rights on the embedded software they use.

  • It’s nearly impossible to do embedded software without
    common impromptu face-to-face meetings with co-workers, either to ask
    questions or to brainstorm. Doing this electronically is sufficiently
    different as to not be practical.

    Yeah. They used to think that about operating systems, too. Obviously
    the Linux kernel is impossible, and therefore doesn’t exist.

    (At which point Oolon Colluphid disappeared in a puff of logic.)

For vertical apps, the objections are:

  • Security, security, security. You want me to trust my
    billing system to code written by anyone who happens to come along and
    volunteer to work on it, without any kind of check of credentials or
    checks on trustworthiness?

    One of the lessons the business world has been absorbing is that
    open-source projects are dramatically more secure than their
    closed-source competition — anybody who compares the Bugtraq records
    on Apache vs. ISS defacements, or Linux vs. Windows remote exploits,
    will notice that real fast.

    It’s not hard to understand why this is — I’ve found that even
    corporate executives grok the theory pretty quickly. I won’t do the whole
    argument here, but this article on Kerckhoff’s
    holds the crucial clue. When you rely on the obscurity of source
    code for security, it means that the bad guys find the bugs faster than
    you can plug them — there are more of them, and they have entropy on
    their side. Open source evens the odds for the good guys.

  • Recruitment: for most of the kind of people involved in
    OSS, vertical apps are boring. (Unless they want to figure out how to
    steal from it.)

    This remains a problem. On the other hand, open source makes it
    easier to train domain specialists to be good enough programmers to
    get the job done. It’s easier for physicists to learn to hack than
    it is for hackers to learn physics.

  • It takes a lot of knowledge of the specific aspects of the
    problem to make a significant contribution, which means things like
    observing the actual process of guests checking in at the front desk
    of the hotel.

    This just reinforces the tendency for vertical-app developers to be
    obsessives about something else who learn to program, rather than obsessives
    about programming who learn something else.

    Professional programmers tend to bridle at this thought. Well, better
    learn to live with it. As software becomes more pervasive, the amount
    of it done by application-specialist “amateurs” is going to increase.

  • The industry is full of horror stories of vertical apps
    which ran badly over budget and over schedule; the idea scares the
    hell out of business people. They’re unlikely to be very enthused by
    the use of a process which by its nature *cannot* be reliably
    scheduled. (Remember that Mozilla ran two years long.)

    Schedules — and the belief that deadlines make software happen
    faster — are a delusion in the mind of management, one not supported
    by the actual evidence about project outcomes. This delusion is
    so entrenched that managers fail to interpret the 70% rate of
    project failures correctly. It’s as if people were so determined
    to believe the Earth is flat that they ignore what their eyes tell
    them when ships sink over the horizon.

    No software larger than toy programs can be scheduled.
    Tactics aimed at doing so normally have the actual effect of
    increasing the time to market. `Aggressive’ schedules
    effectively guarantee failure. The sooner we learn these objective
    truths, and that the illusion of control that schedules give is not
    worth the real costs, the sooner rates of outright project failure
    will dip below 70%.

    Go read Peopleware. Now.

For short life apps:

  • Schedule is everything. If you’re six months late, you’re dead.

    See above. There are reasons open sourcing is less applicable to short-life
    applications, but this turns out not to be one of them.

  • Secrecy is everything else. If you’re on time but your
    competitor knows what you’re doing a year ahead, he’ll wipe you

    This argument has more force for short-life apps than for Steve’s other
    categories, but remember that increasingly the alternative to open source
    is not being able to ship at all. Your competitor is in the same boat
    you are.

  • How do you make money selling what anyone can get for free
    from any developer? If your product was developed out in the open, who
    exactly buys it afterwards?

    Steve has a stronger point here. It’s one that people used to
    think applied to almost all software, but which turns out to be mainly
    a problem for short-life apps. Actually the distinguishing
    characteristic isn’t expected lifetime per se, but something
    correlated with it — whether the product needs continued downstream
    work (maintainance and upgrades) or not.

    Long-life, high-maintainance apps create niches for service businesses.
    That’s the main way you make money in an open-source world. It’s
    harder to make that work with a short-life app. Sometimes it’s
    impossible. Life is hard.

For long life apps:

  • Will the participants be willing to work on what our
    marketing analysis says we need, or will they insist that they know
    what is required and try to add that instead? We don’t need feature
    creep, or people trying to change the direction we’re moving.

    In open-source projects, the function of “marketing analysis” tends to
    be taken be direct interaction with the user community. We find we
    do better work without a bunch of marketroids getting between us and
    our customers.

  • There is major learning curve involved in making a
    reasonable contribution to these kinds of programs; you don’t learn
    how a circuit board router works in a few days of study. In most cases
    you have to be conversant with the way that the package’s customers do
    what they do, and most programmers don’t know these things and can’t
    easily learn them.

    See my previous remarks about application specialists and the
    democratization of programming. And every time you’re tempted to
    say “But they couldn’t possibly get away with that in application
    area X” remember that they once said that about all the areas where
    open source now dominates.

    It’s just not smart to bet against the hackers. Not smart at all.
    We generally end up having the last laugh on the naysayers. As recently
    as 1990, “serious analysts” laughed at the idea of ubiquitous Internet.
    As late as 1996, they said Unix was dead. We showed them — and there
    are more of us now, with better tools, than ever.

Steve is right that one of the most effective ways to head off bugs
is to have a core group of professional engineers do a clean design.
Where he’s mistaken is in believing this truth has anything to tell
us about open vs. closed development. Us open-source guys, it turns
out, are really good at clean design.

This something to do with the fact that, as individuals, we tend to
be exceptionally capable and self-motivated — an elite selected by
dedication to the art of programming. It has more to do with not
having managers and marketroids pissing in the soup constantly,
telling us what tools to use, imposing insane deadlines, demanding
endless checklist features that don’t actually benefit anyone.

But mostly it has to do with the ruthless, invaluable pressure of
peer review — the knowledge that every design decision we make will
be examined by thousands of people who may well be smarter than we
are, and if we fail the test our effort will be pitilessly
discarded. In that kind of environment, you get good or you get

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Jul 21

Run Silent, Go Feep

Warning: The following blog entry provides way more than the
recommended daily allowance of geeking. If you don’t have a serious
propeller-head streak, surf outta here now before it’s too

I’m mainly a software guy, but occasionally I build PCs for fun.
Design them, rather; the further away I stay from actual hardware the
happier it usually is for everybody. Last year, I designed an Ultimate
Linux Box
; the good folks at Los Alamos Computers built it and
will cheerfully sell you one. It was a successful design in most
respects, but unpleasantly noisy. This year, as we do the 2002
refresh, I’m going to be working hard at getting the most noise
reduction I can without sacrificing performance. I’m experimenting
now with ways and means.

So I spent a couple of hours today disassembling the case of my
wife Cathy’s machine ( and lining three sides of it
with Dynamat, a kind of stick-on
rubber acoustic insulation often used in car-stereo installations.
The malevolent god that normally attends me when I futz with hardware
must have been off tormenting some other hapless ex-mathematician; no
hardware was destroyed, no blood was shed, and I’m typing this on the
selfsame reassembled machine.

Minx is a pretty generic mid-tower system made with cheap Taiwanese
parts in mid-2002 by my local hole-in-the-wall computer shop: I
spent only $150 to have it built, recycling a few parts from an only
slightly older machine. It has a 300W power supply, Athlon 950 mobo
with stock CPU cooler fan, one 80mm case fan, 7200RPM ATA drive. I
succeeded in lining both 14″-square side panels and the case top; this
used up the 4’sq piece I bought so efficiently that there was only
about 10″sq in two small piece left over. I used those to cover the
only exposed solid section of the back panel.

If you want try this yourself, the tools I found useful were a
utility knife and a metal footrule, the latter useful both for
measuring to fit and as a cutting guide.

I took before and after measurements with the db meter. dbA scale,
measurements made with the probe one inch above the center-rear edge
of the case.

Machine off: 44dbA
Machine on, before: 63dbA
Machine on, after: 61dbA

In other words, only a 2dbA drop — marginal when you consider
that the meter is only rated 1.5dB accurate! but it’s worth bearing in
mind that the scale is logarithmic; 2dbA is more than it looks like.

I have studio-engineer ears and sensitive musician fingers. I took
before-and-after measurements with those, too, listening to the sound
tambre and feeling for case resonance.

My ears tell me that the box is only slightly quieter, but the noise
spectrum has changed. The proportion of high-frequency noise has
dropped; more of what I’m hearing is white noise due to turbulant
airflow, less is bearing noise. This is a good change even if total
emission hasn’t dropped much.

My fingers tell me that the amount of case resonance has dropped quite
dramatically, especially on the side panels.

Was it worth doing? I am not sure. There would probably be more
benefit on a system emitting more bearing noise from 10K or 15Krpm
drives. On this one, I think the power supply is emitting most of
the noise, and acoustic lining can’t do much against that.

In fact, my clearest take-away from this is that the big gains in
noise reduction on conventional PCs are likely to come from
obsessing about power-supply engineering — including details like
whether the fan blows through a slotted grille or a cutout with a
wire-basket finger guard (the latter will generate less turbulence

I’d like to retrofit minx with a Papst 12dbA muffin fan and see if
that makes a measurable difference. But the best change would
probably be one of the Enhance
300W PSUs that are supposed to only emit 26dbA. I’ll bet that would
win big.

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Jul 18

The Non-Portability of Barbecue

(Originally titled: Travelling in Texas)

I was on the road in Texas last week, addressing Linux user groups in Dallas and Austin. I always enjoy visiting Texas. It’s a big, wide-open place full of generous people who cultivate a proper appreciation of some of my favorite things in life — firearms, blues guitar, and pepper sauces.

And, of course, one of the biggest things Texas has going for it is barbecue. And not the pallid imitation served up by us pasty-faced Yankees here where I live (near Philadelphia, PA) but the real thing. Barbecue, dammit. Red meat with enough fat on it to panic a health-foodist right out of his pantywaist, slow-cooked in a marinade sweeter than a mother’s kiss and eaten with sauces hot enough to peel paint. Garnish with a few extra jalapenos and coleslaw and wash it down with cheap soda, lemonade, or beer. Food of the gods.

I swear your testosterone level goes up just smelling this stuff. After a few mouthfuls of Rudy’s carnivoral bliss you’ll be hankerin’ to cultivate a drawl, wear a Stetson and drive a pickup truck with a gun rack. (I draw the line at country music, though. A man’s got to have some standards.)

