Saturday, August 25, 2018

Critical Path

Why is John Kerry going down to Antarctica just a week after the election to discuss climate change and then you have energy beams coming out of Antarctica splitting hurricanes?
-- Owen Shroyer, Infowars

We are under attack.

America is under attack.

From weather weapons and energy beams wielded by John Kerry, if you believe Alex Jones.

It’s true. Quite literally. But not in the manner described by hysterical conspiracy theorists. And nothing so simple or as silly or as easily countered.

America is under attack. It’s true. We are under attack in a war that very few Americans, most especially including those in charge, or those pushing conspiracies, understand. Worse, it’s not just that we don’t understand this war, it’s that so very many Americans are not even capable of understanding this conflict.

And thus America is ill-equipped to fight off this assault.


A study published today in Research and Practice, describes how Russian operators have weaponized health communication.

Specifically the authors, David A. Broniatowski, PhD; Amelia M. Jamison, MAA, MPH; SiHua Qi, SM; Lulwah AlKulaib, SM; Tao Chen, PhD; Adrian Benton, MS; Sandra C. Quinn, PhD; and Mark Dredze, PhD, show how information warfare pushed by social media automation (i.e. "bots) and directed by troll accounts, can use wedge issues like the conspiracy theories surrounding vaccinations to sow measurable chaos and division in the American population.

I have some significant experience in this field.

This is what I used to do for a living.

In the beginning I was a technical cryptologist. A codebreaker specializing in electronic signals. Back in those ancient days of the early 1980s, the world was a very different place.  As now, America faced myriad threats, but most of those took a backseat to the Soviet Union.

Over the years, the politics and the enemies changed, the tools evolved, but for most of the 20th Century intelligence work remained pretty much the same.

All that changed in the last 20 years.

And the most profound change in intelligence work is volume. Volume of information.

You see, back when I first joined the Intelligence world, bandwidth was a scarce commodity. Communication channels from out on the pointy end of the stick where I was back to certain three-letter agencies in Washington – and then on to the decision-makers and perhaps the public – was limited.

Extremely limited.

Limited in a fashion most of you who are reading this from your smartphones are unlikely to understand.

Let me give you an example: We often reported via encrypted satellite text-based messaging systems that operated at 75 baud. 

No, that’s not a typo. 75 baud.

What’s a baud?


Unless you’ve worked with old electronic communications systems, you’re likely unfamiliar with that term, baud. It’s a measurement of information rate, a unit of transmission speed that describes signal state changes per second in an analog shift-key teletype system.


Right. Huh indeed.

Let me put it in modern terms: a baud is equivalent to one bit per second.

You, of course, looking at your 4G smartphone, you are much more familiar with megabits or even gigabits per second. Millions, billions, of bits of information per second. Every second.

But back in day, information moved at a much slower rate.

Depending on the character-set/encoding system used, it takes anywhere from 5 bits (Baudot code) to 21 bits (Unicode) to make one character, i.e. a letter or number or other special character such as a period or question mark. The very symbols you are reading right now. Back then, our systems generally used 8-bit character sets (ASCII). Meaning that it took eight state changes, eight bauds, to send one character. Now, if you’re running at 75 baud, each bit (the smallest unit of information in the system) is then 13.3 milliseconds in length, or about 13 one-thousandths of a second to transmit. Multiply that times eight and you find that it takes a little over a tenth of a second to transmit one character – and in practicality, longer, because we were pushing those bits through high-level encryption systems, and through multiple levels of bi-directional transmission error-checking.

Now, what all that technical gibberish means in practical terms is that sending data was slow.

Very slow.

In the amount it took to send one character back then, you could have reloaded this webpage on your smartphone half a dozen times over.  Or more.

In the last decade of the 20th Century, and the first two decades of this one, communication speed and the amount of data that we can send reliably – even from a satellite cell phone in the warzone, far out on the pointy end of the stick – has increased by several orders of magnitude, i.e. hundreds of thousands of times. In some cases, millions.


Volume of information.

And that’s not necessarily a good thing. Not when it comes to quality and reliability of information.

Not when it comes to fact and truth.

You see, back in the day, every bit was precious. So, when we gathered information, sometimes at great risk to ourselves, that raw intelligence was examined on site by analysts, specialists in that particular target. If it was deemed worthy of further examination, then it was formatted into electronic reports. And those reports had a very specific structure, they were very lean, using only the characters necessary to relay the information and no more. Before the reports were transmitted, they were examined by a very experienced senior NCO – who was typically also an analyst.  Then, in many cases, the information was checked one final time by an officer. The report was sent up-echelon to a regional processing center, where it was again examined by a team of analysts and  combined with other information (a process that was in those days known as “fusion”), and then that report was examined at multiple levels and forwarded up the chain of command to one of those aforementioned three-letter agencies back in Washington, where it was combined with yet more information and turned into national intelligence assessments for those in the White House and Congress.

We had plenty of people, what we didn’t have was bandwidth and computing power.

So, it was imperative that every bit sent was as accurate and as reliable as possible, so as to make the absolute best use of our resources.

And the side effect of this painstaking process was that the final intelligence product was of very high quality and presented to the president by those were very, very familiar with the targets and who specialized in explaining this information to politicians in a fashion they could understand.

