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I have written before on a couple of occasions about the Fermi paradox. To recap, the idea is: if life is plentiful throughout the universe and there are many sapient, industrial species, where is the evidence? The sky should be filled with radio waves and other telltale evidence.

Not necessarily because they're trying to talk to us, but because a civilization that develops tools and high technology will eventually discover radio, and radio is massively useful. We are broadcasting our existence to the universe right now--not from an attempt to be chatty with any extraterrestrial neighbors, but simply by virtue of the fact that we broadcast all kinds of noise just by virtue of being a technological species.

There are three common answers to the Fermi Paradox, which can be summed up as:

1. We're first.
2. We're rare.
3. We're fucked.

The "we're first" and "we're rare" answers suggest we don't see the evidence of technological civilizations filling the skies because technological civilizations are very, very thin on the ground in the cosmos...err, that's a jumbled metaphor, but you get what I mean.

Life may be common, but technological life might not. And there could be things--Great Filters, they're called--that aren't necessarily obvious to us, but that conspire to keep technological life rare.

Maybe it's the distribution of planets in a solar system. People who believe life is common like to point to the fact that we are an unremarkable star in an unremarkable galaxy--one of quadrillions in the observable universe.

But it turns out that while our star is unremarkable, our solar system is very weird indeed, and we still don't know why. The other solar systems we've discovered so far tend to have planets all of about the same size. Ours decidedly does not. Our planet is really very small indeed, it seems.

So whatever caused our solar system to be so weird might be a Great Filter. It may be that it's hard to get sapient life that uses technology and builds cities on a huge planet or a gas giant.

So that might be a Great Filter.

The third solution, "we're fucked," proposes that there is a great filter, but it's ahead of us, not behind us. This solution suggests that the things a new sapient species needs to survive when it's young--things like aggressiveness, tribalism, xenophobia, aggression, and violence--work against that species when it reaches the point of globe-spanning civilizations. The reason we don't see the skies filled with traces of advanced sapient species is advanced sapient species tend to destroy themselves, simply by virtue of the fact that the traits they need to survive when they're young inevitably act against survival when they're mature.

Okay, so that's the backstory.

Let's talk about the James Webb Space Telescope.




The James Webb Space Telescope is due to launch next year. When it does, one of its primary missions is to examine the atmosphere of known exoplanets, looking for traces of oxygen.

Oxygen in the air is rather a big deal. Planets don't have free oxygen without life. This planet started out with a reducing atmosphere, not an oxygenating one. It didn't get oxygen in the air until the advent of cyanobacteria and oxygenic photosynthesis.

Oxygenic photosynthesis is a complex, fiddly process that may have evolved only once. When it did, everything changed. Oxygen is poison to anaerobic life. The coming of cyanobacteria started the Great Oxygen Catastrophe--that's actually what it's called--that wiped out almost every species on earth. And paved the way for us.

Oxygen might be necessary for sapience, simply because cellular metabolism in the absence of oxygen is necessarily limited and sluggish. Active metabolisms require oxygen, at least so far as we can tell.

And brains require highly active metabolisms indeed. Information processing is horrendously energy-intensive. Your brain consumes a substantial fraction of your body's total energy capacity. No Oxygen Catastrophe probably means no animals with central nervous systems and almost certainly means no sapience.

Oxygen can't stay put. It's too reactive. If every photosynthetic organism died, our atmosphere would return to non-oxygenating, as the oxygen in the air reacted and combined with things.

So if you see oxygen in a planet's atmosphere, that means something's continually putting it there. Like photosynthesis or some similar process. And that probably means life.




When James Webb is online, it will either see oxygen on exoplanets or it won't.

If it doesn't, that points to oxygenic photosynthesis as a rare innovation. Which means we might owe our existence to cyanobacteria, and that means at least one Great Filter is behind us.

It also means complex life with energetic metabolisms--animals--is probably incredibly rare in the universe.

On the other hand, if we see oxygen everywhere, that probably means that oxygenic photosynthesis is a common innovation, which suggests a universe not only teeming with life but possibly complex life.

It also means that at least one potential Great Filter behind us isn't a Great Filter, which raises the odds of a Great Filter ahead of us.

I'm not sure which result I'm hoping for: a lonely universe with greater odds of our survival, or a teeming universe with lower.




For 12 hours today, my partner Eve and I are writing one blog post for every contribution we get to the crowdfunding campaign for our novel, Black Iron. We call it Write Like a Motherfucker. Want to make us dance? Send people to the campaign page! You can follow along via the #WLAMF hashtag on Twitter, or in the Facebook event. For the origin of the #WLAMF hashtag, see my first WLAMF first post from 2014.


Eve and I have finished our first novel, Black Iron.