At a real barbecue joint like Rudy’s (“Worst barbecue in Texas!”) they serve you piles of beef, pork and chicken wrapped in butcher paper in a plastic basket. No plates, just more butcher paper and bread. And, unfortunately, the bread is where this gustatory Nirvana nearly crashes back to earth. Because the bread at real barbecue places is invariably utter crap — spongy sliced white with all the taste of building insulation.

Here in Philadelphia we can’t make barbecue worth a damn, but we know better than to put a hot sandwich on American bread. One of our regional-food glories is the Philly steak sandwich, fried beef and onions and mushrooms (and usually cheese, but I don’t eat cheese) nestled in a foot-long Italian roll. The bread is important. It’s tasty, it’s chewy, it’s got a crust on it. It’s worthy of respect. One of the reasons you can’t get a decent steak sandwich more than fifty miles from Billy Penn’s hat is that bread. It depends on an Italian baking tradition that just doesn’t exist outside the mid-Atlantic metroplex, and is found in its highest form only in Philly and South Jersey. Philadelphians laugh at the pathetic imitations of “Philly steaks” offered elsewhere for the same reason Texans laugh at barbecue made north of the Mason-Dixon line. And both groups are right to laugh. It just ain’t the same.

Every time I order up a mess of barbecue at a place like Rudy’s or County Line or Dick’s Last Resort I think to myself “Someday, one of these barbecue outfits has got to start offering decent bread. Their sales would go through the roof.” I’ve been waiting for the market to correct this problem for more than twenty years now — and it hasn’t happened. And thereby hangs a mystery.

The mystery is the curious persistence of regional food differences in a country with cheap transport and the best communications network in the world. There are places in the U.S. where you can reliably get really good bread — mostly the coastal metroplexes. There are places you can get real barbecue, in the heartland South and Southwest. And these zones just don’t overlap. (Yes, they have a gourmet-bread bakery in Austin. I suspect, if I went there, I’d find it a lot like the Chinese food in Ann Arbor — impressive to the locals, maybe, but only because their standards are so low.)

I could multiply examples. Sourdough bread — I’ve had it everywhere you can get it and it just doesn’t taste right outside of San Francisco. The East Coast versions are competent, but lack some subtle tang. Yeast strain? Something in the water? Who knows?

Cheesecake. There’s a good one. Anybody who has lived in New York won’t touch most cheesecake made elsewhere at gunpoint, and with good reason. Next to a traditional New-York-style baked cheesecake (the kind you can stand a fork in because it has the approximate density of neutronium) all others are a sort of pathetic, tasteless cheese gelatin. In this case the recipe is clearly what matters.

Or deep-dish pizza. Try to get that done right anywhere but Chicago. Good luck. Actually, the Philly/South Jersey area may be the only other part of the U.S.that can almost make this nut, and our thin-crust pizza is better. But why? Why don’t the good techniques go national and drive out the weaker competition?

The obvious answer would be that nationwide, tastes differ too much for one regional variant to dominate. But many cases there isn’t even any dispute about where the best variant comes from; the superiority of “New York style” cheesecake. for example, is so universally understood that restaurants elsewhere often bill their cheesecake that way even when it’s actually half-composed of “lite” garbage like ricotta or cottage cheese. Nobody who has ever tasted one doubts that Philly steaks are the acme of the art. And nobody — but nobody — who can get both passes up Texas barbecue for what they make in New Haven or Walla Walla.

So you’d think that the market would have propagated Texas slow-cooking, San Francisco yeast starters and the Philly steak roll all over the country by now. But some food technologies travel better than others, and some seem curiously unable to thrive outside their native climes. Cheesecake recipes may survive transmission relatively well, but the mysteries of good barbecue are subtle and deep. Pizzas rely on elaborate oven and dough-mix technology that probably tends to conserve regional variations simply because it’s too capital-intensive to mess with casually.

I’ve meditated on the matter and still can’t decide whether I think that’s a good thing or not. The approved thing for travel writers to do is wax lyrical about the wonderfulness of regional variety, as if it would somehow fail to be an improvement in the world if I could get decent bread with my barbecue. The hell with that kind of sentimentality; I’d rather have a better meal.

But there’s a point buried there somewhere — something that isn’t about the bread or the barbecue, but about what it feels like to sit in a dusty roadside joint like Rudy’s,surrounded by cases of Red Pop and overweight rednecks in tractor caps and checked shirts, with the food of the gods melting in your mouth, and thinking “Damn, this place is tacky, but I hope it lives forever.”

And you know what? I suspect that kind of barbecue joint will live forever, or as close to forever as humans manage, anyway. They’ve probably existed since the first proto-hominids roasted mammoth haunch over a slow fire, washing it down with some badly-made tuber-beer equivalent of Red Pop. And their equivalents will probably persist in the zero-gee arcologies and Dyson spheres of the year 3000. Even if they get hip about the good bread, somewhere in the universe there will always be a Texas. And that’s a good thing.

UPDATE: Some respondents have reminded me of the Piedmont (and specially North Carolina) tradition of pulled-pork barbecue. Let me state for the record that I find it equally delicious. Both the Texas and Piedmont versions are so damn good that there is no call for petty disputation about which is superior. But for those of you who know what I am talking about, I am quite partial to burnt

UPDATE: Jane Galt has commented in her usual witty and illuminating fashion.

UPDATE: The mystery of San Francisco sourdough, was, as it turns out, solved in 1970. You can buy a starter with the proper symbiosis of bacteria and yeast — and, contrary to myth, local bacteria won’t overwhelm it. Of course this makes it harder to understand why the stuff isn’t everywhere…

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Jul 17

Diet Considered as a Bad Religion

A current New York Times news story, What If It’s All Been A Big Fat Lie, entertainingly chronicles the discovery that low-fat diets are bad for people. More specifically, that the substitution of carbohydrates like bread and pasta and potatoes for meat that we’ve all had urged on us since the early 1980s is probably the cause of the modern epidemic of obesity and the sharp rise in diabetes incidence.

I have long believed that most of the healthy-eating advice we get is stone crazy, and the story does tend to confirm it. One of my reasons for believing this is touched on in the article; what we’re told is good for us doesn’t match what humans “in the wild” (during the 99% of our species history that predated agriculture) ate. The diet our bodies evolved to process doesn’t include things like large amounts of milled grain or other starches. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate wild vegetables (especially tubers) and meat whenever they could get it.

I’ve always had to suppress a tendency to laugh rudely when vegeterians touted their diet as “natural”. Vegetarianism is deeply unnatural for human beings; it’s marginally possible in warm climates only (there are no vegetarians in Tibet because the climate kills them), and only possible even there because we’re at the near end of 4,000 years of breeding for high-caloric-value staple crops.

So what’s the natural diet for human beings? Our dentition (both slashing and grinding teeth) and the structure of our digestive system (short colon, no rumen) is intermediate between that of herbivores like cows and obligate carnivores like cats; both systems resemble those of non-specialized omnivores like bears. Actually, the earlier hominids in the human ancestral line were designed for a more vegetarian diet than we; they had large flat molars and powerful jaws designed for grinding seed-cases. The increase in brain size in the hominid line correlates neatly with a shift to a more carnivorous dentitition and skull structure.

Physical anthropologists will tell you that the shift from hunter-gatherer existence to sedentary agriculture enabled human beings to live at higher population densities, but at the cost of a marked deterioration in the health of the average person. The skeletons of agricultural populations are shorter, less robust, and show much more evidence of nutritional diseases relative to their hunter-gatherer ancestors.

For twenty years I’ve consciously been trying to eat what I think of as a caveman diet — heavy on the meat and raw vegetables, very little sugar, light on the starches. I’m a bit overweight now, not seriously so for a 44-year-old man, but enough to notice; what this NYT article tells me is that I didn’t follow my own prescription strictly enough and ate too much bread and potatoes.

But the evolutionary analysis only tells us what we probably should be eating. It doesn’t explain how the modern diet has come to be as severly messed up as it is — nor why the advice we’ve been getting on healthy eating over the last twenty years has been not merely bad but perversely wrong.

The answer is, I think, implicit in the fact that “health food” has a strong tendency to be bland, fibrous, and nasty — a kind of filboid studge that we have to work at convincing ourselves we like rather than actually liking. Which is, if you think about it, nuts. Human food tropisms represent two million years of selective knowledge about what’s good for our bodies. Eating a lot of what we don’t like is far more likely to be a mistake than eating things we do like, even to excess.

Why do we tend to treat our natural cravings for red meat and fat as sins, then? Notice the similarity between the rhetoric of diet books and religious evangelism and you have your answer. Dietary mortification of the flesh has become a kind of secular asceticism, a way for wealthy white people with guilt feelings about their affluence to demonstrate virtue and expiate their imagined trangressions.

Once you realize that dieting is a religion, the irrationality and mutual contradictions become easier to understand. It’s not about what’s actually good for you, it’s about suffering and self-denial and the state of your soul. People who constantly break and re-adopt diets are experiencing exactly the same cycle of secondary rewards as the sinner who repeatedly backslides and reforms.

This model explains the social fact that the modern flavor of “health”-based dietary piety is most likely to be found in people who don’t have the same psychological needs satisfied by an actual religion. Quick now: who’s more likely to be a vegetarian or profess a horror of “junk food” — a conservative Christian heartlander or a secular politically-correct leftist from the urban coasts?

The NYT article tells us that the dominant dietary religion of the last twenty years is cracking — that the weight of evidence against the fat-is-evil/carbs-are-good theory is no longer supportable. Well and good — but it won’t necessarily do us a lot of good to discard this religion only to get stuck with another one.

I say it’s time to give all bossy nutritionists, health-food evangelists and dietary busybodies the heave-ho out of our lives — tell the sorry bitches and bastards to get over themselves and go back to eating stuff that tastes good and satiates. And enjoy the outraged squawking from the dietarily correct — that, my friends, is the music of health and freedom.

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Jul 03

Winning the War Against Terror

(Final essay of the series.)

In previous essays in this series, I have described
as a warlike and bloody religion subject to periodic fits of
violent fundamentalist revival. I have analyzed the roots of Islamic
terror in the Koranic duty of jihad, and elucidated Osama bin Laden’s
goal as nothing less than the destruction of the West and the establishment
of a global
Islamic theocracy. I have analyzed the reason
Americans have trouble comprehending
the scope of the threat
, and I have explained why Western-style
diplomacy is next
to useless
in this situation. In this final essay I’ll suggest
paths towards a solution.

In order to win, we must begin with realism about the scope of the
war and the objectives of the enemy. We must realize that although in
theory and theology al-Qaeda is making war on the entire infidel West,
in practice they are only interested in attacking the U.S., the
`hyperpower’ that leads it.

