The Laboratorium
August 2002

Secrets of Survival

H2K2 was a while ago, but I just stumbled across some notes I jotted down during John Young's presentation. Young, aka "jya," runs Cryptome, one of the 'Net's great archives -- all stuff that someone, somewhere, doesn't want you to see.

Most of the presentation was unremarkable, but Young's trick to not getting shut down bears repeating. As he explained, Cryptome is never the only site hosting any given document. No one has a strong incentive to take Cryptome down, because doing so won't stop the bleeding. Young even hinted that there have been times when he has forwarded documents around before posting them, with precisely this goal in mind.

A few thoughts:

  • Lots of people understand this principle in the real world; comparatively few remember that it also applies online.
  • Single point of failure, dude. It's the same idea.
  • There may come a day when someone finds it worth taking Cryptome down, not to put a cat back in the bag, but as a public example . . .
  • I always thought it was pronounced "Crypto-me," but no, it's actually "Cryp-tome," which makes more sense.

The Coin In The Coal

I met a mine foreman who has a piece of coal with a 1909 gold sovereign embedded in it. I saw an ammonite, apparently squashed in the fossil footprint of a sandal. There is a room in the basement of the Natural History Museum which they keep locked. Among other oddities in there are the tyrannosaurus with a wristwatch and the Neanderthal skull with three gold fillings. What are you going to do about it?

-- Dr. Carl Untermond?

Who is Carl Untermond?

Terry Pratchett's Strata opens with the following quotation, attributed to Dr Carl Untermond's The Overcrowded Eden:

I met a mine foreman who has a piece of coal with a 1909 gold sovereign embedded in it. I saw an ammonite, apparently squashed in the fossil footprint of a sandal.

There is a room in the basement of the Natural History Museum which they keep locked. Among other oddities in there are the tyrannosaurus with a wristwatch and the Neanderthal skull with three gold fillings.

What are you going to do about it?

It's a lovely quotation, and wonderfully phrased. But -- ironically enough, given its implications -- I wonder about its provenance. The only extant references to Untermond or his book appear to be Pratchett and people quoting Pratchett. Does anyone have independent confirmation of Untermond's existence or better bibliographic details?

Down With First Class

I'm on a plane as I write this. Perhaps it's just that I'm seated directly in front of a loud child, but I'm feeling both tired and irritiable. My indigation has fixed itself on the curtain. You know, the drop cloth dividing first class from the prole bin.

My thesis is this: that curtain -- and perhaps even the whole notion of first class -- is a security risk. The hijackers of last September launched their assaults from first class, we've been told, where the seat density is low and the cockpit conveniently close. I have to wonder whether the curtain played a role in hiding their doings from the other passengers for those first few critical seconds. We've all been told by now that in case of a hijacking we're to throw shoes and forks (the forks are metal, the knives plastic, I've noted) at them. Yeah, well how are we supposed to do that exactly if they've established themselves in the first class fortress? Those bulkheads screen more than just our plebeian noises.

Why not stick first class at the back, where that defensible perimiter is less troubling? I know, I know, because then the rich bastards wouldn't be the first ones off of the plane. But this problem is easily solved: planes have rear doors.

Some Things Never Change

I went past my old apartment and noticed that a window was propped open with a ruler. It was, of course, the same window that I'd never been able to get to stay open.

Communism As Capitalism

It struck me today that in general, most communists are pretty good capitalists.

If you go back to even the most zealous of the capitalist theorists, the set of principles they espouse is not large. Solid property rights. Functioning markets. The rule of law. These are the basics, the essentials. And I think I'm not going out on a limb when I say that almost every communist takeover in the last century brought more of these things, not less.

One might say that this is because most countries taken over by indigenous communists in the past century were in such terrible shape beforehand that anything would have been an improvement. Cuba under Battista. Tsarist Russia. Warlord China.

But of course, this is the point. Whatever their ideological feelings about property and individualism, most of the century's communist revolutionaries were determined to have a fair social order, with the emphasis on order. They took over from regimes that were capitalist only in theory. Rampant corruption, runaway inflation, and ineffectual policing were serious problems, but but the first thing the communists would do on taking over a district -- even before redistributing the land -- would be to reestablish basic stability. No more shakedowns by the "police;" no more looting at night.

The results could be dramatic. Farmers unafraid of corrupt checkpoints and bandits are willing to sell their produce in the cities again; food prices drop back to reasonable levels, and suddenly everyone is eating reasonably well again. Friedrich Hayek would have been proud.