Now, don’t get me wrong here, how that information was interpreted and used by politicians at the top end of the chain of command is a different matter – and likewise when that information was declassified (in some cases) and pushed out to the general public. And it wasn’t just the intelligence community, news organizations labored under those same technological restrictions and the same biased-interpretation by the politicians and the public. Which had similar impact on the information they presented and how it entered the public consciousness.

That said, the information that arrived at the consumer was often as accurate and as reliable as is humanly possible.

All of that changed with the advent of dramatically increased bandwidth and processing power.

Over the last few decades the information cycle has become highly compressed, increasingly so.

And as the volume of raw information increases exponentially, at the same time the ability of both the news media and the intelligence community to analyze it and filter out the noise has dramatically decreased.

It has become utterly impossible to examine each piece of information in the detail we once did.

And as such, it is utterly impossible to ensure the quality and reliability and accuracy of that information.

Now, here’s the important part, so pay attention: Our society, both the decision-makers who run it and the citizens who daily live in it, is habituated to having information processed, analyzed, and presented in a fashion where they can have reasonable confidence in that information.

And that information thus directly shapes our worldview.

Up until recently, the average politician, the average citizen, didn’t have to be an information analyst, didn’t have to have critical information processing skills, because the information system for the most part did that on the front end. The consumer very rarely received raw information about the world outside of their own immediate sphere of observation.

Almost everything you knew about the greater world was filtered through information processing systems by experts.

That is no longer true in any fashion.

And yet, we operate as if it still is.

You can see this most clearly in the older generation, many of which still believe that “they couldn’t print it if it wasn’t true.”

This is bad enough in the general population, but it is a disaster of unmeasurable scale when government, and society itself, begins to operate on this unstable foundation.

The massive increase in information volume means that all of us are daily bombarded with a firehose of raw information, unprocessed, unfiltered.

And the vast, vast majority of you are ill-equipped to handle this in any fashion.

Most of the world lacks the training, the tools, and the support to filter bad information from good, to determine the validity of intelligence. And so, increasingly, we live in a world of malleable reality, one where politicians and media personalities tell you with a straight face “truths are not truths” and “there are facts and alternative facts.”

This problem became millions of times worse with the advent of social media.

And this situation, this world of alternative facts and shifting truth and bottomless raw unfiltered information piped directly into the minds of the population without  error-checking and expert interpretation creates new and unique vulnerabilities that can be exploited on a massive, global, scale in a fashion that has never been done before.

Information warfare.

More powerful, more far-reaching, more scalable, more destructive to the very fabric of our society than any nuclear bomb.

This form of warfare is incredibly powerful, far more so than any other weapon – because it reaches directly into your mind and shapes how you see the world.

Information warfare is infinitely scalable, it can target a single individual, or the entire global population, it can target a single decision-maker, a government, a population, or alter the course of history.

For example: The president of this country watches a certain news/talk/infotainment show. Every day. Without fail. And that show, the information presented there, directly shapes how he sees the world. You can watch this happen daily in real-time. Those who control that show, have direct and immediate influence on the president, and thus on the country, and thus on a global scale. It is an astounding national security vulnerability. One our enemies are well, well aware of and a vulnerability that our own counter-intelligence people cannot plug due to the very nature of their own Commander-in-Chief.

This is unprecedented in our history.

Over time, Information Warfare has had many names and been implemented in many, many ways – sometimes hilariously unsuccessful, sometimes horrifyingly effective, often somewhere in between. Deception warfare, communications warfare, electronic warfare, psychological warfare, perception management, information operations, active measures, marketing, whatever you call it, this form of weaponized intelligence really came into its own with the advent of social media and the 24/7 news cycle. 

And unlike conventional weapons, information warfare can be wielded by a handful of operators, working from a modest office with no more infrastructure than a smartphone and a social media account.

Weaponized information.

Active measures.

This was my specialty.  Over time, as the intelligence community changed, as technology evolved, my own career changed with it, I went from being a junior technician specializing in electronic signals to an information warfare officer, one of the first in my field to be specifically designated as such. And one of the first to go to war specifically as such. Now I'm not going to discuss the details of my own military career any further, because those specifics are still highly classified. Suffice it to say, this is a field with which I am intimately familiar. And one at which I was very, very good. 

And from that experience, I will tell you this:

An educated population trained from early age in critical thinking, whose worldview is based on fact, validated evidence, and science, is the single strongest defense – the only true defense -- against this form of assault.

But, we don’t live in that world.

We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. And we lack that defense, deliberately so. Because just as our own enemies benefit from an population incapable of critical thought, so do those who seek political power within our own nation.

A population skilled in critical thought is the best defense against information warfare waged by our enemies, but it is also the best defense against tyranny, against the corruption of political and religious power.

But, again, we don’t live in that world.

And as such, given the state of America, the anti-vaxxer conspiracy theory was an easy target.

It's not the only one, or the easiest one, or the wedge issue most vulnerable to manipulation, or the one most likely to be pushed from a low-grade irritant into a full-on pitched battle among the population and thus one that directly influences the decision-makers in charge of our government.

It is simply an easy target. One of many. Low hanging fruit. An obvious point of exploitation.

