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Network Theory

Parent term for network analysis, social networking, etc.

What Is Open Source Warfare?

From John Robb, who seems to have coined the term "open source warfare":

[The Iraqi] insurgency isn't a fragile hierarchical organization but rather a resilient network made up of small, autonomous groups. This means that the insurgency is virtually immune to attrition and decapitation. It will combine and recombine to form a viable network despite high rates of attrition. Body counts - and the military should already know this - aren't a good predictor of success.

Given this landscape, let's look at alternative strategies. First, out-innovating the insurgency will most likely prove unsuccessful. The insurgency uses an open-source community approach (similar to the decentralized development process now prevalent in the software industry) to warfare that is extremely quick and innovative. New technologies and tactics move rapidly from one end of the insurgency to the other, aided by Iraq's relatively advanced communications and transportation grid - demonstrated by the rapid increases in the sophistication of the insurgents' homemade bombs. This implies that the insurgency's innovation cycles are faster than the American military's slower bureaucratic processes (for example: its inability to deliver sufficient body and vehicle armor to our troops in Iraq).

Second, there are few visible fault lines in the insurgency that can be exploited. Like software developers in the open-source community, the insurgents have subordinated their individual goals to the common goal of the movement. This has been borne out by the relatively low levels of infighting we have seen between insurgent groups. As a result, the military is not going to find a way to chop off parts of the insurgency through political means - particularly if former Ba'athists are systematically excluded from participation in the new Iraqi state by the new Constitution.

Third, the United States can try to diminish the insurgency by letting it win. The disparate groups in an open-source effort are held together by a common goal. Once the goal is reached, the community often falls apart. In Iraq, the original goal for the insurgency was the withdrawal of the occupying forces. If foreign troops pull out quickly, the insurgency may fall apart. This is the same solution that was presented to Congress last month by our generals in Iraq, George Casey and John Abizaid.

Unfortunately, this solution arrived too late. There are signs that the insurgency's goal is shifting from a withdrawal of the United States military to the collapse of the Iraqi government. So, even if American troops withdraw now, violence will probably continue to escalate.

What's left? It's possible, as Microsoft has found, that there is no good monopolistic solution to a mature open-source effort. In that case, the United States might be better off adopting I.B.M.'s embrace of open source. This solution would require renouncing the state's monopoly on violence by using Shiite and Kurdish militias as a counterinsurgency. This is similar to the strategy used to halt the insurgencies in El Salvador in the 1980's and Colombia in the 1990's. In those cases, these militias used local knowledge, unconstrained tactics and high levels of motivation to defeat insurgents (this is in contrast to the ineffectiveness of Iraq's paycheck military). This option will probably work in Iraq too.

In fact, it appears the American military is embracing it. In recent campaigns in Sunni areas, hastily uniformed peshmerga and Badr militia supplemented American troops; and in Basra, Shiite militias are the de facto military power.

If an open-source counterinsurgency is the only strategic option left, it is a depressing one. The militias will probably create a situation of controlled chaos that will allow the administration to claim victory and exit the country. They will, however, exact a horrible toll on Iraq and may persist for decades. This is a far cry from spreading democracy in the Middle East. Advocates of refashioning the American military for top-down nation-building, the current flavor of the month, should recognize it as a fatal test of the concept.

The Open-Source War By JOHN ROBB

For me, this is as interesting for its flat assertions about the nature of the Open Source ("[F/] OSS"] movement as it is for his clarification of the term as it applies to warfare. There's some very interesting -- perhaps revealing -- language, here. I can remember reading John Robb a few years back, but I don't remember anything in particular that made him stand out from the other tech-bloggers I was reading at the time. Here, he's saying some things that are different, that not everyone else (in the tech-blogging "community", at least) is saying.

For example, he's acknowledging the success of IBM, and how they got it: By 'letting the enemy win,' or more precisely, by buying the enemy their uniforms. IBM spends a ton of money on Open Source development. No other company with the arguable exception of Google has as strong a claim in Open Source councils.

