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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Dawn of Weaponized Trolling

newsweek_cover_rect-460x307

U MAD BRO?

Obama Is Trolling Republicans

John Dickerson of Slate writes:

Under this approach, a president wants the fact-checkers to call him out (again and again) because that hubbub keeps the issue in the news, which is good for promoting the issue to the public. It is the political equivalent of “there is no such thing as bad publicity” or the quote attributed to Mae West (and others): “I don't care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.” The tactic represents one more step in the embrace of cynicism that has characterized President Obama's journey in office.

But this twist is a new, higher order of deception: creating the controversy for the purposes of milking it. 

And TownHall responds:

Someone in the lefty press is catching on. … Dickerson uses the topic of the "wage gap" as one example; I would use the topic of voting rights as another. In other words, the president and his administration are giving the press and the people purportedly factual information that they actually know is untrue as part of a deliberate strategy.

The US State Department Is Trolling Jihadis

CNN tells us that the US State Department has joined the war on the Twitter front:

But it is only since their English-language Twitter feed was launched in December, becoming a pugnacious new voice in the conversation, that their efforts have increasingly drawn attention -- and raised eyebrows -- in the West.

This development has led to the spectacle of the U.S. government publicly bickering with jihadists and their ideological fellow travelers on social media, debating Syria, the War on Terror, "the clash of civilizations" in 140-character bursts.

Weaponized Trolling

Taking the above at face value (and it’s hard not to) what we are seeing is an innovation in political dialog that could be called ‘weaponized trolling.’ The Age of the Internet brings us face-to-face with the dark side of the human psyche: it’s all in the comments section of YouTube!

There are a lot of different takes on exactly what trolling is or isn’t—The Omnivore is going to use Wikipedia as the golden definition of what an Internet Troll is:

In Internet slang, a troll (/ˈtrl/, /ˈtrɒl/) is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people,[1] by posting inflammatory,[2] extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response[3] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

This is important: Trolling—for purposes of this discussion (and should be in everyday parlance)—is a deliberate attempt to provoke an emotional response and / or be disruptive. It’s an attempt to get you mad. This is distinct from:

  • Trying to promote or defend a product, politician, or position
  • Trying to manipulate markets or sow disinformation for personal gain
  • Manipulation of link-rankings to suppress or promote stories
  • Arguing for your ideology in an offensive manner—but not coming to the discussion with the primary purpose being to get people riled up

In the above sense, what Obama and the State Department are doing isn’t actually trolling. They are not responding to Jihadis just to try to get them angry—they are trying to score meaningful points for observers and not let Jihadi claims stand unopposed in the conversation.

But that’s okay (we’ll have an aside at the end about paid trolling)—the key to weaponized trolling is that while the goals are different from basic Internet Trolling, the techniques are similar!

What Is Weaponized Trolling?

Weaponized trolling is the use of online techniques of trolling and disruption with the goal of moving the needle—making real-world impacts. In each case what’s actually going on is the brutal battle to frame the conversation in a way that is beneficial to one’s argument. Framing is the set of concepts and perspectives that govern how people perceive and discuss things. If you can win the framing-war then you have a HUGE advantage in the actual debate. Let’s have some examples:

  1. Equal Work For Equal Pay: Women are paid less than men according to government data—but the reasons for that are often not that the woman is being paid less for the same job as a man as that they work lower paying jobs, fewer hours, etc. It may be that if a man were to work the same schedule he would be paid less at the same scale. Perhaps not (sexism and discrimination are still real things)—but using the 77-cent number is simply putting out a flimsy top-line eye-catcher and then trying to build a position around it that is toxic to Obama’s detractors: Unless they can explain their position very succinctly and carefully, it looks like they are promoting sexist payment-scales for women. They rightly resent this.
  2. Voting Rights: The Republican position is that (a) fake voting is hard to catch and (b) hey, it’s happened at least a few times—so (c) we ought to require Id. Their position is designed to make it look like Democrats are attempting to legalize undocumented immigrant voting—or enable people voting multiple times. Of course when you look at where these initiatives are deeply in force and who will be impacted we can see that while they may stop un-caught hypothetical illegal voters they will definitely stop significant amounts of minority likely-Democratic voters. Depending on which playing-field you have the debate on either the Democrats are corrupt or the Republicans are racist!
  3. The article on the State Department notes that they are using the ‘same emotional arsenal as an Internet troll’—pointed comedy … and anger. As they say (and to be fair) no one from the State Department is going to be saying nice or even measured things about Al Qaeda—but the point here is to use 140-character (i.e. pithy) responses to try to get in the head-space of 3rd parties reading the exchange. If AQ blames America for everything, America can reverse some of that and lay some responsibility for the current state of affairs back on their doorstep. If anyone starts questioning the Blame-America party-line their work is done.

Why Is This Happening Now?

Dickerson says that if your attack ad isn’t getting four Pinocchio's you aren’t doing your job—he’s kind of right. The problem is that Weaponized Trolling isn’t the disease—it’s the symptom. If, indeed, the White House is creating controversy in order to milk it or deliberately framing things in a way that is deceptive—but ‘effective’—the motivations behind it are not simply that Obama (or the State Department) are liars or want their enemies blood-pressure to go up. No, the problem is that the environment has driven the discourse in the direction of emotionally combative trolling.

Why?

Well, the first reason is that the conversation has gotten fast and personal. The 24-hr (or less) news cycle and direct contact via Twitter has made even august entities like the White House and State Department far more intimate than in the past (and, remember, Twitter’s usage curve is a hockey-stick—it’s only ‘really’ existed in its current form for about 4-6 years). Even more traditional messaging, like a press-release, is subject to the vectors of viral media (and the need for permanent campaign fund-raising). If your statement of intent gets passed around on Facebook, that’s great.

In order to get your statement of intent passed around on Facebook it has to look an awful lot like trolling—the laws of viral media are pretty clear: people don’t share boring things.

The other problem is that the audience for communication is more polarized than ever. It’s telling that the same modes of communication apply to American political observers and Islamic Jihadis alike. We’re so polarized (meaning that Democrats and Republicans vote as almost perfect blocs) that we don’t even agree on reality anymore. The CBO numbers, whatever they are, are only  valid as they support your side. Otherwise they’re skewed. Same for polls. Same for … weather reports. Same for science. When the other side—both sides, really—is a wall of NO, what’s your incentive to play it safe?