It’s not the conspiracy theory itself that is the point of vulnerability, it’s the conditions, the worldview, that lead to such persistently wrong-headed beliefs.

You see, it is religious nuts, the fanatical partisan, conspiracy theorists, the uneducated, the deliberately ignorant and the purposely contrarily obtuse who are the perfect targets for Information Warfare.


These are the perfect suckers, easily manipulated and turned into unwitting tools of the enemy.

All you have to do is tell them what they want to hear.

And in America’s case, this target is uniquely vulnerable, uniquely fertile, because they have been conditioned by centuries of first religious nonsense given equal footing with science and then decades of conspiracy theory “infotainment” media treated as fact for profit.

If you want to know how we got here, all you have to do is look for the “Infowars” bumper-sticker proudly and unashamedly displayed on the car ahead of you in traffic or listen to the holy man who tells you that despite all scientific evidence to the contrary the earth is but 6000 years old and two of every kind of animal lived within walking distance of Noah’s house.


It’s not just Alex Jones.

Or Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or Michael Savage and all the others who sell conspiracy theory as fact.

It’s not just Jerry Falwell and Ken Hamm and Joel Osteen and all the other holy joes who push their religious fraud as truth.

It’s not just the politicians who lie to you every day for their own profit and power.

It’s a population that utterly lacks the ability to process information in any reliable fashion, lacks intellectual rigor, lacks intellectual curiosity, and worse, lacks any desire to acquire such.

This is the population described by Orwell in his novel 1984.

Truth is not truth.

Understand something here, those on the other side, the operators working for Russia, they don't really care one way or the other if you vaccinate your kids.

Not really

Although an unvaccinated population is vulnerable to other kinds of warfare as well, and if campaigns like this one increase that vulnerability, well, then Russia gets more bang for its ruble and its biological weapons become just that more effective. In the military, we call this a force multiplier.

The goal here is division, to sow discord in the target population, start a fight in the target country and keep that fight going, break down unity, create distrust at all levels of the target society.

This particular point of attack is one of hundreds.

If you watch social media for this sort of thing, you very quickly see dozens of other points of vulnerability in the population. And if you go looking, and you know what to look for, you very quickly find evidence of similar manipulation on those fronts.

Information Warfare can, and is, used as a primary warfare area, as powerful or more so than any bomb. I've done it myself in combat. But when used in this manner, as the Russians are using it against us right now, it is a warfare support function. An enhancer. A force multiplier, one that makes other weapons, both kinetic and political, work better.

You don't need to hack election machines, if you can hack the voter.

You don't need to hack democracy if you can hack the citizen.

You don't need to physically destroy the United States if you can make Americans distrust the fundamental institutions of their own republic.

If you show that the election machines are vulnerable before the election and you do so in a manner that is purposely detectable – that you know will be detected and thus reported hysterically to the population by the target’s own media -- then you don't have to hack the actual elections themselves.

You only have to show that you can.

Couple that to amplification of voter disenfranchisement, enhanced by the aforementioned division, and you directly influence the population into believing that democracy cannot be trusted. That the fundamental fabric of the Republic is unsound. And the voters will stay home, or vote in a manner that creates division, or will not trust any results of the election and thus be prone to riot and protest and resistance against the resulting government.

You don’t have to destroy America, when Americans are willing to do it for you.

Now, the most effective countermeasure in this particular example should be obvious.

Secure the election.

By whatever means necessary secure the election, paper ballots, secure isolated non-networked machines, validated public audits, whatever methodology of validation and integrity is most provable to the population.

Instead of closing voting stations, open more. Get citizens to polls. Make it easier for the population to vote, not harder.

End by law those institutions which disenfranchise voters, i.e. gerrymandering, certain types of primaries, and so on.

In other words, do what is necessary to demonstrate to all citizens that the fundamental institution of the Republic is sound and that democracy can be trusted and that their vote counts.

Or course, the only way to do that is to actually make democracy trustworthy and make every vote count.

Instead, ironically, those in charge have done exactly the opposite.


Because this is the natural tendency of those in power.

And that tendency, that weakness of our republic, is precisely the vulnerability this line of attack is designed to exploit.

Russian information warfare didn't create this vulnerability, it simply takes advantage of it so long as we do nothing to counter it.

This particular attack, the one outlined in the study linked to above, is insignificant when looked at in isolation. It is simply a target of opportunity. One of many. But when looked at as part of the larger whole, it is an assault in a much larger and far more significant war. One that we are losing.

Russia doesn't have to destroy America with bombs and missiles.

All they have to do is make us weaker and weaker while they grow stronger.

All they have to do is exploit the vulnerabilities we give them.

All they have to do is take advantage of the deliberately ignorant and the gleefully stupid.

History will do the rest.

And there is no greater student of history than a Russian like Vladimir Putin.

Information is not knowledge.
-- Albert Einstein

Friday, August 10, 2018

Zero Sum

Tradition has it that whenever a group of people has tasted the lovely fruits of wealth, security, and prestige, it begins to find it more comfortable to believe in the obvious lie and accept that it alone is entitled to privilege.
-- Bantu Stephen Biko, South African anti-apartheid activist


And we've circled back 'round to this.