No, it's not a novel about polyamory. It's part heist caper, part political intrigue, set in an alternate 1855 London in a world where Queen Victoria doesn't exist, the Protestant Reformation didn't happen, and the British don't drink tea. (But there's still a war in Afghanistan, because there's always war in Afghanistan.)

We're really excited about this book. To get a sense of what it's like, think of Terry Pratchett had read too much George RR Martin as a child and you'll have a general idea.

We've launched a Web site about it. We're also really excited about the cover concept art by the phenomenally talented Julie Dillon.



And you can get an early copy, before it's on the shelves! Just support our crowdfunding here. There's all sorts of cool stuff you can get besides just the book!


London calling!

Eve and I have a new book coming out soon, and you, O readers of this blog, will soon be able to get it earlier than it arrives in book stores!

Watch this space!



An update to the Map of Non-Monogamy

Way, waaaaaay back in 2010, I created a Venn diagram (well, if you can still call something a Venn diagram when it has dozens of bits that intersect in some pretty mind-bending ways) of the variations of non-monogamy I've observed.

The Map of Non-Monogamy ended up all over the Internet. I've seen it in Fetlife, presented at academic lectures, and I know of at least one Masters thesis that includes it.

Now, after seven long years, I've finally done an update, significantly redesigning it and adding relationship anarchy and solo polyamory. Here, in all its glory, is the newly redesigned Map of Non-Monogamy. The preview here is teensy, so you can click on it to embiggen.



I've redesigned the new map as a (big!) 24x36-inch poster. So what say you, O Internet? If I spend a lot of money to have them printed (printing posters that big ain't cheap!), would you buy one?

[edited to add] You can now pre-order the poster! It will ship in late January or early February. Preorders are $15 for one poster or $100 for ten. Pre-order a poster here!


Well, it looks like we did it again...

We wrote another book! Yep, you read that right. Eve and I have just finished another book...and no, it's not about relationships.

This book is called Black Iron, and it's a novel. No, not a poly novel. A novel set in 1855 in a world where the Protestant Reformation never happened, the British Empire doesn't exist, the Colonies are still Colonies, and the British don't drink tea.

But there's still a war in Afghanistan. It turns out that there are some things you can change, when you're building a new history, and some things you...well, can't.

Oh, and it's a comedy. Think Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, if they'd grown up on a steady diet of George RR Martin. (Yes, people die. This is the new normal for fiction. Get used to it.)

Here's an excerpt to give you a taste:

Priorities, Thaddeus thought. Gold was nice. Life was better. Time to do what he did best.

He turned and bolted, feeling a swish of air as the dagger passed through the space he had just vacated. A moment later he was through the door and in the warren of tiny, confusing alleys that together made up the dock district of Old New London.

The sun was nearly gone. Sensible people were heading home, and people of Thaddeus’ sort were not yet out. Thaddeus chose a direction at random and plunged off as fast as he could, weaving through the crowd of laborers and merchants of the petty sort. Behind him, the door to the tiny shack, really little more than a pile of planks coaxed by a trick of the carpenter’s artifice into believing it was a storeroom, banged open.

Run now. Think later.

The dock district was a tangle of lanes and alleys, some of them little more than crevices between rows of warehouses. It hadn’t been built so much as thrown up. The engine of commerce was constantly arranging and rearranging the architecture, and many of the pathways seemed more like accidents of urban geography than anything intended to conduct traffic.

Thaddeus saw an opening between two buildings on his left, completely deserted. He darted through it and flattened himself against the wall. His pursuer flashed by the opening, a blurred shape in the failing light. Thaddeus exhaled slowly. That should buy him a few moments.

He crept carefully down the alley, cursing his shoes. The hard soles, so practical for walking down broad, well-paved streets, slapped on the rough cobblestone. Even a blind rat could follow him, Thaddeus thought.

The passageway opened up into a wider space, with alleys heading off in all directions. A young girl, perhaps in her tenth year, looked up at Thaddeus with an expression of suspicion. She was dressed entirely in rags.

“D’you have a shilling, mister?”

Thaddeus paused for a moment, panting. “No. I don’t have a shilling. I should have a lot of shillings, but I don’t. Listen, there’s a bad man chasing me. Which way should I go?”

She looked Thaddeus up and down appraisingly. “That’s a rum qab y’ got.”

“What?”

“I ken your qab.” She held out her hand. “Give it t’me.”

Thaddeus looked around wildly. He could hear feet pounding down the alley toward him. He took off his top-hat and handed it to the girl. “Which way do I go?”

She examined the hat with a critical air. Thaddeus felt his hands curl into fists.

“There,” she said, pointing. “That way.”