Kerry tried being the “grown up in the room” and it didn’t get him anywhere. A lot of people thought McCain was too cautious about going after Obama (and Romney was WAY too much of a gentleman) and paid the ultimate price for it. We want our statesmen to be statesmen—and their mouth-pieces to be … well …

mouth_of_sauron2THE MOUTH OF OBAMA SAURON

What Do You Do About It?

Since weaponized trolling is the symptom, the cure has to lie at the root cause. With external actors (especially AQ) there’s little that can be done other than the current ‘diplomatic’ options (Drones). At home we’d like to think there are less severe options (although … Rand Paul is also worried about drones … Hmmm). For starters, we have to see if Obama leaving office in a couple of years helps things. While The Omnivore didn’t find Obama’s behavior (early on—but even now) especially divisive, forcing us to have the racial conversation might de facto be part of the problem.

On the other hand, Clinton Derangement Syndrome was followed by Bush Derangement Syndrome so we might just be in the age of viciously hating our elected leaders if we didn’t personally elect them. Weaponized trolling is a problem in that it erodes credibility across the partisan divide—if you believe (and you better) that your elected leaders are going to stretch the truth to or past the breaking point to get their message out, why believe anything they’re saying at all?

A recent Fox News poll finds that a lot of people think Obama lies—at least sometimes.

Well, you know, Fox News polls … probably skewed.

The solution isn’t gate-keepers either: once a fact-check disagrees with your ideology they’re part of the conspiracy. Who fact-checks the fact-checkers, anyway? (And can we get Alan Moore to write something about that?)

So what do you do? Well, it turns out: the answer is pretty clear—you do what you do with any trolling. You tune it out. We see manipulative click-bait all the time from pros like Upworthy and Gawker. We have the choice not-to-click. Use it. If you care about women’s advancement in the workplace? Fine—but assume any numbers are picked for their convenience rather than their reality. It might not always be lying—but you’ll do better assuming it is. Need proof of illegals voting? No you don’t—you can be Faith Based about anything. You were going to be anyway—admit it.

We are using Darwinian forces to breed a new form of political discourse—we can also use those evolutionary pressures to create a new form of consumer. You’ll just do what you’ve historically done and trust your confirmation bias.

The marketplace of ideas on the Internet has always been a more or less free market, and now it seems freer than ever. Caveat Emptor, y’all.


Aside: Paid Trolling. The Omnivore does not believe people are getting paid to do disruptive emotional rage-stroke trolling on your favorite Internet site (assuming your favorite Internet site is a partisan political blog in the US). Why not? Because there’s no Return On Investment in posting things that get you upset. You’re not that important and only true-believers read the comments anyway. Someone may well be defending Fox News, promoting Whole Foods, or pimping for their politician—but that’s different. That has a (weak) Return on Investment.

It’s possible some staffer, technically on the clock, is trolling somewhere—but as a mission statement? As their actual paid job? The Omnivore doesn’t think so. Firstly, people troll for free—there’s no need to pay someone to go to a conservative site and stir things up with liberal posting—people will do that anyway. Secondly, the ‘quality’ of trolling is pretty bargain basement: if a campaign were gonna pay for idea injection they’d want to actually inject real ideas. They’d also want some way to measure performance.

No campaign has so much money to waste on something with no provable response, a super-limited, super-hostile audience, and activities that would be politically damaging if they came out.

And thirdly? Thirdly—and this is the thing—if you think someone’s paying to troll you and you’re on a deeply partisan message board? Consider this: Every DIME they are theoretically spending against you would be better spent if they took real comments from you and your allies and simply publicized them. That’s right: rather than spending one electron making you upset by coming in with weak-ass (and, be honest with yourself: the arguments are ALWAYS weak-ass, aren’t they? I mean, you’re so right—and so smart—and darn it, so good looking—that NO ONE every comes in with a killer cracker-jack argument that turns you around, do they?) argument in your face they’d do better to take your own words and show them to the world.

What does The Omnivore mean!? Click those links.

Sorry. No one’s being paid to troll you—you’re just the kind of person who gets trolled.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Cliven Bundy Ranch Stand-Off

Bundy
The Cliven Bundy ranch standoff may be an important inflection point in our nation’s politics: it is the actual test case for the apocalyptic rhetoric that began with the Tea Party and amplified itself in the conservative dialog. It tracks concepts like Agenda 21, Emperor Obama, and Let It Burn.

What Happened?

Thus far, this is what happened (more or less): Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy was told in 1993 that he would have to limit his cattle to 150, apparently to protect the habitat of the ‘desert tortoise,’ and pay fees to use the land. He did not pay. He did not limit his cattle. He stated that he did not recognize the Federal Government (he claims the land belongs to Nevada). Now, more than two decades later, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) came to take his cattle and / or collect owed pay. The reasons for this may be because Harry Reid now wants the land for solar / wind power development. Maybe—maybe not. Whatever the case, as the BLM forces (troops armed with Assault Rifles and body armor) moved in, a number of armed citizens moved in to protect Cliven.

The standoff escalated in tensions with scores of armed men on both sides (and, apparently, a plan on the armed citizens to put their womenfolk in the front line of fire so that if the government forces did open up they’d be gunning down women). For now? The Federales backed down. They swear it’s not over yet—but they pulled out. Here is a pretty good time-line.

The Deeper Meanings

The guy doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on. Despite allegedly not recognizing the Federal Government, he apparently carries a copy of the constitution in his shirt pocket. He also recognizes the state of Nevada (whose own constitution recognizes the US Government). In any event, he isn’t exactly making a legal argument anyway. What he—and his supporters—are saying is this:
What it boils down to is this: The Federal Government and Harry Reid are unpopular, Bundy is literally wearing a white hat, and, man, it turns out a lot of those western states don’t actually own their land. Does this all feel right to you?

That’s the point: to a lot of people—including people willing to point AR-15s at Federal Agents, this doesn’t feel right. In fact, it feels darn near apocalyptic.
USA-RANCHERS/NEVADAThe symbolism in play here is very, very literally a battle between “real America” (in actual white cowboy hats with the signature 2nd Amendment gun) and SWAT-team style Federal Agents. The echoes are Waco Texas and Ruby Ridge. It’s paramilitary armed resistance—a militia if you will—against an overwhelming distant power that a lot of the people in play think is acting extra-legally and with an imperial intent.

This is the Big One.

What Next?