Another example: While he seems to praise with one hand, he does something very interesting by tossing IBM into the same metaphorical stew with the right-wing Salvadoran and Colombian militias, trained to do the nastiest kinds of dirty work by our own CIA at our own School of the Americas. Folks at IBM who get the allusion might well be pissed off by it; I expect it's intended not as an insult, but rather as a precise analogy. The analogy bears expansion, though, because most Americans are woefully ignorant of their own history -- especially the small and dirty parts of it like what the Salvadoran militias (and, hell, their regular military) actually did to their own people, with our help and encouragement. If Robb is right, we're in the process of doing something very similar, again, and this time on a far larger scale.

The Masonic Mac

Some design-geek at Frog Design thinks that iPods are "universally" described as "clean" because the iPod "references bathroom materials." It's kind of a silly little think-piece, not least in that it makes a point and then throws out a lot of unrelated arguement in an attempt to hide the fact that it doesn't really make much of a case for what might otherwise be an interesting assertion. But that's not what I'm writing about.

A comment in-thread lead me to this insight: Being a "Mac Person" is a little like being a mason.

Which is to say, to be a "Mac Person" is to feel that you belong to something, while at the same time feeling yourself to be different from other (lesser) people. If you belong to a secret society of some kind, you feel both privileged to belong, and empowered by your connection to that society.

Membership in the secret society comes with a cost: Dues, expenses for robes or other paraphernalia (as Stetson Kennedy wrote in his book about infiltrating the Klan), and any opportunity cost associated with providing expected assistance to other members. Any extra costs are obviously assumed to be at least offset by benefits, by "believers" in the secret society. Those costs are their "dues"; they're what they pay for the privilege of being made special by the organization.

Committing to the Apple Way has similar costs: Software is more expensive and less plentiful; hardware is often proprietary (as with iPod peripherals), or hardware options more limited (if you don't believe it, try to buy a webcam off the shelf at a mainstream store); software conventions are different, and require retraining. Apple users (rationally) presume there to be offsetting benefits, typically cast in terms of usability. My own experience using and supporting Macs tells me that those benefits are illusory, but that's beside the point: Mac users assume them to exist, and act on that assumption.

But they also gain a sense of superiority from it, and they get that reinforced every time they pay more for something, every time they have a document interchange problem with a Windows-using compatriot, every time have a problem figuring out what to do when they sit down at a non-Mac microcomputer.

The extra cost is understood as an investment. They are paying dues. Being a Mac Person is, in that way, a little like being a Mason. Or at least, a little like what we might imagine it's like to be a Mason, since most of us have never actually met one.

A Sobering Milestone

I can foresee a day when we're nostalgic about commercially-motivated spammers and mass-mailing-worms.

I get jaded about virus and worm stories. Each day seems to bring a new watershed in rate of infection, purpose, or technique. Sober is the worm du jour: It appeared sometime during the week of May 2, spread widely and rapidly, and this week started to download updates to itself. The latest variant, Sober.Q, is being used to spread "hate speech."

So let's count the milestones: Rapid spread; remote control; use for propaganda. None all that impressive anymore, on their own. But put together, they're like seeing someone walk down the street wearing sandals with black socks: It's just another sign of the end times. It's depressing.

But Seriously, Folks: Using mass-mailing worms to spread propaganda really is something to take notice of. It's a truism that spam is just about too cheap to meter, as exemplified by the fact that it's not cost effective for a spammer to even care whether most of his messages get through, much less whether you're trying to sell cialis to a woman; it was only a matter of time before the marketers of ideology grokked the significance of that fact and started using it to virtualize their lightpost handbills.

Self-updating zombie mass-mailing worms are the computing equivalent of a bio-weapon: (mind-bogglingly) cheap, effective, and devilishly hard to kill. Previously, they've been used for a rationally-accessible goal: Making money. Now, they're being used for goals that are comprehensible only in terms of the ideologies that drive their purveyors.