“Thank you, little girl. Don’t tell the bad man where I am, okay?”

She nodded.

Thaddeus ran down the alley she had pointed to as though all the legions of Hell were behind him. Not that there was much difference between that and one person hell-bent on murder behind him. Past a certain point, it stopped mattering how many people were trying to kill you.

The alley extended barely twenty yards before it ended in a rough brick wall. Thaddeus stopped. The girl had sent him down a dead end. Refuse-dumps lined both sides.

Behind him, he heard a voice, glutinous and sibilant. “Little girl, have you seen a man run this way?”

“Maybe,” she said. “D’you have a shilling?”

“Oh, yes. I have a shilling for you,” came that slithery voice.

There was a pause. Then, “He’s that way. Down Ambush Alley.”

Thaddeus felt his heart freeze in his chest. “Oh, you impudent little urchin,” he thought to himself. He flattened himself against the wall, as far in the corner as he could get. The refuse-dumps were almost empty and offered little cover. He crouched in the deepest part of the shadow, holding his breath.

A shadow loomed in the far end of the alley, a man-shaped hole in the fading light. He was nearly silent. It was easy, when you have the proper footwear. The knife gleamed in his hand.

Thaddeus held himself still. The shape glided closer. He willed himself to melt into the shadow.

Another step closer. Another. The man was cautious, wary of cornered prey. Closer.

Thaddeus exploded out at him. The man reacted almost instantly, the dagger thrusting up and out.

Fortunately, there is a world of difference between “almost instantly” and “instantly.”

They crashed into each other. The dagger flashed and gleamed. Thaddeus brought his foot up. The hard metal tip collided hard with a particularly sensitive portion of the man’s body.

The man fell, eerily silent. The dagger skittered across the cobblestones. Thaddeus leapt past him, heading back the way he had come.

The child was still standing where she had been. Thaddeus’ top-hat sat on her head, nearly covering her eyes. She looked solemnly at him. “D’you have a shilling now?” she asked.


We've launched a Web site where you can sign up for pre-order information. Check it out!

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I've just posted a review of the cringe-inducing Professor Marston and the Search for the Holy Unicorn, a one hour and forty-eight minute study in gaslighting and sexual grooming. Here's the teaser:

I am polyamorous. I am kinky. I have seen at least one Wonder Woman movie. Ergo, I am precisely the target demographic for the movie Fifty Shades of Professor Marston and the Great Wonder Unicorn Hunt Women, the movie that is taking Hollywood by storm as it zooms from first-run theaters to the dollar cinema faster than Starship Troopers 3.

I blinked, and so nearly missed the film in its theatrical release, but never fear! Vancouver has one of those theaters that sells beer and cut-rate tickets, with those chairs that make you sit with your knees in your nose and the floors that are always suspiciously sticky, so I was able to plunk down a few hard-earned Canadian dollars and experience the wonder for myself.

At least I think that's what that feeling was. It might have been my kidney infection.

The movie goes something like this:

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Why are people burning my comic books?

OUTRAGEOUSLY STRAIGHTLACED WOMAN: It's the 1940s. That's what we do. Now, we want to ask you a bunch of leading and excessively moralistic questions about your comic book.

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Very well, let me begin with a flashback.

He BEGINS with a FLASHBACK

PROFESSOR MARSTON: My new undergrad psychology student is hot.

ELIZABETH MARSTON: I've got bad news and good news. The bad news is this is the 1930s, which means Harvard won't give me a Ph.D. because I'm a woman. The good news is that this is the 1930s, which means there's no such thing as an ethics review board, so if you want to sexually groom and then experiment on your undergrad student in really creepy ways that totally objectify her and violate her consent, that's okay. Also, I have no concept of sexual jealousy.

The polyamorous people in the audience CHEER

ELIZABETH MARSTON: I also have no concept of consent.

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Awesome! This will be fun. What is your name, hot undergrad student?

UNICORN: You may call me Unicorn.


You can read the whole thing here.


I wrote a new thing!

For the first time in more than a year (has it really been that long?), I've added a new page to the More Than Two site: Is polyamory unnatural?

This page came from a new line of attack aimed at polyamory I've started hearing lately: "Polyamory means doing a lot of work to overcome jealousy. Doesn't that mean you're basically programming yourself to normalize something that's unnatural?"

Yeah, I made that noise the first time I read it, too. But then I started hearing it again, and again, and I thought, okay, mmmmaybe this deserves a reply.

So I wrote a thing. You can see the thing here:

Is polyamory unnatural?

Here's the teaser:

Poly people are always talking about ways to defeat jealousy. Isn’t that just conditioning yourself to accept something unnatural?