He’s so predictable. This is Trump’s go-to move when he’s cornered or stressed or feeling unloved.

This is Trump’s fan-tribute. Like those songs fading music groups do, a closing feel-good number, with lyrics of tired clich├ęs about roadies and the cheap seats and hotel rooms and the lonely road and how it’s all worth it when they get up on the stage and see the faces of the fans. You people, you’re why we do it. And the fans cheer. It’s us! Us! Oh, they’re singing about us! They love us! And the easy applause swells over the music. And a bunch of old has-beens get to feel like they did back in the days when they filled stadiums with a 100,000 fans. Listen to ‘em cheer. We still got it.

That’s what this is.

Trump’s feeling down, feeling blue, feelin’ old and unloved.

So he throws this out. Those darn black people. Always with the protesting. Why, they don’t even know what they’re mad about! The fans, man, the poor football fans. You people go to the game for fun and these ungrateful types wanna protest? They’re practically stealing from you, what with all the money it costs you for the tickets. Why can’t they just be cool? Just be happy? Look at all that money they’re making! You, White People, you’re the real victims here.

Easy cheers.

Easy applause.

Oh, he’s talking about us! He’s loves us! And the crowd cheers. And it makes him feel good. Important. Loved. Righteous. He’s still got it.

The NFL players are at it again - taking a knee when they should be standing proudly for the National Anthem. Numerous players, from different teams, wanted to show their “outrage” at something that most of them are unable to define. They make a fortune doing what they love. Be happy, be cool! A football game, that fans are paying soooo much money to watch and enjoy, is no place to protest. Most of that money goes to the players anyway. Find another way to protest. Stand proudly for your National Anthem or be Suspended Without Pay!

Take that apart though.

Look at what he’s actually saying.

"unable to define"

Woof woof! There’s a dog whistle for you.

There it is, right there. Unable to define. That's what he said.

Numerous players (i.e. black players)…

…want to show their "outrage" (in quote marks, to delineate that their concerns are fake. Not valid. Not real. Not like white people’s outrage, not like his own supporters’ rage. Black people, you see, they don’t feel things like you and I do, they don’t love their own kids, their families, their friends, their community or nation, not like we do. That’s what the plantation owners used to say when they sold off black children to other slavers. They’re not like us. That’s why their outrage is in quotes, because it’s not like ours)…

…at something most of them are unable to define (they don’t even know what they’re mad at, man! Silly negroes).

There it is.

Right there.

Right. There.

The whitest of white privilege.

Their outrage, it's not real! Why, they don't even know what they're mad about! I mean, look at how well off they are, what are they complaining about anyway?

That ignorance, that attitude, that dismissal, that is exactly what those players are protesting. The centuries of bigotry and racism and oppression that leads directly to that privileged blindness, that right there. That’s the thing. That’s the root of it. That’s the very essence, right there.

Talk about irony.

You could describe every Trump supporter at every Trump rally in the same manner, only you'd actually be accurate instead of wrong.

These white conservatives, they're all mad, pissed off, they have no idea why and they don't care. Pissed off is an identity, the identity, of modern conservatives. They're always mad about something, always certain they are being attacked, diminished, made lesser somehow, under assault, being invaded and violated. 

It’s who they are.

Trump says unemployment is the lowest in history? The only jobs that are unfilled are the ones nobody wants? They're still mad about jobs. Immigrants, yeah, they’re taking our jobs! Those filthy bastards!

Trump tells you the GDP is the highest in history, the economy is booming like never before, the stock market is at an all time high, taxes are low, wages are up and companies are handing out bonuses! That’s what he says. His supporters are mad. They’re taking our money! Impose those tariffs! It’s those bad trade deals! Screw Europe! Screw China! They’re bleeding us dry, man! It’s so unfair! So unfair!

The vast majority of the country is of their religion. We've never had a president who wasn't a Christian. Members of our government loudly declare their faith every day, publicly, from their government offices while in the performance of their government jobs. They don’t have to hide it, they’re proud of their faith, they shove it in your face, they brag about it. Christian prayers are offered up at every public event, every government function, sporting contests, and flood dozens of TV channels and hundreds radio stations across the country. The various fetishes of that religion are on every corner, crosses sprout like weeds, and the symbols of Christianity are displayed openly and proudly by its adherents. Christianity rakes in billions, tax free, and builds itself massive monuments of gold and steel ten stories high. Our religious holidays are Christian holidays. Still, they're mad, our religion is under attack! We’re oppressed, persecuted, they angrily shout!

They’re white and Christian and straight, this entire country is built around them. They have never, not once walked into a place and wondered if they’ll be served or asked to leave instead, if they’ll get refused a room, or a loan, or a decent education. They don’t have to straighten their hair or worry if they sound “American” enough. And every national hero, every Hollywood star, looks just like them.  They never have to fear if their kids will get shot down on the street because some cop confused a toy for a gun. They never have to worry if they’ll be thrown in jail for “resisting arrest” when they’re pulled over for no reason. Nobody is demanding that they show a picture ID to vote – and then closing down DMV offices in their neighborhoods to make it impossible to get that ID. No one is purging them from voter records. Nobody calls the police on them when they have a barbeque in the park, or their kids set up a lemonade stand, or they’re waiting for a friend in a coffee shop, or if they fall asleep in their dorm’s study room, or they’re a fireman trying to save lives and property, or they’re a 12-year-old kid running a lawn mowing business. They never had to march for their civil rights, for freedom, for justice. They get a boost, an advantage, in everything, every single facet of our society, just for being who they are. And yet they’re still mad, Trump tells them that they are oppressed and put upon and they believe it. They’re mad. Angry at the idea that somebody else, somebody not like them, should get that same privilege.