Still more proof, as though we needed it, that markets are dangerously deficient metaphors for understanding human social behavior.

No Papers, State To State

Capt. Vasili Borodin: I will live in Montana. And I will marry a round American woman and raise rabbits, and she will cook them for me. And I will have a pickup truck... maybe even a "recreational vehicle." And drive from state to state. Do they let you do that?
Captain Ramius: I suppose.
Capt. Vasili Borodin: No papers?
Captain Ramius: No papers, state to state.
[Hunt for Red October]

As a boy, during the Cold War (remember the Cold War?), one of the big filmic signifiers that you Weren't In America Anymore was an official looking character asking for your "papers": Those mysterious documents that people had to carry in those grim gray communiss countries behind the iron/bamboo curtain. They had papers; we had "freedom."

So, sometime soon, we'll all be carrying "real" IDs: No more slipping under the radar, no more living in the underworld. Unless you're "16 and SIN-Less", in which case you'll be invisible.

And so wouldn't be missed.

Spam-Whack: What Happens When You Cut Humans Out Of The Loop

For about 12 hours, I've been getting hit heavily by texas-holdem spam. This, coming just two days after "texas-holdem.rohkalby.net" "spam-whacked" (to coin a phrase) its way to a high position in the Daypop Top 40, one of the key indicators of memetic activity in the blogosphere. It didn't stay there more than a day, but it was there long enough for my 12-hour aggregation cycle on Daypop Top 40 to pick it up.

This wave of comment spam here (all caught by my filter, after the initial training) is conventional comment spam. But my hunch is that the "rohkalby.net" Daypop-whack was done with trackback. I just can't imagine it happening rapidly enough and in a widespread enough form to do so without the assistance of trackback auto-discovery.

BTW, I haven't found anybody actually mentioning this incident, which is very interesting to me. It meas, I think, that they either didn't notice, didn't understand the importance, or didn't want to admit the importance. Which is huge, because this would demonstrate two things -- one very important, the other merely interesting:

  1. The effectiveness of trackback spam is more or less entirely due to auto-discovery, which effectively automates the distribution of trackback spam. (The blogorati will underestimate the importance of this by observing snarkily that this could have been avoided by using nofollow. They're probably right, but the observation misses the point in a big way.)
  2. The merely interesting thing is that this helps to clarify who's responsible for the attractiveness of Trackback spam: Sixapart.

We can say safely that SixApart are responsible, by the way, because they initially invented trackback as a manual means of "giving juice" to someone else, and then failed to understand that it needed to stay manual. It was intended to be initiated by human action, not automated. But then they proceeded to automate it; that made trackback geometrically more attractive as a target for spam: It meant that spammers could potentially place themselves into the various automatically-compiled "top"-lists in a completely automated fashion (i.e., at cost to the spammer approaching zero). And with no legal consequences, to boot: They couldn't be prosecuted under email laws, because it wasn't email; they couldn't be charged with theft of service or hacking because -- and this is key -- the spamming was being carried out as a normal designed feature of the "exploited" systems, using their resources.

The great mystery isn't that it happened, but that it took so long to happen.

Shelley et al.'s "tagback" concept might profide a "fix" for this, of a very limited sort, but it still leaves us without trackback. Trackback was a very useful concept; it allowed people to create implicit webs of interest, one connection at a time and without central planning, and -- and this is really important -- without the mediation of a third party like Google or Technorati. And we all know that spammers will find a way to parasitize themselves onto tagback, as well.

And anyway, reliance on third parties for integration gives them power they should not be allowed to have. It's a bad design principle. Trackback, pre-autodiscovery, was a good simple piece of enabling technology. But it was mis-applied, quickly, with the encouragement of people who should have known better. And now it will be forgotten. Which is really, deeply stupid, when instead it could simply be re-invented without auto-discovery.

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