There is no possible gain for al-Qaeda in attacking Europe and
risking a change in the pro-Arab, pro-Palestinian tilt of the EU
(which has just resumed support payments to the Palestinian Authority
despite conclusive evidence that the money is diverted to pay for
massacres of Israeli children). Nor can al-Qaeda gain any leverage by
attacks on the remainder of the world. The theaters of the war will
include the U.S. and terrorist base areas in the Islamic arc
stretching from Morocco through the Maghreb through the Middle East to
Pakistan, and perhaps in Indonesia and the Phillipines as well.

To people who view the entire world through the lens of the Western
tradition, the strategy I will outline is doubtless going to sound
bellicose and regressive. It is not; it is founded on a cold-blooded
realization that Arab cultures (and the Arabized cultures of the rest
of the Islamic world) regard victory in war as a sign of Allah’s favor
and regard compromise and concession as a sign of weakness.

The war against Islamic terror must be fought on three levels:
homeland defense, military power projection, and cultural subversion.
We must foil terrorist acts; we must imprison or kill the terrorists
who plan and execute them; and we must dry up the pool of potential
recruits before they become terrorists who can only be stopped by
being imprisoned or killed.

Homeland defense includes all those measures designed to make the
attacks on U.S. civilians less likely to succeed. These will include
conventional police and security measures. It must also include a
revival of the role of the unincorporated militia and the armed
citizen. Al-Qaeda has limited resources, but the advantage of
choosing where they will strike; since the police and military cannot
be everywhere, civilians (like the passengers of flight 93) must take
anti-terrorist defense into their own hands.

Military power projection includes direct military action against
terrorist bases and havens. As an anarchist, I would prefer a world
in which private security agencies under contract to insurance
companies pursued al-Qaeda; persons of some other political persuasions
might propose supranational agencies such as the U.N. Unfortunately,
under the current world system there is no alternative to governments
to do this work. The U.S. has begun it in Afghanistan; the war must
continue in Iraq, and it is likely to encompass Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi
Arabia as well.

The goal of military power projection must be twofold: physical and
psychological. The physical goal must be to destroy the physical
infrastructure of terrorism — the headquarters, bases and training
camps. While this is important, the psychological goal of humiliating
and crushing jihadists is even more important.

Islamic armies and resistance movements are fanatical in attack but
brittle on the defense. When motivated by the conviction that Allah
guides their arm, suicidal bravery is routine.
On the other hand, when the fortunes of a cause decline past a
certain point, Arabs tend to consider the will of Allah to be manifest
and abruptly abandon it. These tendencies form part of the cultural
background that includes even secularized terrorist movements
(such as Yasser Arafat’s al-Fatah) in the Islamic world.

The U.S. was able to exploit this brittleness effectively in
Afghanistan. By moving in overwhelming force when it moved at all,
the U.S. was able to intimidate many warlords affiliated with the
Taliban into switching sides — an important reason the campaign
involved so little actual fighting.

We must repeat this maneuver on a larger scale. We must teach the
Dar-al-Islam to respect and fear the power of the West. We
must not negotiate or offer concessions until it is clear from the
behavior of governments, the umma, and the “Arab street” that the
public will to support jihad has been broken.

Our most important long-term weapon against Islamic terrorism,
however, will be cultural subversion. That is, to break the hold of
the Islamist/jihadist idea on the minds of Muslims. To do this, it
may be necessary to discredit the entirety of Islam; the question
depends on whether any Islamic figure will be clever enough to
construct an interpretation of Islam purged of jihadist tendencies,
and whether that version can propagate and displace the
Sunni-fundamentalist varieties now dominant in the Islamic world.

I can do no better than to quote Michelle Efird, the woman who
inspired my essay
We Are All Jews Now. In private mail afterwards
(quoted with permission) she wrote:

I don’t want to appease them, I don’t want to understand them, I
don’t want to let them reap the benefits of our liberalism while
plotting our destruction. Like most Americans, I would have been more
than happy to let them pretend the last 400 years of progress never
happened, as long as they didn’t force their warped-vision goggles on
anyone else. But since they brought the war to us, let’s pave the
middle east with outlet malls, fast food franchises, and Disney
Mecca. Let’s infect their entire population with personal liberty and
dissension and critical thinking. And if that doesn’t work, let’s
flood them with porn spam.

Osama bin Laden may, in the end, have materialized his own worst
fears. The ideology of jihad has created its mirror and opposite; the
dawning sense that we in the West have the right, the power, and the
duty to wipe bin Laden’s brand of religion from the face of
the earth before it destroys us all.

UPDATE: N.Z. Bear has written an

excellent essay
on memes and cultural subversion.

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Jun 30

Why Diplomacy Is Doomed

(Fourth essay of a series.)

In Mirror, Mirror: Why Americans Don’t Understand the Threat of Jihadism, What al-Qaeda Wants and The Mirage of Moderate Islam, I have described Islam as a warlike and bloody religion subject to periodic fits of violent fundamentalist revival. I have analyzed the roots of Islamic terror in the Koranic duty of jihad, and elucidated Osama bin Laden’s goal as nothing less than the destruction of the West and the establishment of a global Islamic theocracy. I have analyzed the reason Americans have trouble comprehending the scope of the threat. Now I’ll explain why diplomacy is not a path toards a solution.

The Western tradition of diplomacy, which originated from the “balance of power” model for coexisting nation-states in Renaissance Europe, stigmatizes the use of arms as an admission of failure and elevates good-faith negotiation as a virtue of the strong. Westerners think of a plurality of nation-states with conflicting interests as the natural and right way of the world, and Western diplomacy is themed around compromise as a way of allowing the members of that plurality to continue in more or less peaceful coexistence.

Arab cultures (and the Arabized cultures of the rest of the Islamic world) are very different. The Western idea of a plurality of nation-states is considered iniquitous, a sign that men have turned away from Allah. Islam promotes a world united under a single Caliph with absolute authority in both secular and religious matters.

Further, Arabs respect strength in war. Several features of the Islamic worldview — including fatalism and the belief that Allah guides the arm of conquerors — reinforce this. Extending an olive branch or seeking compromise, on the other hand, is read as a sign of weakness, inviting more pressure and more attacks.

Applying the assumptions of Western diplomacy to Islamic-world conflicts, therefore, tends to have perverse results. The utter failure of diplomacy in the Israeli/Palestinan conflict is a perfect example. Yasser Arafat and his followers interpreted every Israeli compromise not as a sign of virtue requiring a reciprocal response, but as a sign that that their terror campaign was working. As the Israelis conceded more and more legitimacy to Palestinian political objectives, the terror
actually intensified in pitch.

The U.S.’s refusal to negotiate with the Taliban for anything less than the unconditional surrender of Osama bin Laden, by contrast, seemed harsh to apostles of the Western diplomatic tradition but was exactly correct in terms of Islamic psychology. Backing a clear, hard-line position with the threat of force actually gave the U.S. a moral advantage it had lacked when our policy was seen as weak and vacillating. The expected furor of the “Arab street” never materialized.

Diplomacy or negotiation are in any case of very limited use in curbing state terrorism and no use in curbing non-state terrorism. For the forseeable future, the U.S.’s capability to project military power into Third World terrorist havens will be so much greater than that of other members of any imaginable coalition of allies that having a military alliance at all will be almost pointless. Diplomacy need therefore be aimed only at preventing military opposition by nearby nation-states.

Third parties who urge `diplomatic’ solutions to problems like Iraqi, Iranian, and Saudi Arabian sponsorship of al-Qaeda should be ignored. In the Islamic cultural context, force and the threat of force stand some chance of obtaining useful results. Talk does not.

(To be continued…)

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Jun 23

Mirror, Mirror — why Americans Don’t Understand the Threat of Jihadism

(Third in a series.)

In What
al-Qaeda Wants
and the first essay in this series, The
Mirage of Moderate Islam
, I have described Islam as a warlike and
bloody religion subject to periodic fits of violent fundamentalist
revival. I have analyzed the roots of Islamic terror in the Koranic
duty of jihad, and elucidated Osama bin Laden’s goal as nothing less
than the destruction of the West and the establishment of a global
Islamic theocracy.

I have further explained why it is difficult for anyone living
within the Islamic worldview to reject or argue against these goals.
Jihadism — the belief that Muslims have not merely the right
but the duty to smite the infidel and propagate the Faith by
force — proceeds direct from the Koran and is accepted as a core
religious duty by almost all Muslims.

These are simple truths, readily discernable from reading the words
of the Koran, the study of even an outline of Islamic history, and the
propaganda of Osama bin Laden himself. Yet they are truths that
almost no one in the West is speaking in public, in plain language.
In this essay, I will examine the reasons Americans are not yet
ideologically prepared to fight the war against terror as it must be
fought if we are to win.

First, the U.S. government is telling a Big Lie for diplomatic
reasons. It is trying to sell the idea that Islam is a `religion of
peace’, with al-Qaeda representing only a small fringe of extremists.
Part of this is in order not to be seen attacking the religion of our
Arab allies in the Middle East.

But domestic politics is an even more important motive for this Big
Lie. U.S. policymakers in the know may well fear that if they
described the relationship between terrorism and Islamic doctrine
accurately, the current broad consensus on war policy might collapse
under a hailstorm of accusations of bigotry, prejudice, and
intolerance by the bien pensants who run the national media
and academe. In a political climate where directing extra scrutiny at
young male Middle Eastern air travellers is attacked as unacceptable
`racial profiling’, this fear would be well-grounded.

Second, the academy has failed us. Americans are almost
universally ignorant of Islamic doctrine and history. Most of the few
who have some knowledge of the area cannot connect that knowledge to
current events. The Islamic-studies and Middle Eastern history
establishment completely, utterly failed to anticipate al-Qaeda’s
revival of jihadism, ignored or rationalized the decade of
anti-American terrorist acts that led up to 9/11, and is presently
incapable of supplying any significant analytical help to defeating
the terrorists.

The exact anatomy of this failure is well described in Martin
Kramer’s Ivory Towers On
. One background problem was a Marxist-influenced tendency to
see political change as all-important and dismiss religious fervor as
a spent force. Another was a reluctance to confront or discuss the
continuing phenomenon of terrorism at all except through the lens of
`post-colonial theory’ that excused it as a legitimate tactic of the
Palestinian or anti-imperialist struggle. Yet a third was the
postmodern belief that objective truth is impossible. In effect, the
Marxist/multiculturalist/postmodernist preoccupations of the
Islamic-studies establishment rendered it incapable of seeing,
thinking, or passing judgment. Confronted by the smoking hole where
the World Trade Center used to be and Osama bin-Laden’s gloating
videos, the academics had no way of connecting their theoretical
abstractions to the brutal facts and nothing to say. Nine months
later, they still doesn’t.