Hey, don’t take my word for it.

Go to to a Trump rally. Listen to his speeches. Look at his actions. That’s how he got elected. That’s exactly what he tells his supporters. You’re the victims. “They” are taking your money, your jobs, your religion, your freedom, and your country away from you. I’m gonna give it back to you. That was his whole campaign. Take back America for real Americans, right? Real Americans just like them.

But the people who are actually oppressed?

The Americans who daily face actual discrimination and disadvantage?

The refugees desperately fleeing actual horror and persecution? Screw ‘em.

He’s got nothing but contempt for them.

He’s got nothing but dismissal.

…wanted to show their “outrage” at something that most of them are unable to define.

Woof woof.

Those players who take a knee, they have articulated the reasons for their protest at length. Repeatedly. Over and over.

They’ve written hundreds of thousands of words on the subject.

They’ve given hundreds of interviews.

They’ve spoken out in every venue this country has.

The reason for their protest, for their statement, has been detailed in every major paper in this country, and on nearly every major media channel.

If you don’t know why they take a knee, if Trump doesn’t know by now, well then it’s because you refuse to listen.

If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."
-- Lyndon Johnson, 36th President of the United States of America

What really confuses Trump is the money.

They make a fortune doing what they love. Be happy, be cool!

You're making money, so what's the problem?

You’re getting paid. So why are you bellyaching about stuff? Be cool, man!

People protest police abuse? What’s the problem? The GDP is at an all time high! Be Happy!

Nazis on the march in America’s cities? What are you complaining about? The stock market is roaring!

Why do you care about black men being shot down in the street? What’s that to you? You’re rich, man!

Other people denied their civil rights and due process? Injustice? Inequality? Racism? Violence and oppression? So what? Business profits are great! If you're making money, what do you have to complain about? To hell with everybody else, you’re making money, right? You’re rich, aren't you? So what’s the problem?

Because Trump and conservatives like him can't conceive of anything more important than money.

This is Trump. This is Trump every day, you’re making money, man, what’s the problem?

No matter how many times Colin Kaepernick explained himself, no matter how many interviews Malcolm Jenkins gives, no matter how many times the players explain the reasons for their protest, no matter how detailed, no matter how specific, Trump can't hear it. He won't hear it. Because he simply cannot fathom putting the welfare of others over money.

This is the philosophy of modern conservatism: I got mine, fuck you.

This is the core of their horrible selfish religion: I'm saved, you can burn in hell.

You’ve heard me say this many times before: It’s not heaven if everybody gets to go.  The best part about Conservative Heaven isn’t being up there with Jesus, no, it’s gloating at the poor saps burning forever down below. Ha ha HAH. We’re Saved, fuck you, losers! And that horrible selfish religion shapes everything else. We got ours, our healthcare, our food, our clean water, our homes, our jobs, our retirement, our stock options, our savings, our opportunity, our salvation, so fuck you. The best part of America is that everybody doesn’t get to go. There’s no point in privilege if everybody is privileged. You can’t think of yourself as exceptional if everybody is exceptional. There’s no point in being rich if everybody else is rich too. They see liberty and justice and freedom as a zero sum game. If others get more, they are somehow diminished, lessened, cheated of their exalted status and made average.

This is how Trump and his supporters think. You've got yours, why are you protesting? Fuck them, you got yours!

This is the very core of modern Republicanism where everything is for profit, prisons, healthcare, education, religion, civil rights, equality, justice, liberty, all of it for money. And so long as you get yours, well, then to hell with everybody else because there’s not enough to go around and heaven isn’t heaven if everybody gets to go.

These people are almost literally the rich sons of bitches who rowed away from the Titanic in half empty lifeboats as 1500 people drowned in freezing water behind them. Fuck you, losers! I got mine.

This literally defines the very platform of the Republican Party. It’s become their entire ideology, from civil rights to foreign policy, fuck you, so long as I got mine.

And if you didn’t get yours, well, that’s your fault. If the playing field isn’t level, if society is rigged against you, if others are working night and day to marginalize you, too bad, that’s your fault, loser. If you worked your whole life, you saved and you sacrificed, and then one day a bunch of rich assholes implode the economy and they wipe out your savings, your kid’s college fund, your retirement, your job, your home, everything, well, too bad for you, Loser. You should have planned better, you should have worked harder. You should have been born privileged. Pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps, and then pulled the ladder up after yourself.

This ideology, this religion, is nothing but selfishness. It’s a complete lack of empathy shamelessly writ large.

It’s Trump’s go-to move, his fan tribute, because it always gets a cheer from the suckers.

And the more things change, well, you know the rest…

Leadership is a privilege to better the lives of others. It is not an opportunity to satisfy personal greed.”
-- Mwai Kibaki, 3rd President of Kenya

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Donation Drive and Giveaway

As previously noted, every once in a while I have to ask for money.