I don't think there's an ideological point here. Communists have proven adept at wrecking economies, given enough time, and also at rebuilding them magnificently. Fascists brought Germany out of economic ruins; plenty of post-colonial strongmen have managed to outlive their countries' hopes. There is no obvious pattern. These matters are perhaps less ideological than people want to think. Any formal system of government can be corrupt; any political theory can make the trains run on time. What matters is how much people trust their government to do right by them, how much they can hold it accountable -- and not whether that accountability comes from elections, workers' councils, or the threat of disobedience.

Marty Peretz Is An Idiot

Martin Peretz is not my favorite columnist. I sometimes wonder why I read his work. Much as going to the mall does, his columns only serve to make me mad at the idiocy found therein.

Last week in The New Republic, he had a rather predictable piece on Palestinian suicide bombers. Well, predictable in sentiment, but stunning in its wording. Palestinian terror tactics, he wrote, represent "'the banality of evil' in another era." The muffled thumping sound that followed, I assumed, was made by Hannah Arendt, turning over in her grave.

The problem here is that "the banality of evil" means something more than evil which has become routine through repetition . Instead, as Arendt used the phrase in Eichmann in Jerusalem, it referred to the inability of Eichmann and his colleagues to comprehend that their timetables and struggles for promotion hinged on the murder of millions. Adolf Eichmann trafficked in empty slogans whose meanings he never bothered to ponder; he befriended individual Jews and then left them to their deaths without ever connecting their fates to his own actions. He had no concept of moral cause and effect, no sense of scale, no real ability to understand anything beyond his own bureaucratic ambitions. A small man without imagination could be as much of a moral monster as a psychotic killer.

Say what you will about suicide bombers, but don't call their actions banal. They don't get up in the morning, drink their coffee and complain about the weather, then stop off for a quick round of blowing up Israeli civilians on their way to the country club. This form of self-destruction is a dire act; it grabs at the imagination in a vivid and frightening way. This is the point. If suicide bombing ever becomes banal, it will stop, and the masterminds will find something else evil and not at all banal to try. Kidnap and torture, maybe. Or something else desperate and dreadful.

So what a shock to see George Will -- also not my favorite columnist -- declaring that Eichmann would have approved of the suicide bombers' propagandists. Of course he wouldn't have. He'd have insisted that they could kill the Jews like nice civilized people, without all this noise and self-pity.

I don't know where these guys get their ideas, but someone must be feeding them this crap. For two conservative columnists to let slip in the same week that they slept through the lecture on Arendt, I think, something more than mere coincidence. I'll give a nice big Lab shout-out to anyone who can track down the Ur-idiocy that gave Peretz and Will their marching orders.

Taxi 2000

If we ever get "a personal rapid transit system of computer-controlled, three-passenger vehicles on slim guideways operating on-demand and nonstop direct to any station in the network," these are the people who'll bring it to us.


Militant Arab Muslims aren't the first to hate the "West." This article describes the common threads of Nazi anti-semitism, Russian pan-Slavism, Japanese mysticism, and fundamentalism of all flavors.

Corny Sunsets

"It is common for those who have glimpsed something beautiful to express regret at not having been able to photograph it. So successful has been the camera's role in beautifying the world that photgraphs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful. House-proud hosts may well pull out photographs of the place to show visitors how really splendid it is. We learn to see ourselves photographically: to regard oneself as attractive is, precisely, to judge that one would look good in a photograph. Photographs create the beautiful and -- over generations of picture-taking -- use it up. Certain glories of nature, for example, have been all but abandoned to the indefatigable attentions of amateur camera buffs. The image-surfeited are like to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs."

-- Susan Sontag


If Congress ever passes a bill calling for the stoning of stray cats, it will be called the Economic Growth and Welcoming Our Furry Friends to Heaven Act.

-- Robert Solow

Pinker On Science

But the history of science has not been kind to the simple intuitions of common sense, to put it mildly.