Americans outside of universities have few grounds for smugness,
however. While most of the rest of us have not had our critical
faculties rotted out by Marxism, multiculturalism and postmodernism in
their explicit forms, a lower-grade version of the same infections has
done much to damage our capacity to understand the threat of jihadism.

Americans have always had the odd parochial habit of assuming that,
down deep underneath, everyone is basically like us — sharing
our historically peculiar mix of pragmatism and idealism; valuing
honesty and fair dealing; tolerant, materialistic, freedom-loving,
open-minded, tempting to value comfort and success over ideology. We
reflexively believe that everyone can be reasoned with essentially in
our own terms. Most Americans don’t understand fanaticism and violent
evil. We have a tendency to be `fair’ by assuming that in any dispute
there must be some right and some wrong on both sides. It’s telling
that we use `extreme’ as a political pejorative.

Since at least the end of World War II, this parochialism has
become so acute that it has almost blinded us to serious threats.
While more of the left-liberals who shilled for the Soviets and Mao
Zedong and Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot during the Cold War were closet
Communists than is yet publicly admitted, a good many were honest
dupes who simply couldn’t believe that Communists were actually
motivated by the sinister craziness of hard Marxism, and therefore
assumed that America must somehow be at fault. Conservatives
apologizing for unsavory pro-American strongmen mostly weren’t closet
fascists, either; a good many of them had obvious trouble seeing
caudillos as more than cigar-chomping CEOs running a particularly
tough business, and never mind the gold braid and funny hats.

The see-no-evil tendency in American folk psychology created
fertile ground for the rather less benign dogmas of multiculturalism
(“all cultures present ways of living that are equally morally valid”)
and postmodernism (“there is no objective truth”). Originally
constructed by Marxists (and one ex-Fascist) as part of a program to
ideologically disarm the West against the radical evil of Communism,
these dogmas have both outlived their original ends and seeped into
American pop culture. Their effect is that many of us can no longer
bring ourselves to think of any political movement, religion, or
culture as radically evil unless it is safely part of history (and,
for political correctness, was run by dead white European males when
it was alive and kicking).

This was a relatively harmless form of self-delusion between 1992
and 2001, the decade of self-indulgence bracketed by the fall of the
Soviet Empire and 9/11. No longer. We are at war. Western
civilization is under attack by a foe that revels in the wholesale
slaughter of civilians, one that proudly announces its intention to
bring a second Holocaust of fire and blood down upon us all.

If our civilization is to survive, we will need to recover the
moral judgment needed to recognize radical evil, the language in which
to condemn it, and the determination to act.

In a perverse way, al-Qaeda has made this easy. They have murdered
thousands in a single attack on one of our heart cities, they have
attempted to unleash biological weapons on us, and have actively
planned to detonate nuclear/radiological weapons in our population
centers. Those who cannot recognize even this as radical evil
— those who persist in arguing that the 9/11 attack was somehow
justified by something United Fruit did in Guatemala or the Israelis
did in Lebanon — are rapidly dealing themselves out of the game
of deciding how we shall respond.

Having recognized al-Qaeda’s behavior as radically evil, we must
next recognize that its motivating ideology is evil, too. And the
first step there is recognizing that Islam’s apologists are

systematically lying to us
about what they believe and intend.
Outside of a few fringe groups like the Dauri
and a tiny minority of intellectual reformers who generally
dare not speak their ideas in their own home countries, there is
simply no constituency in Islam prepared to recognize Western concepts
of peace, tolerance, and pluralism.

We will not be prepared to win the war against Islamic terror until
we understand the following things:

  • Islam is a religion of war and conversion by the sword, not peace.
  • The primary threat of terrorism comes from Arabs and
    middle-easterners between the ages of fifteen and forty, and we must summon
    the will to profile accordingly.
  • We are dealing with religious fanaticism rather than rational grievances
    against America or the West.
  • Our enemies cannot be reasoned with or appeased anywhere
    short of surrender and submission to shari’a law.
  • Apologists for mainstream Islam are systematically
    lying to us about Islamic doctrine in order to shield terrorists who
    they know are acting in strict accordance with that doctrine.

The hardest challenge for Americans is to grasp is the fact that
the evil of the 9/11 hijackings, the destruction of the World Trade
Center, and the threat of al-Qaeda weapons of mass destruction set off
in American cities is not simply the evil of al-Qaeda. It is in fact
the Koranically-correct expression of the tendency of Islam (Sunni
fundamentalism) which is has been pre-eminent through most of Islamic
history and now encompasses over 90% of the worlds Muslims.

We need to face the fact that we are confronting not just a
barbaric and evil group of men, but a barbaric and evil religion. To
protect ourselves, we must either force the complete reform of Islam
(purging it of jihadism and its tendency towards periodic
fundamentalist outbreaks) or destroy its hold over its followers.

This is a problem for Americans; first, because we have been taught
that we that we must not be intolerant of other peoples’ religions;
and second, because fully grasping the nature of the danger Islamic
poses to Western civilization requires thinking uncomfortable
thoughts about the dominant Christian religion of our own culture.

The reader is at this point invited to learn more about the

developing alliance
between Islamic and Christian fundamentalisms.
Then, to learn all about Kissing Hank’s Ass.
Before 9/11, “Kissing Hank’s Ass” was an edgy joke. Today it
demonstrates why ending the threat of religiously-motivated terror will
require us to confront and destroy the fundamentalist/jihadist impulse
not merely in Islam, but also in Christianity and all other
eschatological monotheisms where it finds a natural home.

Christianity, like Islam (and unlike almost all of the other
religions of the world) has violent intolerance of other religions and
the impulse to conversion by the sword wired into its doctrinal DNA.
Most Americans have trouble believing the Koran means what it says
about the duty of jihad because for most Christians, the parallel
Christian duty to smite the infidel is a historical dead letter. But
counterparts of al-Qaeda such as the Christian
Identity Movement
exist in the West, imbued with all of
al-Qaeda’s rage. Christian fundamentalists express the same
hatred of modernity and determination to jam the world back into
a medieval mold that motivates Osama bin Laden.

To win the war on terror, we must understand jihadism and clearly
distinguish it from ethical self-defense. We must be prepared not
merely to counter fanaticism not merely by killing the fanatical in
self-defense, but also by discrediting the doctrines and habits of
thought that make fanatics in the first place — whether they occur in
the other guy’s religion or our own. Islam has declared itself the
immediate adversary of modernity — but more than one world religion
will have to go under the knife before our children can sleep in

(To be continued…)

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Jun 20

What Al-Qaeda wants

(Second in a series.)

In a The
Mirage of Moderate Islam
, I have described the Koranic roots of
Islamic fanaticism, and observed that Osama bin Laden’s terror war on
the west is part of a recurring pattern of fundamentalist revival
associated with jihad in Islamic history.

In this essay, I’ll get more specific about what Osama bin Laden is
really after. In the process, it will become clear why Arab-world
governments are so frightened of him.

The first thing to understand is that Osama bin Laden is neither
crazy nor stupid. He is a very intelligent, educated, visionary man
who is operating from deep within the Islamic worldview. He’s trying
to do on a global scale what the Ayatollah Khomeini did in Iran in
1979; he’s bucking for the job of Caliph of Islam (“Khalifa” in

The position of Khalifa
has been vacant since the last Padishah Emperor of the Ottoman Empire
was deposed in 1924, when the British and French broke up the Empire
after it picked the wrong side in World War One. Before that, the
Caliph was in theory both the supreme temporal and spiritual ruler
of the Islamic world.

I say “in theory” because the Caliph’s actual authority varied
considerably. In the early centuries of Islam, during the initial
expansionary phase of the Empire, it was absolute — in European
terms, as though Charlemagne or Napoleon were also the Pope. It
tended to decrease over time as the increasing size of the Islamic
empire led to political fragmentation. Independent emirs swore
nominal fealty to the Caliph and accepted his symbolic authority
in religious matters, while otherwise behaving as sovereigns. An
able Caliph backed by strong armies could buck this disintegrative
trend and make the allegiance of the emirs more than nominal. Eventually
emperors of the Ottoman Turks collected this title, and gathered most
of the Islamic world under their sway. But the Ottoman Empire had been in
decline for four centuries by 1924, and the title of Caliph had
become almost meaningless.

One of the signature traits of Islamic revivalism is nostalgia for
the halcyon days of Islamic expansion, when the Caliph was the
undisputed Arm of Allah and there was plenty of plunder and rapine
to go around as the armies of God smote the infidel and claimed
new lands for the Dar-al-Islam.

Here’s where we cue the ominous theme music. It is part of Islamic
tradition that the title of Khalifa may be attained by conquest if the
incumbent is not fulfilling his duties — or if there is no incumbent.
Under shari’a law and hadith, the umma (the consultative assembly of
the elders of Islam) is required to recognize as Khalifa
anyone who is able to fulfill the duties of the position and
demonstrates the sanction of Allah by mobilizing the Dar-al-Islam in
successful jihad. Jihad, here, is interpreted broadly; a war of
consolidation that united a substantial portion of the Dar-al-Islam
under a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy would do it.

In other words, since 1924 the position of Caliph has been waiting
for a Man on Horseback. Or, for you science-fiction fans out there, a
Muad’Dib. The Ayatollah Khomeini could never quite make this nut;
first, because he was not a plausible warlord, and second because he’s
part of the 10% Shi’a minority branch that disputes the Khalifal
succession. The next Caliph, if there is one, will have to belong to
the 90% Sunni majority.

Osama bin Laden has behaved precisely as though he intends to fill
that role. And in doing so, he has frightened the crap out of the
rulers of the Arab world. Because he’s played his religious and
propaganda cards very well in Islamic terms, barring the detail that
he may well be dead and buried under rubble in an Afghan cave.

On 9/11, bin Laden took jihad to the symbolic heart of the West
more effectively than any Islamic ruler has managed since the Siege of
Vienna was broken in 1683. By doing so he caught Arab rulers
(especially the Saudis) in a neat theo-political trap. They have been
encouraging hatred of Israel and the West, and hyping the jihadist
mythology of fundamentalist Islam, as a way of diverting popular anger
that might otherwise focus on their own corrupt and repressive
regimes. But Bin Laden has trumped and beaten them at this game. He
has acted out the Koranic duty of jihad in a way they never dared —
and in doing so, seized the religious high ground.

The sheikhs and ayatollahs now have a dilemma. If they support
jihadism, they must either start a war against the West they know they
cannot win or cede their own legitimacy to the Caliph-claimant who is
leading the jihad. But if they come out against jihad, bin Laden or
his successor can de-legitimitize them simply by pointing to the
Koran. The possibility that the semi-mythical “Arab street” would
revolt behind local Khomeini-equivalents hot to join al-Qaeda’s jihad is
quite real.