Also, as previously noted, I don’t like doing this. But it is a necessary part of this business model.

Also, as previously noted, some people are deeply, deeply offended by this. Yes, they are, and they write me hatemail to tell me all about it or attack me on social media over it. However, despite the sneering criticism of certain vocal critics, it is possible for a writer to make a reasonably decent living this way. It’s not easy, and I wish there was another way to go about it, but an independent political writer can make a living this way.

Yes, writer.

Writer. Blogger. Essayist. Social media “influencer.” Whatever you want to call it. Eight hours a day, I put words together. I never intended this to become a profession. Well, I mean, I did, but not this. Not this way. See, I always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a kid. My grandmother used to hand out books at Christmas and when I was about seven or so, she gave me a copy of The Hardy Boys #8, The Mystery of Cabin Island. I’d always loved words, and my mom used to read to me when I was little, Bolivar Shagnasty, Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel, Go Dog Go! I loved the pictures and the stories, but I’d never been much of a reader before The Mystery of Cabin Island. That book changed everything for me. I became a voracious reader. I read everything – particularly once I discovered this thing called a library where you could go and they’d just let you borrow whatever books you wanted. The Hardy Boys. Nancy Drew. The Bobbsey Twins. Adventure novels. Historical fiction. Ghost stories. And then one day on the way to the checkout desk I passed a rack of paperbacks. Ragged. Dog eared. Lurid. And right in the middle was this weird purple cover with this weird machine and a bunch of strange people kind of doing something around it, dancing? Working? Praying? I dunno. It was “Farmer in the Sky” by some character named Robert Heinlein. I knew that name. He wrote stories for Boys Life and as a scout I had a subscription. I picked it up and added to the pile and the librarian said, “you don’t want that.” Yeah, right, lady. She did eventually let me check it out and I discovered science fiction and whole new worlds opened up for me. The second science fiction book I ever read was Robert Silverberg’s “Time of the Great Freeze” and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’d sit in class and dream about it, about a world in the grip of new ice age, about atomic cities under miles of glacier ice, men fighting their way from New York to London over thousands of miles of frozen sea. That story was, man, hell, I still think about it five decades later. Goddamn, science fiction grabbed my imagination like nothing else.

I never met Heinlein, but many, many years later I met Bob Silverberg. I shared a stage with him, in fact, the Hugo awards at the World Science Fiction convention. I got to talk to him afterwards. It was like talking to Walt Disney or Mark Twain, the people who created the dreams of your childhood. You have no idea what that meant to me. See, way back when, some time not too long after I discovered books, I suddenly realized that there was a whole class of people, somewhere, who wrote those things. People who were paid to daydream, to think up stories, put words together. They didn’t get yelled at and told to pay attention in class. They got paid for it (not a lot, as it turns out, but something anyway). Writers.

Other kids dreamed of being cops or firemen or doctors or astronauts. A writer though, well, a writer is all of those things and everything else. Adventurer. Actor. Teacher. Warrior. Pilot. Passenger. Spaceman. Sailor. Scientist. Citizen. Villain. Hero. Whatever their imagination can dream up.


People did that.

And that’s what I wanted to be.

I mean, I already had the daydreaming part down, how hard could the rest of it be, right?

Now, it used to be “writer” was defined as somebody who assembled words and ideas into books, short stories, articles, and perhaps screenplays, fact or fiction, and submitted those efforts via various means to editors at publishing houses or various presses or various media outlets, and then lived on cheese sandwiches hoping a check of some modest amount would come back. Traditionally the profession of “writer” meant you repeated this cycle without healthcare or adequate hygiene or presentable clothes until you died, or gave it up for a real job – both of which happened with distressing frequency.

Turns the rest of it was pretty hard. It’s work and a lot of it.

That model, that definition of writer, still very much exists.

And a lot of writers make varying degrees of living from it.

And that’s what I wanted to do. Ever since I was that kid, I’ve written down ideas. First laboriously by longhand, in notebooks. Then on an old typewriter. Then via generation after generation of personal computer. None of those doodles were very good. And I went off and did other things to make a living. But I always wanted to be writer.

When I retired from the Navy, I promised myself that I would do it. I’d sit down and get serious about it and I’d do it. So, the very day after I took off my uniform for the last time, I started a blog, this one. Stonekettle Station. I didn’t know what I was going to write, but I figured it was a way to teach myself the craft. I had no intention of making a living from this. None. I mean, who does that? (a few do now, but not back then). Hell, if I was lucky, maybe one or two people might even read it. But, I reasoned, if I worked at it every day, I could learn how to write the things people might read. Then I could, I dunno, something something book! My plan, admittedly, was a bit vague, but I figured I’d work it out as I went along.

Those early bits are pretty horrible. Pretty bad. Embarrassing even, some of them. I leave them up though, as a measure of how far I’ve come. Over time I came to realize that I’m unlikely to be another Heinlein or Silverberg. Whatever they had, have, that ability to create worlds whole cloth, I don’t. At least not the kind of refined ability needed crank out novels in volume large enough to actually pay the mortgage. I’ll keep at it, but it’s not what I’m good at.