-- Stephen Pinker

Life Of The Common Law

The life of the common law has been in the unceasing abuse of its elementary ideas. If the rules of property give what now seems an unjust result, try obligation; and equity has proved that from the materials of obligation you can counterfeit almost all the phenomena of property. If the rules of contract give what now seems an unjust answer, try tort. Your counterfeit will look odd to one brought up on categories of Roman origin, but it will work. If the rules of one tort, say deceit, give what now seems an unjust answer, try another, try negligence. And so the legal world goes round. But it goes round slowly, too slowly for the violence with which the conceptual economy is transformed to be felt, too slowly, in periods of rapid social change, for the law to keep pace with life. In the sixteenth century the gap grew so wide that the system itself was perhaps in peril. In the twentieth we make use of legislation; and our familiarity with deliberate change makes it easy for us to misread history. How could our ancestors be so perverse in doing indirectly what could be done directly? How could they be so clever in using mere tricks to reach desirable results? Certainly if we view the common law on the eve of reform as a piece of social engineering, we see the spirit of Heath Robinson at his most extravagant. But the viewpoint is anachronistic and the questions unreal. It is a real question why nobody before Bentham was provoked, and a part of the answer is that nobody before Blackstone described the system as a whole. Lawyers have always been preoccupied with today's details, and have worked with their eyes down. The historian, if he is lucky, can see why a rule came into existence, what social or economic change left it working injustice, how it came to be evaded, how the evasion produced a new rule, and sometimes how that new rule in its turn came to be overtaken by change. But he misunderstands it all if he endows the lawyers who took part with vision on any comparable scale, or attributes to them any intention beyond the winning of today's case.

-- S.F.C. Milsom

Literally Definition

Literally, adv, In a literal (i.e. 'avoiding exaggeration, metaphor, or embellishment') sense. Contrast figuratively, meaning, "based on or making use of figures of speech." Elementary-school teachers have been emphasizing this distinction for generations. Unfortunately for elementary-school teachers, using "literally" to tag a hyperbolic figure of speech makes the surface meaning of the sentence even more extreme, which is the point of hyperbole in the first place. Ironically enough, this rhetorical tendency to use "literally" even when it is not literally appropriate has been causing the word to lose its literal meaning.

The Regime Fairy

Since Dubya and his Magic Elves are, apparently, of the opinion that Iraq is just itching to be invaded, our government has now embarked upon a great sham debate on the subect. I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb in predicting that the conclusion of this debate will be something along the lines of "yup, they're itching, all right."

Unfortunately for the Magic Elves, there's one basic problem with most of the with most of the alleged justifications for going into Iraq: most of these justifications would also support the proposition that the rest of the world ought to support an Iraqi invasion of the United States.

After all, we're talking about a nation that has invaded all of its near neighbors. (1) It has the largest army in the world, and far and away the largest military budget. It's staged attacks on itself for the sole purpose of creating a pretext for war (see above). And once in a war, the United States is brutral: this is the nation that developed strategic bombing of cities (viz. civilians), and the one that brought you the atomic bomb.

Ah, yes. Weapons of mass destruction, one of the favorits of the anti-Iraq lobby. Of course, America is the world leader in developing nuclear weapons and the undisputed champion in using them. We're also the world leader in biological and chemical weapons research. Juding from recent evidence, it also looks like discriminating bioterrorists buy American when shopping for top-quality spores. How were these cruel beauties developed? In some cases, through field tests on unsuspecting American citizens.

Now, the United States does technically get a pass on the related charge of importing major arms, as the Iraqis have been doing (or trying to) for years. But this is only because we make all sorts of neat weapons ourselves, and already have all we need. In fact, given that every import necessarily implies an equal and opposite export, this whole line of argument is problematic. The US, after all, is the largest supplier of arms to the world (most years, that is; Russia beat us in 2001, but much of that was in one-time sales, and I suspect accounting tricks).

America also exports those who use the weapons. The School for Torturers in Georgia is particularly notorious, but the U.S. is also quite generous about sending our people over to lead on-site seminars in assassination, coups, and other poltiical party tricks. Distinguishing the good clean fun the CIA has overseas from the terrorism we'd like to pin on the Hussein regime is a tricky one. One typical claim is that much of the mayhem we underwrite is carried out by other governments within their own borders and is therefore legitimate. But this makes these actions different from Bad repression, Taliban-style, precisely how?

Cooperation with the international community? That's usually a good test for rogue states. We get by this one with a squeak, but mostly because we're powerful enough to keep international bodies from condemming us outright. You get that with your Security Council veto. Now Iraq has gotten itself slapped down, and justly so, for defying UN resolutions on arms inspections, but when you run down the list of issues on which the US has stood up to, essentially, the entire rest of the world, it's enough to make your hair stand on end. Environmental treaties. War crimes statutes and conventions on the treatment of combattants. Human rights resolutions left and right. The free-trade straitjackets we force smaller nations into. The International Criminal Court and anyone else who might ever try to hold us accountable.

Ill-treatment of foreign nationals is another favorite supposed indicator of national evil. Just to take one example, Afghanistan, back in the bad old days of a year ago, was taking flak over its prosecution of some foreign missionaries. That picture of Saddam Hussein (2) mussing the hair of one of his British "guests" during the early standoff after his invasion of Kuwait is one of the more chilling memories I retain from the Gulf War. But still, countries who run detention camps on "foreign" soil so they can keep the press, international observers, and, most importantly, the courts (3), far away should perhaps not cast the first stone.