Whoever is running the BLM did the right thing: they backed off. There is no urgent time-line in play here. There may yet come a reckoning but there is no reason to play to the script that the guys in baseball caps are writing. During the ‘Green Revolution’ in Iran, a lot of people thought we should be sending aid over there—or even troops—to topple the government. What the Obama administration did was make sure that communication and the Internet stayed open—and that systems like Twitter that were being used to organize the resistance remained up.

This wasn’t “much” but it, importantly, did not play into the Regime-Change narrative the Iranian government wanted to stick us with. If we had gone in with force we would (a) have owned EVERYTHING that happened while our forces were in play (and some of that would’ve been horrible) and (b) would have ‘confirmed’ everything they’d said about us to anyone who was unconvinced. It also, probably, (c) would not have helped unless we were ‘all in,’ which would make the cost of Iraq look like something you could buy at the Dollar Store.

So the Cliven Bundy standoff is a chance to actually change the narrative. There is probably no way to “do justice” in the eyes of Cliven supporters save for letting him use the land for free—but there are gradients of force that can be used and dialing it down from para-military is the right answer here and I’m glad they did. That isn’t the big question though—the big question is: Does this happen again?

Does This Happen Again?

We don’t know if there will be another escalation involving scores of armed men standing off against Federal Agents—but either way, this is an inflection point. If there isn’t another standoff in, say, the next two years (the end of the Obama administration will be a key demarcation point) then we could say the dialing down of tensions was a success. If it does happen—indeed, if it escalates—we are looking at something else: we are looking at moving from the rhetoric of revolution to the tinder-box and (presently) unlit match of armed resistance. That many, many disparate people could group together to stand up against a perceived injustice on the part of the Federal Government is something we didn’t see after Ruby Ridge. We didn’t see it after Waco Tx. We haven’t seen it for #Occupy Wall Street.

We’re seeing it here—and the appearance of this patter at all is meaningful.

Addendum
A couple of notes looking at how things have developed thus far:

  1. The Omnivore has seen Bundy compared to the founding fathers, taking arms against England--or Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus. In both cases the principles they were standing for were either (a) very well and very formally articulated (Founding Fathers) or very straight forward (Rosa Parks). In the case of Bundy it's, thus far, neither. What he has stated (not acknowledging the Federal Government) doesn't make sense--and his position seems to be that he really lives in Bundy-Land, aka a fictionalized state of Nevada. That doesn't mean he deserves to be gunned down--but it also isn't the Founding Fathers. It's maybe more like The Whisky Rebellion.
  2. This link has a debate between an MSNBC host and a Nevada Assembly woman defending Cliven. The key points she relentlessly comes back to are: (1) Why is the federal government sending men with guns to collect a debt (assuming one is owed). (2) How much does he owe, anyway? Millions? A lot less? (3) If Reid looks so suspicious, why is he heavily involved? In one sense some of these are straightforward--but in another, the optics of SWAT teams descending on the ranch are questionable.
  3. According to Snopes.com, Reid isn't involved and the solar power thing isn't happening. Do you trust Snopes?
  4. Vox.com, as usual, has a great set of 'cards' to explain the standoff as they see it (Liberal).

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Jebanator

jeb

Last year The Omnivore made a small set of predictions for 2014 and 2016. These were:

  1. By the November midterm elections (2014) Obamacare would (a) have a working web-site, (b) have achieved sufficient success that it was no longer an unqualified abysmal failure, and (c) still be slightly underwater on the polling despite that. I imagined that (d) the Republican message machine might have felt it put too many eggs in that basket—but that’s not an actual prediction per-se—just an observation.
  2. That Rand Paul (still too weird), Dr. Ben Carson (too new), and Chris Christie (too fat) would not be president as a result of the 2016 elections.

I’m feeling pretty good about #1 and I’m watching the #2 batch closely. Christie almost skunked me with the weight-loss surgery (he wouldn’t be an underwear model  by 2016 but he might be trim enough so that societal prejudice against fat wouldn’t prevent a victory). Rand Paul would scare me if I thought topping the polls really meant anything—it doesn’t—and I’m still solid on Ben Carson. He may be president one day—but 2016 is not that day.

Which brings us to Jeb. Jeb Bush, that is.

Why Jeb?

If you are asking “Why would Jeb be the Republican 2016 nominee?” that’s an easy question. He has establishment donors backed up around the block ready to shovel money into his campaign. He presents as someone Hispanics would maybe like—someone moderate on, like education (Common Core) and, hey, he’s not crazy. He isn’t a witch or a heretic—what’s not to like?

Well, he’s also not a conservative—or, at least, not what a lot of people think of today as a conservative. He’s also a ‘Bush’ which means he’ll either refudiate his own brother or else own the Iraq war. So, hey: that’s Jeb—losing the polls but winning the invisible primary.

If you’re asking “Why are we, uh, talking about Jeb Bush instead of poll-leader Rand Paul” that’s actually a harder question—and a more interesting one. The reason we are talking about the Jebanator is this: The Republican party has no current foreign policy.

Rand Paul, if he is to possibly be the nominee, will in fact be a foreign policy president. Oh, sure, he’ll have a tide of people behind him for his economic policy—but those will be Libertarians. If the general populace elects a president for economic reasons it’ll be Paul Ryan, not Rand Paul. If they go based on JOBS-JOBS-JOBS it’ll be Rick Perry, Scott Walker, or … uhmm … oops. Probably Scott Walker.

On the other hand, if the current front-runner gets into scoring position (much less the White House) it’ll be because we think his semi-noninterventionist platform is decent. It’ll be because we’ve collectively (or, at least, the people voting in the Republican primary have said collectively) ‘fuck it, we’re staying home.’ If we reach that point, Rand Paul has actually got a chance.

Basically, the fact that Jeb Bush is the ‘sane / establishment candidate’ is relevant only because the actual frontrunner, Rand Paul, is handicapped as the GOP has a serious deficiency in one of its three traditional pillars.

Why Doesn’t The GOP Have A Foreign Policy?

The reason the GOP doesn’t have a foreign policy is because, essentially, the Democrats stole it. Back in the heady days of the Afghanistan invasion no one spoke out against going into the Graveyard of Empires (TM) and well they shouldn’t have. On the other hand, almost no one spoke out against going into Iraq either and, you know, maybe someone should’ve? By the time we got to Obama the Democrats had (a) killed Osama Bin Laden in what was, really, a fairly bold set of moves and (b) wound down Iraq, killed Kadaffi, and (c) managed not to get us embroiled on Syria.