Write what you know, that’s what they tell you. 

A lifetime in military intelligence and I know politics, ours and theirs, the military, war, conflict, and how to pull out the pieces and take the complexity apart into something others can understand. And somehow, that’s what I ended up doing, writing about politics for quarter of million people every day. It helped, I think, that social media was coming online just as I started doing this, Facebook, Twitter, that’s where my audience is.

And that’s the problem.

Nobody pays you to write about politics on social media.

Well, okay, nowadays, maybe they do – but it’s not the kind of thing I’m interested in, being the professional troll for some foreign nation or a shill for some media conglomerate or political party.

There’s no professional market for an independent political writer who spends most of his time on social media.

But, that’s where I am anyway. In that strange new middle ground.

Ten years ago, hell five years ago, I would never have guessed that Facebook would become my primary platform for day to day short form.  Facebook is a horrible platform for the kinds of things I write. It’s a bastard cross between a blog and public forum and doesn’t do either very well. It’s subject to arbitrary and random censorship. There’s no protection for intellectual property at all. It lacks the most basic of editing tools and formatting functions, its search capability is ridiculous and all but useless. Facebook’s interface, timeline management, and display are one of the single most infuriatingly horrible experiences in an age of limitless customization – limitless to everybody but Facebook users that is. It’s impossible to get any kind of help from the operators and it’s subject to every kind of cyber-abuse from bullying to trolling to sexual assault.

And yet – and yet -- it does one thing very, very well.

It does one thing that other technology cannot do, that traditional publishing venues cannot do.

Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and other social media platforms connect writers to people in an organic, viral, geometrically expanding manner that is completely impossible anywhere else and that has never existed before.

Now, interacting with readers on a real time basis for hours upon hours every single goddamned day isn’t for every writer.

Believe me.

It takes a certain degree of masochism to do it.

In point of fact, a lot of writers become writers because they are anti-social bastards who enjoy living on moldy fake-cheese sandwiches and sitting around all day in dirty pajama pants and who tend to break out in a cold sweat when they actually have to put on pants and go outside where all the other people are.

So real time interaction with their audience isn’t something they consider a feature.

And that’s okay.

“Writer” is a loose enough definition that it accommodates the gregarious right alongside the smelly hermit.

But, if you write well, if you write the things people are interested in, and if you’re willing to interact with your audience directly and in real time, then social media makes it possible for your work to spread far beyond the size of audiences normally available to traditional writers. For example: a few years ago, when I started doing this full time, Stonekettle Station averaged maybe 20,000 visitors per month on a good month – and that was after 8 years of writing every single day.  Maybe 3,000 people followed me on Facebook. Less than a 1000 on Twitter. Two years later, with some considerable effort, my daily Facebook audience exceeds 160,000 people per day for my personal page and the Stonekettle Station Group has grown to more than 30,000. There are another 100,000 followers on Twitter, and a single long form essay on Stonekettle Station can exceed 100,000 unique pageviews in a few hours.

Social media, for all its ills, has created new opportunity, an alternative to traditional writing models. Not a replacement, a supplement.

And that’s where I ended up. That’s where I exist.

I admit that in my case there is some degree of luck. I happened to be in the right place just as opportunity opened with the right experience and skillset and enough free time to take advantage of it.  It suits me. It’s not easy. Really it’s not. It sometimes (often) takes 14 to 18 hour days, research, writing, swearing at the screen, dealing with trolls and hatemail, it can be incredibly frustrating at times for reasons you never imagine or anticipate. It requires constant attention, a constant presence, and everything becomes grist for the mill, making much of your life public – something that is often less than thrilling to your spouse and your kids.

It can be dangerous. People threaten you, threaten violence, even death. Worse (yes, worse), they work to actively take you down, silence your voice, get you kicked off the platforms you’ve invested more than a decade in – and some of most persistent attacks in this regard come from, well, for lack of a better word, your own side.

It’s work.

Goddamn is it work.

I’ve been invited to a number of writers’ conventions to talk about this with other writers – or those who want to become writers under this new paradigm. That’s something I’m happy to do. I’ve been pretty lucky and I’m glad to pay that forward. The world is a big place, there’s plenty of room for many, many more writers in this new arena and I’m happy to help get them started. But, and this is real kicker, all those people, for me a quarter million readers a day, an audience that size would give a traditional writer some guaranteed income via the traditional means of agent, publisher, bookstore, publisher, check. But for me? There’s no such structure, no established methodology of turning words into income.

That structure is slowly evolving, I can see it happening, but it’s still nebulous and indistinct and for the moment it’s just me and you. Nobody in the middle. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. And you know, if every one of those quarter million daily readers signed up for Patreon and donated a buck a month, well, I’d be writing this from the deck of my personal yacht. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, and it’s probably better for us all that it doesn’t because I’d spend all my time lounging around that aforementioned boat like I was Betsy DeVos instead of, you know, writing.

There are other ways to do this, advertising is one of those models. But I look at sites covered in ads and I hate them. They actively drive me away. I ran ads here on the Stonekettle Station, but the increased revenue wasn’t worth seeing ads for things I adamantly don’t agree with on my website, shoved in front of my readers. I don’t want to use that model. So I opted out of the ads and removed them from my platform. I lost the revenue, but I get to keep my self-respect.