Let the last word go to the mentor of Osama bin Laden, Sheik
Abdullah Azzam: “Jihad must not be abandoned until Allah alone is
worshipped by mankind…Jihad and the rifle alone…no negotiations,
no conferences and no dialogue.” The Palestinians are, as usual,
disposable pawns in a larger game. The objective of al-Qaeda’s game
is to follow the Koranic blueprint to its logical conclusion; global
jihad, a second age of conversion by the sword, the destruction of the
West, and the establishment of a global Islamic theocracy.

Osama bin Laden himself may be dead now. Unfortunately, this
doesn’t necessarily stop the game, because his body hasn’t been found.
The Twelfth Imam of Shi’a disappeared under mysterious circumstances
in 941CE; persons claiming to be him and calling the faithful to jihad
emerged at intervals for a thousand years afterwards, the most recent
one being the Mahdi who led an anti-British revolt in Egypt in 1899.
If the jihadist tendency in Islam is not confronted and destroyed,
Osama bin Laden could haunt the West for a thousand years.

(To be continued…)

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Jun 19

Beating software version fatigue

In his latest
Tech Central Station column, Glenn Reynolds complains
of `version fatigue’, his accumulating angst over the fact that since the
emid-1980s he’s had to migrate through three word processors and several
different versions of Windows.

I can’t fix the sad fact that every new VCR and remote control you get
has a different control layout. But if we’re talking software, baby, I have
got your solution.

I have been using the same text editor since 1982. I have been using the
same command-line shell since 1985, and the same operating system since 1993.
But that last date is actually misleading, because I still get use out of
programs I wrote for the previous dialect of my OS as far back as 1982,
without ever having had to alter a line.

The last time I had to learn a new feature set for any of the tools
I regularly used was when I decided to change window systems in 1997,
and that was not a vendor-forced upgrade. Yes, that’s right; it means
I’ve been getting mileage out of essentially the same user interface
for five straight years. Half a decade.

Does this mean I’m using software tools that were feature-frozen when
dinosaurs walked the earth? No, actually, it doesn’t. The text editor,
which is what I spend my screen time interacting with, has grown tremendously
in capability over the twenty years I’ve been using it. The shell I use
has a lot of convenience features it didn’t in 1985, but I’ve only had
to learn them as I chose.

I don’t have a version-fatigue problem, and never have. I get to
use cutting-edge software tools that probably exceed in capability
anything you are directly familiar with. And I have every confidence,
based on my last twenty years of experience, that my software will both
continue to both offer me the innovative leading edge and remain
feature-stable for the next twenty years if I so choose.

How do I achieve this best of both worlds? One word: Unix.

I’m a Unix guy. You may have heard that I have something to do
with this Linux thing, and Linux is indeed what I use today. But
Linux is only the most recent phase of a continuous engineering
tradition that goes back to 1969. In that world, we don’t have
the kind of disruptive feature churn that forces people to upgrade
to incompatible operating systems every 2.5 years. Our software
lifetimes are measured in decades. And our applications,
like the Emacs text editor I use, frequently outlast the version
of Unix they were born under.

There are a couple of intertwined reasons for this. One is that
we tend to get the technology decisions right the first time — Unix
is, as Niklaus Wirth once said of Algol, “a vast improvement over
most of its successors”. Unix people confronted with Windows for
the first time tend to react with slack-jawed shock that any product
so successful could be such a complete design disaster.

Perhaps more importantly, Unix/Linux people are not stuck with a
business model that requires planned obsolescence in order to generate
revenue. Also, our engineering tradition puts a high value on open
standards. So our software tends to be forward-compatible.

As an example: about a year ago I changed file-system formats from
ext2 to ext3. In the Windows world, I’d have had to back up all my
files, reinstall the OS, restore my files, and then spend a week
hand-fixing bits of my system configuration that weren’t captured in
the backups. Instead, I ran one conversion utility. Once.

Most of the consumer-level problems with computer software —
crashes, bad design, version fatigue due to the perpetual upgrade
treadmill — are not inherent in the technology. They are, rather,
consequences of user-hostile business models. Microsoft, and
companies like them, have no incentive to solve the problems
of crashes, poor security, and version fatigue. They like
the perpetual upgrade treadmill. It’s how they make money.

Want to beat software version fatigue? It’s easy, Glenn. Take
control; dump the closed-source monopolists; get off the treadmill.
OpenOffice will let you keep your MS-Word documents and your Excel
spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. Join the Linux revolution,
and never see a Blue Screen of Death again.

UPDATE: A reader complains that Linux is difficult to install.
Answer: Get thee to the Linux user group near you, who will be more
than happy to help you get liberated. Or get thee to Wal-Mart, which
is now selling cheap machines with Lindows, a Linux variant tuned to
look like Windows, for $299.


Jun 18

The Mirage of Moderate Islam

Diplomatic lies notwithstanding, Islam is anything but a `religion
of peace’. Any honest scholar will tell you that Islam is a religion
of violence, martyrdom, and conversion by the sword. The duty to wage
war for the propagation of the faith is plainly written in the Koran;
Osama bin Laden’s suicide bombers are part of a tradition that springs
from Islam’s warlike origins and has been re-affirmed in every generations
by ghazis, hashishim, and numerous other varieties of holy warrior.

It is the interiorization of `jihad’ as a struggle for self-mastery
that is revisionist and exceptional, one proposed by only a few
Westernized and progressive Muslims and (one senses) not wholeheartedly
believed even by them. A truer window on the nature of Islam is the way
that it divides the Earth into the Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam)
and the Dar al-Harb — the House of War, the theater of battle to
be waged with zeal until the infidel is crushed and submits to the
Will of God. The very word, islam, means `submission’.

Conspicuous by their absence are any clear denunciations of
bin-Ladenite terror from the members of the ulama, the loose
collective of elders and theologicians that articulates the Islamic
faith. Such internal criticism as we do hear is muted, equivocal,
often excusing the terrorists immediately after half-heartedly
condemning them. Far more common, though seldom reported in Western
media, are pro-jihadi sermons that denounce America as a land of
devils and praise Al-Qaeda’s mass murderers in one breath with
Palestinian suicide bombers as martyrs assured of a place in

There has been some play given in the media lately to the notion
that the ideological force behind Islamic terrorism is not Islam per
se but specifically the puritanical
sect associated with the House of Saud. Some accounts
trace the rise in terrorism to Wahhabi prosyletization in Afghanistan,
Pakistan, and elsewhere. Most versions of this theory have it that
Wahhabism is an unattractive doctrine (by contrast with, say, the Sufi
tradition of the Caucasus or the relaxed syncretic Buddhist-influenced
Islam of Indonesia) but that it wins converts because, with billions
in Saudi oil money behind it, the Wahhabites can afford to field
missionaries and build schools that promulgate the puritan party

The trouble with this theory is that it ignores the history of
Islam and the internal logic of Islamic doctrine. The history of
Islam is a collection of cycles of doctrinal decay followed by
fundamentalist renewal. Believers tend to drift away from strict
Islam, but ever century or two some mad-eyed wanderer will come
screaming out of the desert and haul the faithful back on to the
Narrow Way with a blend of personal charisma, argument and force (the
latter generally administered by some allied warlord who sees political
gain in it).

This drama keeps getting re-enacted because, in general, these
charismatic fundamentalist looney-toons are correct in their
criticism of `soft’ Islam. The Koran, the actions and statements of
the prophet Mohammed, and the witness of the lives of his immediate
followers are pretty clear on what the religious duties of a Muslim
are. Long before the 9/11 attacks, I read large portions of the Koran
(in translation) and more than one history of Islam, because I collect
religions. I learned about the Five Pillars and the hadith (the
traditional sayings of Mohammed) and the ulama.

Moderate Muslims trying to argue against the latest version of
Islamic fundamentalism are in a difficult situation. All the
fundamentalists have to do to support their position is to point at
the Koran, which is much more authoritative in an Islamic context than
the Bible is in most Christian ones. Moderates are reduced to arguing
that the Koran doesn’t really mean what it says, or arguing from
hadith that qualify or contradict the Koranic text. Since the Koran
trumps the hadith, this is generally a losing position.

The grim truth is that Osama bin Laden’s fanatic interpretation
of Islam is Koranically correct. The God of the Koran and Mohammed
truly does demand that idolatry be purged with fire and sword, and
that infidels must be forced either to convert to Islam or (as a
limited exception for Christians and Jews, the “Peoples of the Book”)
live as second-class citizens subject to special taxes and legal
restrictions. The Koran really does endorse suicidal martyrdom and
the indiscriminate killing of infidels for the faith.

(The Koran does not, however, require purdah and the veil; these
are practices the Arab world picked up from Persia after the tenth
century CE. Nor does it require female genital mutilation, which
seems to have been acquired from sub-Saharan Africa.)

For both shallow diplomatic/political reasons and deeper
psychological ones, Westerners have trouble grasping just how
bloody-minded, intolerant, and prone to periodic murderous outbreaks
of fundamentalist zeal Islam actually is. But we must come
to grips with this. If we treat the terror war as a merely
geopolitical conflict, we will be fighting the wrong battle with the
wrong weapons.

It is not merely Al-Qaeda or the Taliban or even Wahhabism we are
fighting, it is a fanatic tendency wired deep into the origins and
doctrine of Islam itself, a tendency of which these movements are
just surface signs. That tendency must be cured or cauterized out.
No lesser victory will do for a world in which means and weapons of mass
destruction grow ever easier for terrorists to acquire.

(To be continued…)

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Jun 16

The Elephant in the Bath-House

Mary Eberstadt’s Weekly Standard article
The Elephant in the Sacristy
shines a strong light on facts that
will discomfit many of the politically correct. I don’t completely
agree with her analysis; as Amy Welborn argues, Ms. Eberstadt is too quick to dismiss the role of the
doctrine of celibacy in creating an ingrown, perfervid, and corrupt sexual
culture among priests, and too easy on the culture of secrecy and denial
within which priestly abuse flourished.

I would go further than Ms. Eberstadt or Ms. Welborn; I think this
scandal is grounded in the essentials of Catholic doctrines about sex,
sin, guilt, and authority. This is not an accidental corruption of
the church, any more than Stalin was an accidental corruption of
Communism. Bad moral ideas have consequences, and those consequences
can be seen most clearly in the human monsters who are both created by
those ideas and exploiters of them. There is a causal chain that
connects loathsome creatures like the “Reverend” Paul Shanley directly
back to the authoritarianism and anti-sexuality of St. Augustine; a
chain well-analyzed by psychologists such as Stanley Milgram and
Wilhelm Reich. I suggest that any religion that makes obedience to
authority a primary virtue and pathologizes sex will produce abuses
like these as surely as rot breeds maggots.