Now, the Republicans have hammered Obama for everything he’s done (save for killing Bin Laden) but the problem is this: there is no other-solution out there. The Republicans don’t really have a good plan for Syria. Maybe give some other guys some other weapons? There is no good plan for Iraq—should we leave a few more people there? Get out entirely? There’s no consistence stance—but even worse:there is no specific principal.

Back in the day of Ronald Reagan we knew where the Democrats stood—and where the Republicans stood—on the Soviet Union. Carter was going to be the grownup in the room. Reagan was going to literally build Star Wars. Clear choice—and we know how that turned out. It turned out that building the fuck out of Star Wars didn’t produce much by way of light sabers but did bankrupt the USSR who felt compelled to try and keep up. Huzzah!

Today, without a clear foreign policy platform (is it Attack Iran Now? Really?) and without a set of unique guiding principals (is it Don’t Drone Americans—But It Is Ok To Torture?) the Republicans have a problem when it comes to flexing their candidate—they don’t have a position that differentiates them from, say, Hillary Clinton. Well, except one of them does: Rand Paul.

Rand Paul’s foreign policy views are actually not as concrete as you might think—and his current kerfuffle around suggesting that Iraq was launched for profit by Halliburton could be copy-pasted off a left-wing web site—but whatever he thinks (or you think he thinks) we are pretty sure that he’s a contrast to “All Drones All The Time” (Obama) or “You Mean THIS Army?” Bush.

In other words, Rand Paul may or may not have a shot at the White House (The Omnivore says: still looks like ‘No’)—but he does have something that no one else in the GOP seems to—a part of their identity (Foreign Policy Platform) that was once a core-component of the brand differentiation the GOP enjoyed.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Politics Of: The Winter Soldier

captain-america-the-winter-soldier01
This weekend The Omnivore broke his habit of seeing “new movies” when they come out on cable (try having kids—just try it! See what it does to Opening Night!). The first part reviews the movie (and should be less spoliery). The second part talks politics and assumes you have already seen it.

 

The Winter Soldier

It’s two years after the Battle of New York (Avengers) and Steve Rogers is still coming to terms with his new life in modern-day America. He’s got ‘friends’ in the form of other agents (notably: Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow—and she gets enough to do in this movie that it qualifies as a Black Widow movie as well as a Captain America film) and Sam Jackson as, of course, Nick Fury—the director of SHEILD. He also has his unflappable can-do spirit which makes Chris Evans a joy to watch as he never gives in to the kind of murky angsty soul-searching that, for example, the Spider Man franchise falls prey to.

This isn’t to say he’s fine with everything: he finds the modern world a series of moral contradictions and while his ‘best girl’ is now 90 years old, he isn’t quite the type to ‘play the field.’ All his friends—the Howling Commandos of WWII, are dead. Worse, while Fury tried to tell him to “get with the program” and Johansson tries to fix him up with the nice girl next door, SHEILD is about to unleash a stupefying new program of flying-fortress type hover-weapons that makes Captain America wonder if the good-guys won WWII after all.

The Winter Soldier brings Captain America into the modern-day story-line with a political-tinged spy-thriller where no one can be trusted, the American government exists in moral shades of gray, and while we know there are other super heroes out there in the world, they’re all doing their own thing in little bubbles of their own priorities so it’s up to America (Captain, that is) to save Washington DC.

Captain America is the next achievement in the continuing triumph that is Kevin Feige’s resume. Feige was hired by Marvel after they decided to resurrect their movie business post selling off their big names to Sony (Spiderman) and Fox (the X-Men franchise). His stewardship has created an almost unbroken string of hits and he credits actually reading the source material (comics) and using that as both a source of character ideas and guide-rails when the writers get too far afield. We can only hope that the parent company, Disney, uses the same basic approach to quality control when it comes to the Star Wars franchise.

The Winter Soldier trades on good, charismatic casting, text-book action sequences, and a massive special effects budget to render Marvel’s universe in a 2hr 8min movie that doesn’t feel old and slow. The Winter Soldier feels a bit—I don’t know—optimistic? It tries to set someone with the “soul of America” in our modern-day environment and he does feel out of place and it’s clear that the creators don’t have some magical solution to the country being divided. On the other hand, they’ve done the right thing: put Captain America’s heart in the right place and figure that if they nail that the rest will work itself out.

This is a worthy edition to the ever-expanding franchise Marvel characters and shows us that the Captain America brand, only 2.5 movies in, has a good deal more runway before it gets old.Let’s do the politics!

The Politics of: The Winter Soldier

The Winter Solider was, from the ground up, a political thriller—as it was intended to be.
"[Marvel] said they wanted to make a political thriller," Joe Russo, who directed the film with his brother Anthony, tells Mother Jones. "So we said if you want to make a political thriller, all the great political thrillers have very current issues in them that reflect the anxiety of the audience...That gives it an immediacy, it makes it relevant. So [Anthony] and I just looked at the issues that were causing anxiety for us, because we read a lot and are politically inclined. And a lot of that stuff had to do with civil liberties issues, drone strikes, the president's kill list, preemptive technology"—all themes they worked into the film, working closely with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.
The plan in The Winter Soldier looks like this:
  1. Take the computer from Person of Interest that “reads every email, listens to every phone call, etc.” and makes predictive guesses about who is a threat.
  2. Instead of looking for murderers, set it to: ‘Patriotic Americans.’
  3. Instead of hooking it up to a crime-stopping duo, attach it to three massive, networked, flying battleships bristling with long-range, super accurate guns.
  4. When switching it on, it immediately opens fire, eliminating “the threat.”
  5. Hydra takes over the world, runs it efficiently, picks good judges for American Idol.
The two programs that The Winter Soldier keys on are (1) the collection of personal data by the NSA for threat detection and (2) the use of drones to kill targets (including Americans) from a distance. It merges these into the single program where (1) identifies people the Hydra cell that secretly runs SHIELD doesn’t like and then (2) the flying aircraft carriers gun them down.
The problem with this is that in order for it to work, Hydra must already have won. It isn’t their “triumph”—it’s just a slightly more efficient mode of operation. Why? Well, there are two reasons:
  1. Apparently the President, Congress, and the rest of the US Government either doesn’t exist or works for SHIELD.
  2. SHIELD knew about enough of this to make it highly suspect, even if it wasn’t going to be turned on Americans.

Where’s The President?