Likewise I find problems with other methodologies, specifically in that almost all of them would leave me beholden to various agencies.

So, I won’t do that either.

And every once in a while I need to ask for money.

I don’t like this.

But it’s necessary.

It’s necessary if I am to remain who I am and if I am to continue to write the things I write and that you come here to read.

But, and this is the important part, this way I am independent. I don’t owe anybody, no business, no agenda, no political party or ideology, no boss, I don’t owe any of them a damned thing.  I write what I write, be it long form, short Facebook posts, or a simple Tweet, to the very best of my ability and as I see it – not as somebody else has directed me to see it. I maintain my social media sites, my Facebook page and the Stonekettle Facebook Group, my Twitter feed, as independent entities, managed by me and me alone to my standards and not some corporate agenda.

It’s important to me. And it seems to be important to you, dear reader, and I take that responsibility seriously.

By remaining independent, I owe only you, the readers, the very best work I can put out and that’s it.

But it only works if you provide support.

I doubt I’ll ever get used to it, asking for money, even as other mainstream sites do it without any shame, and I’m not sure I want to.  That aversion always, every time, makes me more determined to improve, to work harder, to produce a better product for you and to expand opportunities for you to have your say, to interact, in a safe and intelligent forum.

So, here it is: I’m asking you to donate.

Because my business model is evolving, and because IRS regulations, state and federal laws, etc, all of these things impact this process, I tend to change things up every time, trying to find a way to accommodate the legal requirements with my own principles.

Here’s how I’m doing it this time:

The donation drive runs from August 1st until sometime in September.

I’m not sure exactly when I’ll end it. Let me explain why: I’m giving away stuff. Loot. Booty.


The last few times I did this, I waited until the end to hand out stuff. I’m not happy with that, for a number of reasons. So, this time, I’m going to give away prizes every day.

That’s right. Every day.

And so, the subscription drive will go on until I run out of things to give away.

I’ve got 50 Stonekettle Station pens. Some are worth $35, some are worth $100 or more. I’ll give one away every day until I run out and I might be making more while this process goes on. I’ve also got a stack of Alternate Truths – the best-selling political anthology which contains my short story: Gettysburg, AND the sequel: More Alternative Truths, which contains my vignette Doctor Republican’s Monster and my collaborative short, Moses. Every other day, I’ll give away a signed copy.

I may throw in some other Stonekettle Station items as the drive goes on, T-shirts, key chains, and so on.

If you donate starting today, I’ll throw your name in the hat. The sooner you donate, the fewer people there’ll be, the better your chance. Gifts will get mailed out every day. You don’t have to wait until the end of the drive, whenever that is.

To donate, click on the “Donation” button, either embedded in the text below or on the upper right side of this screen and follow the directions.

You may enter more than once. Each donation will be counted as a unique subscription.

If you’ve already donated to Stonekettle Station this month, you’re already on the subscription list.

Those of you who already donate via an automatic monthly payment, you’ll be entered automatically in the giveaway. (See the footnote below for additional information regarding automatic reoccurring donations)

Legal Disclaimer: To be clear, this is not a lottery or a raffle.  Donations are voluntary subscription fees specifically in support of this blog and the associated social media feeds and conducted in accordance with state and federal law.

That is:  you’re paying for content, not a chance to win something.

I use the word “donation” because that’s the name of the PayPal function. That said, I am not claiming any tax-exempt status or charity. Donations are considered business income and I pay all applicable state and federal taxes on that income and I have the records to prove it.

The items I give away are my intellectual property, created and paid for by me.  As such I chose to randomly gift them to supporters, just as I give away my custom made pens to my fellow writers.  The giveaway list is generated randomly from voluntary subscriptions, since I have no other way to determine who readers are.  You are not donating for a chance to win a prize, you’re paying for the content of this blog and my associated social media feeds and I’m using this opportunity to give something back other than just my usual blog essays, Facebook posts, and Tweets.

As always, thank you for your support.

Addendum: (updated as we go)

Aug 2: Chih Wen is today’s recipient of a Stonekettle Station Pen.
Aug 3: Hayley Hop and Karen Soule are today’s winners.
Aug 4: Craig Brankin is today’s winner.
Aug 5: James O'Malley wins today.
Aug 6: Anonymous
Aug 7: Chris Hull and Chris Hull – there were two Chris Hulls, I wasn’t clear regarding which was the winner, so, they’re both winners.
Aug 8: Anonymous
Aug 9: Jim Hudlow is today’s winner.
Aug 10: Anonymous
Aug 11: John Hanna is today’s winner.
Aug 12: Anonymous.
Aug 13: Anonymous and Kim Hallett are today’s winners.
Aug 14: Anonymous.
Aug 15: Wendy Halvorson is today’s winner.

*Reoccurring Payments: If you’ve set up a monthly donation via PayPal and you suddenly realize it’s been cancelled, that’s not me rejecting your money (because I would never do that. I need the money and I’m not too proud to say so). Likely it’s something to do with the PayPal process, usually your card has expired. I have no control over that.

* Pens. I will continue to produce pens for sale via my Etsy store per the usual process.