One need not, however, attack the essentials of Catholic doctrine
to agree with Ms. Eberstadt’s main point: that the dominant media
culture seems bent on obscuring a central fact about the pattern of
crimes — which is that they are predominently homosexual abuse by
priests with a history of homosexual activity. Cases of priestly abuse
of females of any age are rare (though at least one horrifying tale of
multiple priests cooperating in the abuse of a teenage girl has
surfaced from California). The overwhelming majority of the cases
involve either pederasty (homosexual acts with post-pubescent boys and
young men) or homosexual pedophilia with pre-pubescent boys as young
as six years old. Yet you would be hard-put to deduce this from most
of the vague accounts in the U.S. media, which traffic in terms that
seem designed to obscure the gender and age of the victims and the
homosexual orientation of almost all the abusers. Why is that?

Apparently, because one of the rules of the U.S.’s dominant media
culture is that Homosexuals Are Not To Be Stigmatized (I think it’s
carved in stone right next to “Environmentalists are Saints” and “Gun
Owners are Redneck Nut-Jobs”). Gay conservative Andrew Sullivan
famously noted this rule in connection with the Jesse Dirkhising
. We are not supposed to think of either Jesse’s murderers
or abusive priests as homosexuals; that might reflect badly on a
journalistically-protected class by associating it with criminal

But more than that; the truth the dominant media culture really
doesn’t want to go near is that pederasty has never been a marked or
unusual behavior among homosexuals, and even advocates of outright
pedophilia are not shunned in the homosexual-activist community.

The public spin of gay activist groups like Queer Nation is that
most male homosexual behavior is androphilia, adult-to-adult
sex between people of comparable ages. And indeed, gay historians agree with
anthropologists that in the modern West, androphilia is more common
relative to pederasty and homosexual pedophilia than has been
historically normal. But another way of putting this is that in most
other cultures and times, pederasty and pedophilia have been more
common forms of homosexuality than androphilia.

Pederasty, at least, remains a common behavior among modern
homosexuals. The `twink’ or compliant teenage boy (usually blond,
usually muscled, depicted in the first dewy flush of postpubescence)
is the standard fantasy object of gay porn. By contrast, I learned
from recent
that the archetypal fantasy object of straight porn is a
fully-developed (indeed, usually over-developed) woman in her early
twenties. And a couple of different lines of evidence (including
surveys conducted within the gay population by gays) lead to the
conclusion that older homosexuals actually pursue boys quite a bit
more frequently than either older lesbians or older heterosexual men
pursue girls.

Homosexual activists, when challenged on this point, like to retort
that older men nailing barely-nubile teenage girls is far more
common. And in absolute terms it is — but only because there are
twenty-five to a hundred times more straight men than there are gay
men in the world (reliable figures for the incidence of male
homosexuality range between 1% and 4%). Per capita among gays,
pederasty is more frequent than among straights by a factor of
between three and ten, depending on whose statistics you believe —
and the North American Man-Boy Love Association, actively advocating
pederasty and pedophilia, is welcomed at gay-pride events

If the prevalence of homosexuality in the Catholic priesthood is
the elephant in the sacristy, the homosexuality/pederasty/pedophilia
connection in gay culture is the elephant in the bath-house. No
amount of denying it’s there is going to make the beast go away.

But homosexual activists don’t want straights to see the elephant,
and no wonder. One of the most persistent themes to show up in
hostility towards homosexuals is the fear that they will recruit
impressionable boys who might otherwise have grown up straight. Thus
their insistance for straight consumption that homosexuality is an
inborn orientation, not a choice. Thus also their insistance that the
gay life is all about androphilia, none of that pederasty or
pedophilia stuff going on here. And thus, they’d rather not have
anyone thinking about the fact that most priestly abuse is in fact
classically pederastic and pedophilic behavior by men who behave as
homosexuals and identify themselves as gay.

That there is a pattern in the national media of political
correctness and spin on behalf of preferred `victim’ groups isn’t
news, nor is the fact that homosexuals are among those groups. But
get this: Richard Berke, the Washington editor of the New York
recently said “literally three-quarters of the people
deciding what’s on the front page are not-so-closeted homosexuals”.
There you have it in plain English; gays run the “newspaper of
record”. Berke made these comments before a gay advocacy group — not
merely admitting but outright asserting, as a matter of
pride, that the Times engages in gay-friendly spin
control. And it has already been well established by statistical
content studies that the national media tend to follow where they’re
led by the Times and a handful of other prestige
newspapers, all broadly similar in editorial policy.

The expected next step in this sequence would be for me to start
screaming about the evil of it all and demand that Something Be Done.
If I were a conservative, that’s what I’d do. But in fact it’s not
self-evident that this particular disinformation campaign is worth
anybody’s time to be concerned about, except as yet another example of
wearily predictable bias in the dominant media culture. Whether it is
or not depends upon one’s value judgment about consensual pederasty
and pedophilia.

NAMBLA and its sympathizers in the rest of the gay community think
they’re engaged in a worthy campaign for sexual liberation. If they
are right, then the anti-antigay spin on the priestly-abuse scandal is
arguably analogous to what pro-civil-rights sympathizers in the early
1960s might have done if there had been a long string of incidents of
incidents of black men seducing white women, both parties violating
the miscegenation laws still on the books in many states at that

The pro-spin argument would have run like this: interracial sex is
taboo for no good reason, so soft-pedaling the race of the people involved
as much as possible is a justifiable form of suppressio veri
not outright lying but being economical with the truth. Our readers will
be able to deduce the whole truth if they put in even a little effort, but
be needn’t pave the road for them. By doing this, we will avoid inflaming
racial bigotry and advance the worthy cause of civil rights.

For this analogy to hold good, we need two preconditions. First,
we must believe that almost all the pederasty/pedophilia between
priests and boys has been voluntary. Second, we must believe that
consensual pederasty and pedophilia are not, in fact, harmful to the
boys involved. Intellectual honesty (and, I’ll admit, a low delight
on my part in watching prudes and cultural conservatives turn purple
with indignation) demands that we not dismiss this case without
looking at the evidence.

The modern West condemns pederasty and pedophilia. Our cultural
ancestors did not always do so; among the Athenian Greeks consensual
pederastic relationships were praised and thought to be a good deal
for both parties. Pederasty is socially normal in Afghanistan and
other parts of the Islamic world; pederasty and pedophilia are also
un-tabooed in parts of Southeast Asia and in Japan. Where pederasty
and pedophilia are not taboo, the boys who participate in it
frequently grow up to form normal heterosexual relationships and marry.
In fact, it’s the modern West’s hard separation between straights
who never have sex with other males and gays who
never have sex with females that is anthropologically

Of course, the fact that pederasty and pedophilia have been an
approved practice in other cultures does not automatically mean we
should give them a nod. Cannibalism, slavery and infanticide have
been approved practices too. But the anthropological evidence doesn’t
suggest that boys who have voluntary sex with men automatically turn
into traumatized basket cases; indeed some present-day cultures agree
with the ancient Greeks that such liaisons are good for the maturation
of boys. There are real secondary risks, starting with the fact that
anal sex is a much more effective vector of venereal diseases such as
AIDS than is vaginal sex — but given a cultural context that doesn’t
stigmatize the behavior, clear evidence that consensual pederasty and
pedophilia are intrinsically damaging is remarkably hard to find.

Accordingly, NAMBLA may well be right on one level when they argue
that what matters is not so much which tab A gets put into which slot
B, but whether the behavior was coerced or consensual. According to
this argument, the elephant in the bath-house can be lived with —
might even be a friendly beast — if it’s docile-tempered and won’t
give the tusk to unconsenting parties.

Gay men, or at least the sort of university-educated gay men who
wind up determining what’s on the front page of the New York
and spiking stories like the Dirkhising murder, know
these facts. How surprising would it be if they interpreted most
victims’ charges of abuse as a product of retrospective false
consciousness, implanted in them by a homophobic and gay-oppressing
culture? By suppressing the homosexual identification of most of the
accused priests, gays in the media can protect their own sexual and
political interests while believing — perhaps quite sincerely — that
they are quietly aiding the cause of freedom.

The trouble with this comforting lullaby is that, even if NAMBLA is
right, coercion matters a lot. As Ms. Eberstadt
reports, the pederastically and pedophilically abused often become
broken, dysfunctional people. They show up in disproportionate numbers
in drug and alcohol rehab. They have a high rate of involvement in
violent crime. Worse, they end to become abusers themselves,
perpetuating the damage across generations.

Voltaire once said “In nature there are no rewards or punishments,
only consequences”. Gays experimented with unfettered promiscuity in
the 1970s and got AIDS as a consequence. The mores of gay bath-house
culture turned out to be broken in the way that ultimately matters; a
lot of people died horribly as a result of them.

It may turn out that the consequences of sympathizing with NAMBLA
are almost equally ugly. If a climate of `enlightened’ tolerance for
consensual pederasty and pedophilia tends to increase the rate at
which boys are abused, that is a very serious consequence for which gay
liberationists will not (and should not) soon be forgiven.
The homosexual gatekeepers at the Times may be making
themselves accessories before and after the fact to some truly hideous

And this is where we come back to the priestly-abuse scandal.
Because a theme that keeps recurring in
of the worst abusers is that they were trained in
seminaries that were run by homosexual men and saturated with
gay-liberationist subculture. Reading accounts of students at one
notorious California seminary making a Friday-night ritual of cruising
gay bars, it becomes hard not to wonder if gay culture itself has not
been an important enabler of priestly abuse.

Now it’s time to abandon the catch-all term abuse and speak plainly
the name of the crime: sexual coercion and rape. It is very clear
that pederasts and pedophiles in the priesthood have routinely used
their authority over Catholic boys not merely to seduce them, but to
coerce and rape them. In a few cases the rape has been overt and
physical, but in most cases it has been a subtler and arguably more
damaging rape of the victim’s mind and self.

The single most revolting image I have carried away from the
priestly-abuse scandal is victims’ accounts of priests solemnly
blessing them after sex. That is using the child’s religious feelings
and respect for authority to make him complicit in the abuse. If I
believed in hell, I would wish for the priests who perpetrated this
kind of soul-rape to fry in it for eternity.