In The Avengers we watched SHIELD high-command decide to nuke New York without the President on the line. Alien invasion or no, that’s pretty extreme. In The Winter Soldier, presumably the ships are going to launch and then be allowed to kill just about anyone they read as a threat and, instead of planning to fight the whole US military AND the rest of SHIELD (key people are still IN the command center which, if the attack was read as a coup would be destroyed), they are planning to just play off the targets as terrorists.

If the US Government is so easily controlled that it’ll roll over for that HYDRA doesn’t have to conquer America: SHIELD has already done that.

The Reality Of The Two Programs

Americans have seen the NSA data-gathering program and we have not marched on the White House. We have seen Americans killed by the drone program and we have not impeached the president—that’s also true. The Winter Soldier takes these revelations and marries them together, turns them up to 11, and takes the position that we’ll be okay with that too. This is kind of bullshit.

Americans killed by drones are, with one exception, operating publically against America with material results (the first Ft. Hood shooting) out of range of conventional police jurisdiction (it has happened four times, one kill was, unfortunately, collateral damage—but the person in question was apparently sitting with the intended target). The killings in question do have elements of secrecy but the idea that there is no oversight or that Americans, ‘sitting in cafes,’ might be targeted by drone is ludicrous.
Similarly, while NSA data-mining may be an overreach and has yet to show any positive results (apparently there are not even secret wins for the program—one of the judges asked to see evidence of anything the program had yielded and came away empty handed) it is also not being used for targeting attacks on people of any sort.

Captain America hears about the program that will gun down terrorists before they can commit a crime and says “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.” He’s right, kinda. Today the US Government has a ‘pre-crime’ program: it’s the FBI. When they identify a person who is looking for help carrying out attacks they will pair them with an agent (or Confidential Informant) who will claim to be able to get them help or even be Al Queada. The person is then led through the steps of acquiring ‘explosives,’ creating and placing a ‘bomb’ and then setting it off.

At this point they are arrested. No actual crime has been committed (it’s conspiracy to commit crime—which is real enough—but not the same as the crime itself, obviously). If that makes you queasy, The Omnivore understands—but consider the alternative: what if these people made contact with actual terrorists who had them do these things for real. Hundreds of virtual citizens have been theoretically blown up in these exercises. The idea that none of them would really come to fruition is simply wishful thinking.

So is Captain America right? Well, yes: if you remove all the steps where the person actually gets to act out the crime—if you remove all data-gathering, the trial, and so on—and replace that with a cannon? Yeah: he’s totally right.

And, problematically, even Sam Jackson was going to sign on to a version of that—which, apparently, America was going to allow.
But in real life these programs are not that sinister and they are not that simple.

The Assessment

The reason we don’t see the President in The Avengers (or The Winter Soldier) is because if you do, you make some kind of commentary on the current administration or America in general (even the generic casting-call president would indicate a weak America if he was just standing by letting New York glow in the dark). They don’t want to do that—it’s a distraction—so they just hope you won’t notice. The almost knee-jerk reaction to spying on Americans (remember how Morgan Freeman quit the Bat-Team because he was using cell-phone spying to catch the freakin’ Joker? That’s pretty legit, The Omnivore thinks. The Omnivore would, in fact, pay like an extra $5/mo to have the Bat Computer listen through his phone if it would catch The Joker) isn’t in The Winter Soldier as a point for discussion—it’s a signifier that the program is bad.

That plot-point is used to help the audience keep score. Captain America doesn’t ask what the certainty has to be that someone’s actually a terrorist before the ships open fire: that would be the first real question people would ask (and about follow up and false positives and whatever else). In The Winter Soldier, though, while he’s a bit appalled at extra-judicial execution, neither he nor anyone else assumes the system will often get it wrong.

In other words, the movie is designed to feel political and reflect current concerns—but it isn’t designed to actually probe or explore them. It just uses something that’ll kind of remind us of them and assumes that we’ll follow along easily enough (and, if not, well, there’s the HYDRA reveal to make sure). I’d say the movie was “Left Wing” on the basis that it’s against the dominant power-structure (SHIELD, apparently) but today, and with these issues, that doesn’t really work. No one is “making the hard calls” to protect a world that is in “clear and present danger” in The Winter Soldier.

There’s no real justification at all for this monstrosity other than HYDRA wants it and SHIELD can build anything it wants.

If The Winter Soldier had, perhaps, some targets of the ship rising as super-villains to avenge their dead friends? That’d be something. If it had the ships, I don’t know, target a politician that SHIELD didn’t like—but wasn’t a terrorist? Well—at least it would be asking ‘Who Watches the Watchmen?’ If leaks from the system exposed the Black Widow’s secrets and it caused various heroes to question why we even have that thing? That’d be food for thought.

Here, though, we just get something we’re expected to recognize and then it blows up.

The Winter Soldier fails as a political movie by failing to take any side or stand on the issues it raises. It succeeds as a political-tinged action flick—but that’s all. It’s nether (really) left wing nor right wing—it’s just exciting.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Will Obama Ban Knives?

vakra-photo

Now That’s A Knife

On April 9th, according to police, Alex Hribal (Sophomore, 16 years old), at Franklin Regional High attacked and stabbed 22 students wielding two kitchen knives. According to witnesses the attacker “flailed away” running down the hall with a blank expression on his face. It happened fast with many of the initial victims not even realizing they had been stabbed. Hribal was subdued by the school police officer (also stabbed) and the assistant principal (treated for injuries to his hand).

The police arrived five minutes after the attack begin.

Some Reactions

From Political Forum:

I will be very surprised if our resident gun grabbers on this fora are not more inclined to embrace a triple dose of the Clap than to touch this.

From TheTruthAboutGuns:

Wow, I guess all kinds of weapons turn people into crazed killers.
It couldn’t be the people themselves being crazy, or perhaps the system of indoctrination that they are forced to attend, that is responsible for their attitudes.
Must be the availability of weapons. Somebody hide the rocks, sticks, and baseball bats quick!

and …

Was it one of those dreaded hi-capacity assault knives? I hear that they
NEVER run out of ammo! The horror, the horror.

and …

I bet all the anti’s are going through their kitchen drawers so they can register any knife they own (that looks similar to the one used in this crime) with the police. Right?

I’d also like to see drafts of the knife permits and “one knife a month” laws that will be passed in the wake of this tragic event.

From TheFreeRepublic:

So now we need knife control laws, right?

How To Lose The Gun-Control Argument (If You’re Pro-2nd Amendment): High Capacity Assault Knives

The (conservative) snark-response, evidenced above, is perhaps the single most self-defeating approach one could take to the event. These quotes do more damage to the pro-gun argument than Piers Morgan has managed to do in his career. Why is that?