I think we come out ahead on treatment of our own citizens. Not clean, but at least ahead. We have the death penalty and we use it capriciously; human rights groups regularly point out serious deficiencies in our alleged "system" of justice. Not a cause for pride, no, but still, by no stretch of the imagination is the United States a military dictatorship that regularly conducts massive purges. Plenty of our "friends" have been, though; I can think of one on every continent save Antarctica.

Economically, things are muddy. The effects of sanctions and repression on Iraq are near-impossible to untangle at this point, so even changes in absolute standards of living aren't useful measures. The United States has a much weaker prima facie claim to superior financial integrity than it did even a few months ago; just open to the business section to understand why. And the corruption indicator has some unfortunate readings right now; we've just had a congressman sent to prison for taking bribes, another one who looks like he's getting off easy, and an administration that steadfastly refuses to disclose its own past financial dealings.

And when you come back to the basic question about any government -- is this regime legitimate? -- once again, you have to wonder if we're maybe witnessing a giant act of projection. Yes, it was all legal in the sense that the Supreme Court spoke and lo! it was so, but the only purely formal difference from the banana republic way of doing things may well be that no one took up arms in the aftermath. This peacefulness is a characteristic of a society and not a regime; Al Gore didn't think it was worth fighting, and neither did the rest of us. We let small things slide, even for some quite large values of "small." The point? Legitimacy is contextual (4), and any claim that the Ba'ath government of Iraq is illegitimate probably really turns on some other ugly feature of their rule. Of which, as we've been observing, there is no shortage, neither in Iraq nor elsewhere.

So what makes this dictator different from all other dictators? Why is this one sooo special that people are working very hard figuring out exactly how to take him down, at great cost and great risk? Take even the amount of money involved, the billions on billions. Just thinking in terms of bribes, that's a hell of a lot of influence. Thinking more positively, if we were that serious (in dollar terms, perhaps the most useful terms in which to measure the gravity of political intent) about helping Afghanistan rebuild, maybe Afghans wouldn't be taking potshots at their president quite so often. Maybe, just maybe, we wouldn't be having such a hard time lining up allies. And wouldn't that be a fresh way of dealing with international problems?

As a rule, I'm skeptical of send-the-Marines solutions. Gunboat regime changes, almost tautologically, involve serious bloodshed. They create instability. They do all sorts of terrible collateral damage to a country and its hopes for the future. They eat into a country's built-up reserves trust. And they set up a newly disappointed and resentful opposition that will forever remember its disgraceful exit from power and dream about returning in a similar fashion. But this is hardly the same as saying that it would be a bad thing if Marvin K. Mooney were to go.

No one really needs to be convinced Saddam that deserves to be tossed out on his ear. We know that already; we've all seen the South Park movie; it's fawking obvious that Hussein is a classic nogoodnik. After this many years, formal recitations of his offenses are superflux. I'm deeply concerned about all the ways in which ham-handed attempts to do something about him might suck, but I don't have much against the idea of a regime change per se.

So while I have my doubts about the Magic Elves' proposals, I wouldn't turn down an offer from the Regime Fairy (5). In fact -- and see the discussion above -- if you could change Iraq's malign government for a better one with the wave of a wand, I'd have another question for you.

Please sir, may we have a regime change too?

(1) Mexico is holds the dubious honor of "most often invaded by the United States;" we've gone across the border on thirteen separate occasions. Panama is close behind at twelve; Nicaragua takes the bronze with eleven. We've been into Cuba and Honduras seven times each, five times into the Dominican Republic and four into Colombia. Argentina has been our host three times, Uruguay and Haiti twice apiece. We've also invaded Paraguay, Chile, Brazil, Grenada (remember Granada?), Bolivia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Peru, and Canada (once in the War of 1812, and once in the little-remembered Aroostook War). Don't believe me? Ask the Navy.

(2) I couldn't find it, but here's his astral chart instead:

(3) U.S. courts have refused to take cases from the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay because the Justice Department has successfully argued that U.S. courts lack jurisdiction over foreign territory and Gitmo is still, technically, under Cuban sovereignty. Which strikes me as just the biggest can of worms ever.

(4) Take Algeria. FIS, an Islamic party, won the parliamentary elections in 1991; the military immediately staged a coup with the not entirely implausible claim that the FIS itself was anti-democratic and determined to set up a theocracy. Legitimate? Illegitimate? There are defensible claims each way.

(5) You know. Like the Tooth Fairy.