And we must call it rape; do otherwise is to suppose that
most of the thousands of known victims wanted to be sodomized. Even
if we discard the victims’ and witnesses’ reports, this is highly
unlikely; there were simply too many victims. Some priests had sex
with hundreds of boys, far too many to fit into the 1-4%
cohort of homosexual orientation in the population they had access to.
And we are not entitled to dismiss the victims’ protests in any case,
not given the corollary evidence that the trauma of abuse reverberated
through the victims’ lives, continuing to damage them years and
decades afterwards. Comforting gay-lib delusions about false
consciousness won’t wash here.

Continuing our civil-rights analogy, the correct parallel would
have been with an epidemic of interracial rape, rather than
cohabitation. Had there in fact been such an epidemic, civil-rights
proponents would have faced the question of whether black men had a
particular propensity to rape white women. The analogous question,
whether homosexual men have a particular propensity to rape boys, is
precisely the one that homosexuals and their sympathizers in the media
don’t want anyone to examine — and precisely the question that the
priestly-abuse scandal demands that we ask.

It’s easy to sympathize with gay activists’ fears that opening this
question will expose them to a firestorm of prejudice from people
who will prejudge the answer out of anti-gay bigotry. But the
pattern of homosexual abuse by the Catholic priesthood has been so
egregious and so longstanding that we need to understand the relative
weight of all the causes that produced it — whether those
causes are specific to Catholicism or more general.

Are gay men biologically or psychologically prone to rape boys at a
level that makes a gay man even without a known history of abuse into
a bad risk around boys? Does queer culture encourage a tendency to
rape in gay men who are put in authority over boys?

Here is where the question becomes practical: were the Boy Scouts
of America so wrong to ban homosexual scoutmasters? And here we are
with a crashing thud back in the realm of present politics. After the
numbing, horrifying, seemingly never-ending stream of foul crimes
revealed in the scandal, even staunch sexual libertarians like your
humble author can no longer honestly dismiss this question simply
because it’s being raised by unpleasant conservatives.

The priestly-abuse scandal forces us to face reality. To the
extent that pederasty, pedophilic impulses, and twink fantasies are
normal among homosexual men, putting one in charge of adolescent boys
may after all be just as bad an idea as waltzing a man with a known
predisposition for alcoholism into a room full of booze. One wouldn’t
have to think homosexuality is evil or a disease to make institutional
rules against this, merely notice that it creates temptations best
avoided for everyone’s sake.

Blogspot comments

Jun 13

Bad porn reprise

Many people wrote me with comments on my essay
Why Does Porn Got To Hurt So Bad?. For all of those who
sent praise, thank you. It’s actually nice to know there are so many
people who would like to reject the bad-porn aesthetic. For all
of those who refrained from calling down fire and brimstone on me for messing with smut, also thank you. I’d have ignored you,
but thank you anyway.

I got two responses I thought were particularly interesting.
One was from a gentleman who works as a pornographer. He
opined that I overestimated the porn industry by supposing that
bad porn reflected market demand. The real problem (he claims)
is that it’s hard to find women who simultaneously don’t look
hard and jaded yet are willing to bare all for the camera. Most
outfits, he said, don’t even try. They settle for the fake-pearl-and-synthoboob look out of laziness, knowing it’s crap
but will sell well enough.

This doesn’t explain to me why, if Veronika Zemanova can look like a girl one might willingly take to bed in one picture and an unnatural womanoid-thing in another, they don’t try to photograph
women like her in the more natural mode more often. But perhaps
this one was just a trick of the light.

Another respondent proposes the interesting theory that the
girls are dressed (or rather undressed) to look inaccessible
because if they weren’t, there might be an epidemic of stalking
as various creeps and wackos tried to get next to them.

It would be touching to believe the porn industry cares that
much about its performers, but I’m skeptical.

Finally, I got mail from
“German Lucy”
, who said she was honored to appear in my
essay and quite enjoyed it. Rather to my astonishment, her email style
suggests that she really is “as sweet-natured and unjaded as she
looks”. She answered my questions plausibly and thoughtfully and didn’t even pitch me to sign up for her site.

Holy Diogenes, Batman! I think I might have found the
one honest porn star…

Jun 10

After reading too much political news

Top Ten Reasons I’m Not A (Left-)Liberal:

  1. Gun control. Liberals are completely wrong about this. A fair number
    of them know better, too, but they sponsor lies about it as a form of class
    warfare against conservative-leaning gun owners.
  2. Nuclear power. They’re wrong about this, too, and the cost in
    both dollars and human deaths by pollution and other fossil-fuel
    side-effects has been enormous.
  3. Affirmative action. These programs couldn’t be a more diabolical or
    effective plan for plan for entrenching racial prejudice if the Aryan
    Nations had designed them.
  4. Abortion: The liberals’ looney-toon feminist need to believe that
    a fetus one second before birth is a parasitic lump of tissue with no
    rights, but a fetus one second afterwards is a full human, has done
    half the job of making a reasoned debate on abortion
  5. Communism. I haven’t forgiven the Left for sucking up to the monstrous
    evil that was the Soviet Union. And I never will.
  6. Socialism. Liberals have never met a tax, a government
    intervention, or a forcible redistribution of wealth they didn’t like.
    Their economic program is Communism without the guts to admit it.
  7. Junk science. No medicical study is too bogus and no environmental
    scare too fraudalent for liberals. If it rationalizes bashing
    capitalism or slathering on another layer of regulatory bureaucracy,
    they’ll take it.
  8. Defining deviancy down. Liberals are in such a desperate rush to
    embrace the `victimized by society’ and speak the language of
    compassion that they’ve forgotten how to condemn harmful,
    self-destructive and other-destructive behavior.
  9. William Jefferson Clinton. Sociopathic liar, perjurer, sexual predator.
    There was nothing but a sucking narcissistic vacuum where his principles
    should have been. Liberals worship him.
  10. Liberals, by and large, are fools.

Top Ten Reasons I’m Not A Conservative:

  1. Pornography. The complete absence of evidence that exposure to
    sexually-explicit material is harmful to children or anyone else doesn’t
    stop conservatives from advocating massive censorship.
  2. Drugs. We found out that Prohibition was a bad idea back in the
    1930s — all it did was create a huge and virulent criminal class, erode
    respect for the law, and corrupt our politics. Some people never learn.
  3. Creationism. I don’t know who I find more revolting, the drooling
    morons who actally believe creationism or the intelligent panderers
    who know better but provide them with political cover for their
    religious-fundamentalist agenda in return for votes.
  4. Abortion. The conservatives’ looney-toon religious need to
    believe that a fertilized gamete is morally equivalent to a human
    being has done the other half of making a reasoned debate on abortion
  5. Racism. I haven’t forgiven the Right for segregation, Jim Crow laws,
    and lynching blacks. And I never will.
  6. Sexism. Way too much conservative thought still reads like an
    apologia for keeping women barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen.
  7. Anti-science. Stem cells, therapeutic cloning — it doesn’t matter
    how many more diabetes, cancer and AIDS patients have to die to
    protect the anti-abortion movement’s ideological flanks. Knowledge —
    who needs it? Conservatives would try suppressing astronomy
    if the telescope had just been invented.
  8. Family values. Conservatives are so desperate to reassert the
    repressive `normalcy’ they think existed in Grand-dad’s time that they
    pretend we can undo the effects of the automobile, television, the
    Pill, and the Internet.
  9. Ronald Wilson Reagan. A B-movie actor who thought ketchup was
    a vegetable. His grip on reality was so dangerously weak that the
    Alzheimer’s made no perceptible difference. Conservatives worship him.
  10. Conservatives, by and large, are villains.

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Jun 07

Why does porn got to hurt so bad?

A couple days ago I chased a link over to unablogger and found myself unexpectedly confronted by pictures of naked women. This picture, in particular. And I noticed something unusual — which was that I liked it.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I’m a functioning heterosexual male; I enjoy looking at naked women. It’s most pictures of naked women I can’t stand. I’ve found by experience that most of the vast amounts of pornography available on the Internet leave me feeling more repelled than aroused. And not out of puritanism either; I have no intrinsic moral objection to porn, and I judge that the consequentialist arguments against it don’t stand the reality test.

No, the truth is that I find most porn subtly and deeply ugly. Unablogger’s picture (which happens to be of a Czech model named Veronika Zemanova) was a sufficiently glaring exception that it stimulated me to think seriously about why.

It was immediately clear to me that Ms. Zemanova’s physique was not the primary reason this photograph struck me as an exception. Ms. Zemanova unquestionably has a very shapely and appealing body and a pretty face. However, I have seen many photographs of women with equally lovely bodies and equally pretty faces that I nevertheless found ugly and unstimulating as entire compositions, without being completely clear about why.

My initial reaction was reinforced when I searched for other images of Ms. Zemanova and discovered ugly generic porn. The difference, clearly, was not in Ms. Zemanova’s body but in way the attitude and setting — one might say the implied narrative — of her pictures differed. Time for some analysis…

Like any good scientist, I proceeded to do some research. I surfed to a well-known porn index site and random-sampled the content, sticking to pictures of single unclad women in order to control some obvious variables. Using my own hypothalamus as a calibration instrument, I graded the samples into “excellent” (I want to keep a copy) “good” (pleasant to look at) “mediocre” (mechanically arousing but unpleasant) and “bad” (just plain unpleasant). There were very, very few “excellents”, and almost none of the caliber of Unablogger’s image of Ms. Zemanova.

After the first grading pass, I re-sorted the images in an attempt to compensate for the presence of particular physical features that I know are powerful sexual releasers for me (red hair is an example). I did this because, to the extent possible, I wanted to try to separate my autonomic arousal reaction to the images from my esthetic and psychological reaction. So I downgraded images in which the women had obvious, powerful releaser traits for me.

Now, this was hardly a controlled experiment. And it’s just me. But once I corrected for my autonomic biases, a clear pattern emerged, especially in the “bad” category. Many images contained elements that were, at least to me, anti-arousing. Over-styled hair — especially over-styled blonde hair. Fake pearls. Strappy high heels being worn by otherwise naked women. Feather boas and tacky hooker lingerie. Bloated silicone breasts. Excessive makeup; excessive makeup was, in fact a rule even in most otherwise uncompromised images.

The pattern was not surprising; I had had some insight about this before without thinking it through completely. Bad porn is full of the fetish signifiers of sexual allure, to the point where they crowd out the reality of sexual allure. Porn models often look more like women trying desperately hard to be sexy than they look like sexy women. There is a wrongness there.

Contrast this picture of a model named India Allen with Ms. Zemanova’s picture. I have no doubt that Ms. Allen is quite a fetching young woman; indeed, I chose her image because on the physical-traits level she can compete with Ms. Zemanova quite handily. But this image is not good porn; it is crowded with elements that distract one from Ms. India’s native sexiness. The silly carousel horse. The glare spot behind her left hip. The teddy artfully half-removed despite the fact that she is obviously not planning to strip for sex in the immediate future.