The Pro-Gun Position And The Knife-Control Jokes

The Pro-Gun Position holds that its opponents:

  1. Do not understand guns in general and therefore make stupid generalities about them such as the “Assault Weapons” classification (which plays off the term Assault Rifle—but simply categorizes weapons that kinda look like an assault rifle into an ‘evil-gun’ category).
  2. They claim that schools as gun-free zones (or townships, etc.) invite malefactors who will circumvent the rules anyway. In other words: if there’d been a teacher with a gun in the school, the attacker would go some place else.
  3. They claim that liberals simply demonize guns without paying attention to the scientific realities such as that more people are killed with hammers than rifles each year according to the FBI. Basically that it isn’t the tools that are dangerous—it’s the people.

The fact that these positions are, at least arguably, true, in fact makes the ‘knife-control’ quips more damaging? Why?

The reason the knife-control quips are specifically undermining to the pro-gun position is this: Each part of the position is arguably correct—however, that argument rests on a set of assumptions (i.e. that liberal law-maker’s ignorance of guns means that the laws themselves will be ineffective due to that ignorance or that a cold hard look at the FBI’s facts would force liberals to re-examine their views on gun control). The problem with the Knife-Control jokes is that they make it look like the conservatives are arguing in bad faith—the joke itself suggests that banning certain kinds of weapons based on minor differences in their profile is intrinsically stupid and, at the same time, suggests that since some kind of weapon will always be present, society has no interest in controlling which one a would-be murderer has access to.

Both of these points are catastrophically untrue (and neither is intrinsically germane to the real gun control arguments).

A NOTE BEFORE WE CONTINUE

The Omnivore is pro-Second Amendment. I do not believe an assault weapons ban will do much good in stopping mass shootings and, at best, would have some marginal impact on their mortality rates. I find attempts to control extended magazines (of which hundreds of thousands are in circulation) to be equally ineffective. I am not impressed with the assault-weapon classification (there are guns with the same effectiveness profile that lack the characteristics). I am accepting of armed-response in school (NOT every teacher having a weapon). I own guns. I served in the military.

Also: The Omnivore did quip, on Facebook, that the knife in question might have had an ‘extended belt-clip.’ On later thought, The Omnivore regrets that.

The Assumptions And How The Knife- Control Argument Undermines Them

The problem with equating gun control to “knife control” is that it misses a key and obvious fact: the kinds of controls liberals would like to see put in place are an attempt to drive mass slayings in the direction of Franklin Regional High—and this would be an unalloyed good thing could it be done. In other words, it’s tacit agreement that what the Liberals are saying (should some hypothetical gun-law force a person who wants an assault rifle to use a knife instead) is true. Why?

Well, firstly, there are High Capacity Assault Knives, they are called fighting knives or combat knives, and they are illegal in 13 states (Switchblades 18 states, concealed carry of folding knives varies a lot by blade-length with 23 states having restrictions). Knives are regularly and for good reason regulated based on their “profile.” Things like number of cutting edges, how the knife deploys, and how long it is are not necessarily material to a person who has just been stabbed or, at most, have marginal impacts, but if just about every law has these restrictions one should consider that, perhaps, at least some of these are a good idea.

Secondly, the idea that schools, being gun-free zones, attract shooters looks very questionable when Pro-2nd Amendment people use the knife-attack as a justification for armed teachers. It should be plainly obvious from the time-line of the case that no amount of armed force in the school could have prevailed: the attack took seconds—so fast many of the wounded did not even realize they were hit. The police arrived in five minutes, by which time the assailant had been stopped by, so far as we know, two adults without firearms.

The mental picture of an armed teacher firing into a crowded hall as Hribal ran amok should be chilling enough to make anyone reconsider the arming of school staff: you’d want a Navy SEAL for that kind of dense-target high-emotional shock shooting—no teacher on staff could be trusted to do that.

Thirdly, though, and most damningly, is the proposal that ‘there are no dangerous tools—only dangerous people.’ While true, it’s incredibly misleading without a lot more context. There are tools that hugely, hugely more or less dangerous than others. The talking point I linked to above shows that, yes, there are more hammer murders than rifle murders (the handgun is far and away the most popular murder weapon). On the other hand, trying to make the point that hammers are used in more murders than rifles is trying to trick your audience: Rifles are far more dangerous than hammers once they are in the hands of a murder.

What The Omnivore Thinks

Imagine that we did ban guns and then, on the day after the collection, there was a horrendous mass knife attack. Would it prove the gun-grabbers wrong? Likely: No. Here are the killed / wounded for mass knife attacks:

mass shootings

Mass Stabbings In case it is hard to tell, the average percentage of death from a shooting is greater than 50%. For mass stabbings? It’s closer to 20% (list of mass stabbings taken from Wikipedia). The shooting graph did not include Sandy Hook which was close to 100% lethality. Also, notably: lots of mass stabbings, for unexplained reasons, do involve elementary school children who are more fragile. Simply put: in the mass-combat scenario (the spike in the beginning of 2014 was the chilling Kunming Railway station attack which involved four perpetrators with knives and still only managed a 17% kill rate) you would much rather be the target of a knife wielder than a gunman.

In short, banning certain kinds of knives based on their profile does seem to make sense (almost every state has some law on the books—even Texas bans gravity knives) and, while mass stabbings happen, they are far less lethal than mass shootings.

The jokes that ignore or worse make fun of these facts make it appear conservatives are hoping you won’t notice that for knives the restrictive laws are actually pretty good and that not all killing tools are equally destructive.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Vox vs. FiveThirtyEight

538

VOX

We live in an exciting time: this year has seen the launch of two sea-changes in news reporting that, and The Omnivore is being serious about this, have potential to redefine the way what we think of as news works. These are, respectively, Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight and Ezra Klein's Vox. They are similar in that they are potentially disruptive, potentially game changing. They are dissimilar in that they each take a different approach to how we handle news.

The Omnivore is focused on politics, specifically, although Nate Silver's real genius may lie in sports. I can't be certain.

 

Vox.com

The aesthetics of Vox are the first thing you should look at: it isn't laid out like a traditional newspaper at all. It's vertical scrolling kind of like a Facebook timeline. It's right-hand navigation is imply the Most-Read Articles  (telling you which are the stories most people think were important). It presents its top-slot stuff with text-over pictures designed for high-contrast readability.

The computer web-site and the mobile site (on a smart phone, at least) translate almost exactly (it becomes vertical more than horizontal and removes images from lower-echelon stories). Vox is elegant. It is also cutting-edge.

The Vox.com approach is to be very straightforward and very, very clear giving you both the story itself and the background behind it in easy to digest chunks. Look at the 'cards' (each piece is a 'card' which gives you one important discussion point in a series) on the Gender Pay Gap.

 

FiveThirtyEight

Nate Silver made his bones talking about stats and elections. FiveThiryEight talks about politics from the perspective of data. It isn't (at least not foundationally) about personalities. FiveThirtyEight means to "do newspapers" (and electronic media) right--formally--rigorously. It looks a lot more like a traditional newspaper than Vox does.

You can see their modus operandi if you take a look at the article on "The GOP Senator Most Likely To Falter in the Primary Season." You will see an intro, a brief discussion of the measures they are using to make their case (in this case Ideology scores) and how those correlate to primary performance ... and a graph.

This is brutally efficient writing and because of their commitment to being data-driven, it has a mechanism to claim a lack of bias in a way much political reporting does not (note: this does not mean it may be unbiased--it still, obviously, could be--but the editorial direction of FiveThirtyEight is, to my understanding, unique).

Let’s get to the real reason you came here though …

 

Who Would Win In A Fight?

ErzaKlein

Ezra Klein
Age: 29
Fighting Style: Full Contact Tai Chi
Record: 14-0-1 (Tie match to Matt “Hammer Hands” Yglesias)

Bench Press Own Weight? Unlikely
Special Ability: Understands his opponents better than they understand themselves, allowing him to predict their every move.

 

NateSilver

Nate Silver
Age:
36
Fighting Style: Philosophical Jiu-Jitsu
Record: 27-1-0 (Loss by split decision to Princeton Election Consortium in 2012 WAR in WASHINGTON)

Bench Press Own Weight? Unlikely

Special Ability: Incredible precision—able to act with nearly unerring accuracy.

INT. DESERTED PARKING GARAGE - NIGHT

Two figures stand across across from each other, both apparently empty handed, both immaculately dressed in business suits and trench coats.

SILVER

I was beginning to think you wouldn’t show up, Klein. I wouldn’t blame you.

KLEIN

I’m right on time, Silver. Showing up early gives you a false sense of security.

SILVER

You’re thirty-two seconds late. The best available evidence from historical records show that anyone late to duel had 23% greater chance of losing.

KLEIN

It’s on.

Like a fast-draw artist, SILVER reaches into the shadows of his coat,  then flicks something out with a sudden, magician-quick movement of his hand and wrist. EZRA head-fakes left but then explodes to the right ducking between two parked cars! Playing cards, thrown by NATE SILVER with deadly force, reflect off of metal and penetrate windows in near-silent showers of safety glass. Silver moves forward, throwing methodically—but he realizes he has lost track of the target.

SILVER

Crap.

SILVER flattens himself against a pillar looking to his left and right, listening intently.

KLEIN’S VOICE

Nice trick—I heard you were good with cards. Too bad you weren’t more … accurate.

SILVER ducks, suddenly and bolts around the pillar, keeping low, sprinting to another parking aisle. He pauses, down on one knee, a Queen of Spades appearing between his fingers.

SILVER

Even Anderson Silva, the most accurate fighter in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, only has a recorded strike percentage of .89. I’ve only got to hit you once.

He listens—hears something and spins! Too late! KLEIN slides across the rear of the car NATE is crouched next to, locking his hands around around SILVER’S collar. They roll across the pavement in a twist / counter-twist series of joint-locks and choke-holds. SILVER sees an opening and goes for a strike: EZRA easily counters and lands an elbow hard across NATE SILVER’S cheek bone, drawing blood. KLEIN is on top.

KLEIN

We don’t have to do this, you know. We could be allies. There’s room for you at Vox.

SILVER

Explain to me how that’d work again—in depth.

KLEIN

Well, we’d have a hybrid editorial philosophy that would allow for two separate but managed pipelines under the same umbrella brand which--

SILVER throws him off, explosively, rolling to his feet. The playing cards are gone, he assumes a hand-to-hand combat stance.

KLEIN

You sly dog—you got me wonking!

SILVER

It works on you about 37% of the time. (panting)

KLEIN

What if I told you I knew you were going to do that?

They re-engage, this time with a mix of kicks and punches that each parries or dodges. EZRA spins out to the side, opening distance—and closes his eyes. Silver, amazed, pauses—and then pounces—but EZRA KLEIN  effortlessly evades every strike, ducking and weaving so that SILVER hits only empty air. SILVER, unable to believe it, steps back. KLEIN opens his eyes.

KLEIN

The outcome was never really in doubt. Surrender?

Silver wipes blood from the side of his mouth.

SILVER

Finish it.

EZRA moves in for the kill, fluidly evading and then replying with devastating counter-punches. We hear ribs break. NATE SILVER is slammed into one car—then another, before sprawling, face down, on the pavement. EZRA KLEIN removes his trench coat, folding it—and then his suit jacket. He begins to methodically roll up his sleeves. While we see this, we watch the irregular breathing of NATE SILVER steady, somewhat. Slowly, painfully, he reaches into his jacket—and removes … a flask.

KLEIN

You should never have left the New York Times.

SILVER

(Gasping) That’s what they keep telling me.

Suddenly, NATE SILVER flips over, drinking down the flask in one long gulp. He gasps—in pain and … something else. KLEIN’S eyes narrow!

KLEIN

What is that? … Was that?

SILVER

(Still gasping) 100% … Grain … Alcohol.

Klein pauses and, thinking furiously, ‘does the math.’

KLEIN

Crap.

DRUNK NATE SLIVER

Predict this.

DRUNK NATE SILVER calculating all possible odds of every possible scenario lashes out in BULLET TIME against EZRA KLEIN who dodges and weaves. Cement pillars shatter as they they fight, SILVER relentlessly driving KLEIN back across the parking lot towards a wall. Klein stops, shirt ragged, hair a mess, back against the wall. DRUNK NATE SILVER stands before him, now barely breathing hard. EZRA KLEIN is cornered—unable to defend himself—but … he doesn’t quite look beaten.

KLEIN

So, DRUNK NATE SILVER, what’s the outcome? Which of us leaves this parking garage alive?

DRUNK NATE SILVER

The answer is obvious—you don’t need my powers of calculation to--

He trails off … then utterly stunned, looks back at KLEIN, refocusing. Astonished.