I can’t speak for other men, but my gut reaction is “What is all this bullshit?” Where the Unablogger photo of Ms. Zemanova offers us a narrative about sex (“I’m taking my clothes off because I want to have sex with the person I’m looking at — yes, that would be you.”) Ms. Allen’s offers us a narrative about being sexy — looking alluring in a fantasy context that makes actual sex quite unlikely. How many of us, after all, have ever gotten laid anywhere near a carousel horse?

And typical porn is actually far worse than this. Mostly the models have a vacant-eyed, stunned look to them. They frequently contort themselves into bizarre positions that would make sex impossible and aren’t really plausible as a stage of foreplay either. Or they sprawl, surrounded by fetish objects, passively waiting to be fucked. They don’t smile; their faces are either mindlessly slack or locked in a rictus of simulated passion as obviously fake as a three-dollar bill.

As I looked at more bad-porn images, I found myself waking up to a deep bewilderment. How could these pictures arouse anyone who was actually paying attention to them? Why is there a market for this crap?

When I remember the good sex I’ve had, or imagine the good sex I might have, my head is not populated by vacant-eyed women surrounded by fetish objects and passively waiting to be fucked. No; my fantasies, and my experience, is of women who are intelligent horny animals like me; live-eyed, smiling, fully awake and quite ready to seize the initiative if I drop it, thank you. For real women, the meaning of the sex is the sex, not the ooh-look-I’m-hot posing that goes before it. The Unablogger image of Ms. Zemanova looks like she has a real woman’s attitude; most of her competitors’ pictures (and indeed most of her own) don’t.

Bad porn is superficially sexual in a way as stylized as Kabuki theater, but deeply anti-erotic. To be aroused by it, you have to be reading the code that tells you are supposed to be aroused — the artificial boobs, the decorticated stares, the garter belts. If you delete or mask out that code, no actual sexual charge remains — there is nothing left that connects your desire to the subject of the picture.

Mediocre porn, though mechanically arousing enough to facilitate masturbation by someone with a case of serious hormonal back-pressure, has only the subject’s body parts and the viewer’s autonomic response going for it. For very few men is it plausible to have sex with a lipstick-and-eyeshadow-wearing starlet/bimbo type with 40DD breasts who’s somehow had her skin lacquered to a gloss that resembles model-airplane dope and just happens to be bent over a motorcycle while stark naked. Sorry, no sale; a real woman would at least have her hair a bit mussed.

The fetishistic perfection of such scenes actually puts distance between the subject and the viewer’s desire. It removes the subject from any real world in which one might meet her and actually take her to bed. Autonomic response to the picture itself is the limit of the possible.

Good porn, by contrast, conveys a sense of plausibility. You believe the women in it exist. You can imagine meeting them. You can imagine liking one of them, having her like you, and the two of you sliding off somewhere for a mutually happy fuck. Being aroused by such a picture makes emotional sense; you don’t have to either fight or ignore any sense that the subject is an inaccessible fantasy.

The contrast is perfectly evident in two pictures of Ms. Zemonova. In this one, she looks like an unusually sexy but normal young woman in the act of removing her panties while she looks at the viewer. The narrative is clear; she is stripping for action, and you are the fortunate object of her desire. Women do this sort of thing. If you are not a virgin, you’ve probably seen it happen, though perhaps never with a partner quite as exuberantly mammalian as Ms. Zemanova. This is a plausible scenario.

In this picture, by contrast, Ms. Zemanova is a heavily cosmeticized, unsettlingly glossy womanoid-thing in an unlikely position, masturbating herself and gazing off into space over your right shoulder. You are not involved. Nothing like this would be even remotely plausible in your bathroom — if only because sensible women masturbate in their bedrooms, where they can collapse onto something more comfortable than a tile floor when they orgasm. This picture is not presenting a plausible scenario, unless you are the sort of wealthy British rock star who builds huge custom bathrooms in which to boff acquiescent supermodels.

This image makes an ironic example of good porn because it demonstrates that the apparent lack of artifice in good porn can be just as misleading as the fetish objects of bad porn. This innocent-looking girl-next-door posing as though she’s giving her boyfriend a private thrill is actually the star character of a large and very raunchy German porn site. While one can hope she has nevertheless remained as sweet-natured and unjaded as she looks, betting money on this possibility would be imprudent at best.

Nor, despite the partial clothedness of my two examples, am I arguing that good porn has to be soft-core, either. This woman is leaving little to the imagination. But she has a nice smile — something which, in a medium supposedly devoted to pleasure, is astonishingly rare. I searched through many hundreds of images and found almost none that combined full nudity with a simple human smile. Symbolically, the first one I found had disappeared by the following day, and I won’t lay odds that the link above will stay good.

Very well, the facts are in hand; as many of them as I’m likely to get, anyway — I’ve had as much exposure to bad porn as I can tolerate. Let’s return to the central question. Why does pornography have to hurt so bad? Why is there so much bad porn out there and so little good stuff?

At one level the answer is fairly obvious. Like the purveyors of any other commodity, the people who produce porn have to respond to demand. Indeed, because production is cheap and the sales cycle is short, market selection can be expected to drive production to match demand very rapidly. There is no evidence of massive market-rigging, and good porn is no more expensive to produce than bad porn — in fact, it may be less expensive (the same models can be used for good and bad, and the good stuff needs less in the way of elaborate props). Therefore, if most porn is bad, it’s because most porn consumers want it to be bad.

Let’s unpack that. The trash percentage of porn is so high that, unless the producers are collectively insane, most consumers must actually want images of women who are doing the bad-porn thing. That most porn consumers actually like the trash is further suggested by the tacky, gaudy, crude design of almost all porn websites. They scream, they leer, they spew misspellings and degrading language at high volume. The sheer aggressive ugliness is far too consistent to be the result of incompetence.

So the real question is this: why do most porn consumers seek trash? Why do they buy the fetish objects, the implausable poses, the unobtainable women? Why welcome such an anti-erotic distance between their sexual fantasies and their sexual reality?

We can certainly imagine how it might be different. Why don’t porn consumers choose images they might plausibly act out, with partners rather sexier than the ones they have but still attainable? In fact some do; most porn sites have an `amateurs’ category — but it’s marketed like a minority taste along with pictures of older women and fat women.

I am forced to the unhappy conclusion that plausibility is exactly what most porn consumers don’t want. That somehow they feel better when their fantasies are safely distant from reality. All the possible reasons I can imagine for this are very sad.

One reason could be simple old-fashioned sexual guilt. If you believe sex is sinful and desire is dirty, if you have that old madonna/whore complex, than you may be more comfortable thinking of porn models as whores. You may indeed, be so conditioned to associate sex with sin that you can’t get it off without feeling wicked first.

A more plausible construction for most potential porn consumers today is that they have issues about female power. Men who get lots of attention from attractive three-dimensional women are not likely to be buying porn-site subscriptions. Therefore, we can safely assume that the consumers who define demand patterns for porn producers generally feel that their sex life is hemmed in by female choices and the female power to refuse. Defining the objects of their desire as “cum-sucking sluts”, to be used but not related to any emotional way, is a kind of equalizing move in the sexual-power game.

This theory differs sharply from conventional feminist critiques of porn, in which porn seen as a ratification of existing power relationships that privilege males. The difference is testable. If the conventional theory is correct, porn should be becoming more and more irrelevant as women become more independent — or, at least, assume the nostalgic character of references to a golden age of male privilege that has already passed.

On the other hand, if bad porn is a compensation for male feelings of powerlessness, we should expect it to become steadily tackier, uglier, more strident, and more popular in direct proportion to the degree that female power in the real world increases.

I think it’s pretty clear which of those worlds we are living in. The gloomy conclusion is that porn is likely to get worse before it gets better. If it ever does.

UPDATE: Have since corresponded with “German Lucy”, the woman whose picture I described as an ironic example of good porn. It’s nice when cynicism turns out to be a mistake; she really is like that.

Blogspot comments

Jun 05

Who’s a warblogger? Blogotypology considered

My good buddy Doc Searls says I’m
a warblogger, not a techblogger
. Truth is I’ve never thought of
myself either way. I had only the vaguest notion what a `warblogger’
is until I followed his links to the definitional discussion. I write
stuff related to 9/11 because it’s one of the definining events of our
day, but I didn’t start blogging particularly because I wanted to
comment on the war. Y’all may have noticed that I write about sex and
guns a lot. Nothing about witchcraft yet, but give it time… :-)

The blogotypological distinction that makes the most
sense to me is “thinker” vs. “linker”. I know which of those
camps I’m in. I’m a thinker, an essayist. I’d rather write about
my original thinking than reflect or index other peoples’ words.
VodkaPundit was right on when he compared me to Steve Den Beste over at U.S.S. Clueless. Glenn Reynolds is, of course, the king of the linkers (though
he goes into thinker mode off-blog).

I’d actually say there’s a
third setting on this switch; “diarist”, someone who blogs
essentially as a public journal. Like Den Beste, I’m not a diarist; you wouldn’t find ramblings about my beagle or my infant daughter here even if I had either.
My personal life appears in this blog only insofar as it’s the
frame in which my ideas happen. I can imagine writing personal journalism, but it’s not my default style.
Asparagirl, on
the other hand, is a good paradigmatic example of a diarist; her ideas are embedded in a narrative of her life.

Of course, people do mix modes. James Lileks is
a diarist/thinker, or thinker/diarist, and
Andrew Sullivan
oscillates among all three modes in a (dare I say it?)
gaily promiscuous fashion. But most bloggers seem to
have a base style that’s one of these three, from which they
may make occasional excursions but to which they
inevitably return.

As Doc points out, I’m not a techblogger either. Technology
evangelism is what I do off-blog; Armed and
is for the writing that doesn’t fit that box, just
as a lot of other bloggers treat the medium as an outlet for
whatever is not their day job. Maybe that’s another
distinction we need; `problogger’ (someone like Jonah Goldberg
whose blogging is a seamless extension of his day job) versus `playblogger’ (someone who blogs to let off steam that their day-job channels don’t have a good vent for).

While the best I can say about the term `warblogger’ is that
it’s not completely useless, `techblogger’ seems to me to be a
category that’s likely to survive as the medium matures. So
does the thinker/linker/diarist distinction, and the playblogger/problogger flag bit.

I’ll end with the obligatory abjurgation not to take any such
terminology too seriously. We’re all writers, a prickly bunch,
and we’re all to some degree category-busters by nature or
we wouldn’t be here in the infancy of a new medium at all. Still…I suspect that more definite blogotypes will emerge as people explore the space of available styles and discover which ones
are most effective at communication.