DRUNK NATE SILVER

We … both do? Apparently the world really is big enough … for the two of us.

KLEIN

At least for now it is.

END.

The Politics Of: Foistware

Last night The Omnivore updated a piece of software on his computer. It was one that hadn't been loaded in a while and it asked the usual questions. Apparently it also asked (although The Omnivore cannot confirm this) if The Omnivore wanted AVG Anti-Virus and something called "Search Assist."

As The Omnivore clicked through the various screens in rapid succession trying to get to the install, this was all lost on me--and so it was a shock (kinda--sorta) when I saw that a new tab had been added to my browser start-up pages: AVG Search.

After a moment of checking: AVG Anti Virus was also on my machine.

This was annoying: I consider messing with my search or Chrome start conditions without explicitly asking me to be malware-like behavior even if the software itself isn't definitionally a virus. I also realized that I'd been had: my failure to read the various material had opened me to the "drive-by install" called variously foistware or PUP (Potentially Unwanted Programs).

Worse--much worse--was something called "search assist." Search Assist is a piece of software that is designed to (a) try to give you pop-ups based on key-words and (b) show you videos with sound in the lower corner of your screen. This--the video with sound thing--is a first-order betrayal. I was furious--I did some checking around and determined that the Search Assist software:

  • Came (originally) from a company called Conduit, now Perion
  • It is not technically a virus or worm--but it causes a lot of trouble
  • It is extremely hard to uninstall (I tried Malware Bytes, Spybot Search & Destroy, and Ad-Aware. I finally got it with HitMan Pro)
Follow The Money
What I couldn't understand was why anyone would do this. First and foremost, why would TuneUp--a (at the time) reputable piece of software, put drive-by install stuff on its installer? Now, I know that Adobe has done it (Google Toolbar), and Java has done it (McAfee)--so at that point, I guess, why not--but something like Search Assist is only technically not a virus. There's probably no human a live who wants it.

I'm sure it exists in the wild on 'grandma's' computer where she thinks "That's just how the web works." 

Well, it turned out, on some inspection, that TuneUp had gone out of business and then been acquired--the re-launch was, apparently, monetized.

What does that mean?

Here's how it works:
As The User Can Accept Or Decline, Hide That Shit So They Accept And You Get Paid
The image is from InstallMonitizer, a company with some fairly big name backing behind it (Y Combinator, apparently) that is trying to crack the code of how to make money when everyone wants everything on the Internet for free.

The solution is this: No one will ever install your shitty-ass software so you piggy back on something they may actually want and the person making software people might actually want gets paid around a dollar per install every time someone is duped into installing your stuff.

If your stuff is an innocuous little program that sits in their list of software and never gets launched? Probably a losing proposition. If your software is designed to make you money by hijacking search queries, playing ads, and other such miserable behavior? The buck--it was worth it.

This does, of course completely erode trust in downloads as you can get "virus like software" (and trust me, Search Assist was "virus like" in every way imaginable--especially its difficulty to uninstall)--with a completely legitimate download.

So the question isn't so much about the Search Assist garbage (note: most of the how-to-get-rid-of-it stuff on the web was dated) as AVG. Why the hell is AVG in the "no one would ever buy our software" position?

What's Wrong With AVG?
It isn't exactly market-share:

AVG clocks in with a healthy 9.1% of the 2013 AV percentage. Considering that Windows is made by Microsoft that isn't too surprising. Sure, 9.1% isn't awesome--but presumably the other groups make their money too. If you can run McAfee with 3.1% of the market, AVG should be rolling in dough with basically 3 times that.

The Answer: AVG Secure Search
What Do I Get? What You Get Is Hijacked, Son
I went looking through AVG's products to see if there was some other reason they would need to stealth-install on people and, lo, the answer was right there: Secure Search. Secure Search is the "product" where AVG sets your default search engine to theirs and then purports to tell you how safe a link is. 

The key, of course, is that by monitoring your surfing they're gathering data about you--data they can monetize. But wait, aren't they ... you know ... committed to privacy? Why yes--it's right their Privacy Policy. In fact, here's the important part:
  • Create content that is relevant to you
  • Provide you with special offers that may be of interest to you, including offers relating to third party products and services
  • Assist us in creating better, customized products and services to meet your needs
  • Allow you to purchase and download products, obtain access to services or otherwise engage in activities you select
  • Help you quickly find software, services, or product information important to you
There's other stuff they do with this--but the bolded bit is key: they're gonna advertise to you or just "advertise you" using their database of your web-surfing habits. That's why it's so hard to get rid of and that's why it has a 1-star review on download.cnet.com.

Basically that Search Assist malware? Same thing--slightly different business model. NOTE: AVG did, in fact, make their search product hard to uninstall in the past. They claim it's better now. The Omnivore isn't sure (it did uninstall, apparently, through normal channels--but not everyone knows how to do that either).

Needless to say, this is pretty appalling behavior and while The Omnivore will give points for bald-facing it, the sooner their market-share drops off the bottom of the list the better. 

Why We CAN Have Nice Things
Before The Omnivore goes, though, there's something you should consider: "selling" bottled water was considered a marketing coup--charging a premium on something you can really get 'for free.' The Internet works in reverse: you get everything 'for free' and the business strategy is how to drive corporate value out of that. Invariably, if the product is free, you are the product (not sure how that works for Avast!, though).

The ecology of drive-by installs is simply an outgrowth of that: you make a nice, clean, really cool app and (a) you gotta give it away for free because that's how Windows Apps work and then (b) you want to get paid. Your donations button brings in a few clicks here and there but it isn't quite enough--so what do you do?

The answer is that you find some way to partner with someone who wants what you've got: users and their eyeballs. You can suck-up their data and sell it? Good way to get lynched. You can show them ads? You know--maybe. If your service is a web page you can bet they're ad-blocking and feeling totally justified about it.

So what are your options? Well, if I just saw 1MM downloads go by and someone said "That'd be 1M dollars, dude--and your app is just getting started ... " I'd be tempted. I'm not made of stone, you know.

On the other hand, we have a perfectly working model that can make millions of dollars overnight: the App Store.

This is what Windows needs to move to (Apple already has)--and quickly. I'm already dismissing Java updates because I don't feel like taking the time to figure out what bundle-ware they've decided to put with the software update my computer (often) will need to run.

I don't begrudge anyone making an honest buck--but when the Anti-Virus is the Virus? I think even the most cynical of us should take notice.

Don't use AVG.