No, seriously, don’t laugh–this is an honest question that’s being raised more and more often as an objection to polyamory. If being able to function in a relationship requires that you work hard to overcome an emotion like jealousy, doesn’t that mean you’re simply trying to desensitize yourself to a perfectly natural and reasonable feeling, and that polyamory really isn’t a natural choice?
Polyamorous people talk a lot about jealousy partly because it’s something that we get asked about a lot, and partly because, yes, it’s a perfectly normal emotion we’ve all faced at some point in time. And honestly, if all you feel is jealousy in a polyamorous relationship–if all you do is fight against your emotions all the time, and there’s no joy in polyamory for you–maybe it’s really not the right relationship choice. It’s okay to be monogamous. It’s okay not to want to be in plural relationships if that model isn’t a good fit. If you see nothing but struggle in polyamory, and there’s no upside, hey, don’t be polyamorous!
And don’t let anyone tell you polyamory is “more advanced” or “more evolved” either–that’s hornswoggle.

But here’s the thing…

Jealousy isn’t a polyamorous issue. Monogamous people can and do feel jealousy, too. Developing tools to deal with jealousy makes everyone’s life better, regardless of whether you’re monogamous or not.


You can read the rest here.


There's a new blog post on franklinveaux.com: Does love mean opening yourself up to abuse? You can read it here:

http://blog.franklinveaux.com/2017/04/does-love-mean-giving-someone-the-power-to-abuse-you/

Note: After fifteen years, I've stopped bloggong on LiveJournal. This is why.


It's time to pack up and move

I've been blogging on LiveJournal since August of 2001. And what a long, strange trip it's been. In the past fifteen and a half years, I've seen a lot of changes in the way people use social media: the rise and subsequent fall of a whole host of blogging services, the gradual fading away of USENET and email lists, Facebook's march to supremacy.

In all that time I've continued to use Livejournal, partly because a lot of people know about my blog and follow me there, and partly because after more than a decade it becomes exceptionally difficult to move.

Today, when I signed on to LiveJournal, I found the writing on the wall:



LiveJournal was bought many moons ago by a Russian company, but only recently moved its servers to Russia. And since doing so, it's been required to update its Terms of Service to comply with Russian law, which is rather odious and, well, Russian.

I don't intend to go into a full analysis of the implications of the new ToS. That's been done already in many places on the Web, including here, here, here, and here. (Interestingly, there's no discussion of the change on the official LJ Policy community, and in fact there hasn't been any discussion there since 2015.)

The bits I do want to talk about are those bits directly relevant to me and this blog.

The new Terms of Service have two provisions that directly impact me: in accordance with Russian law, any blog or community read by more than 3,000 readers is considered a 'publication' and is subject to State controls on publications, including the provision that the blogger or moderator is legally liable under Russian law for any content posted by any user; and blogs are prohibited from "perform[ing] any other actions contradictory to the laws of the Russian Federation."

This blog is routinely read by more than 3,000 people, making me a "publisher" under Russian law.

And, more worrying, the Russian "gay propaganda law" forbids discussion of "sexual deviancy," which includes LGBTQ issues. "Propaganda of non-traditional relationships" is forbidden by this law.

I'm not concerned that the Kremlin is going to demand my extradition to Russia to face trial. I am concerned that there's a very real possibility this blog may disappear at any time without warning.




For a couple of years now, I've kept a backup of this blog over at blog.franklinveaux.com. The blog there is a mirror of the blog here, though links over there point to blog entries here rather than there. (Fixing that will be a massive undertaking, involving changing many hundreds of links in thousands of blog posts.)

I moved my LJ to WordPress, a process that was extraordinarily painful. There is an LJ importer for WordPress, and a tutorial for moving your LJ blog to Wordpress here, but, as I discovered, there are a few gotchas.

First, the LJ importer plugin was not tested on large blogs. It requires enormous amounts of memory to import a LiveJournal blog with more than a couple hundred entries; at the time I did the migration, I had north of 1,600 blog posts. Second, it chokes on blog entries that have more than 100 or so comments.

Many, perhaps most, Web hosting companies place limitations on memory and CPU usage that prevent the WordPress LJ importer from working on large blogs.

Second, it won't move images. If you have uploaded images to LJ's servers, you must download them and re-upload them to your new WordPress blog.

I was unable to use the LJ importer to import my entire LiveJournal blog. I finally discovered a workaround, but it's cumbersome:

  1. Create a free WordPress blog at WordPress.com.

  2. Use the importer there (it's in the Tools menu) to import your LiveJournal blog.

    If you're okay hosting your new blog at Wordpress.com, you're done. If, however, you wish to host your blog on your own server with your own WordPress installation, there are a few more steps:


  3. Use the Exporter to export a WordPress XML file of the blog.

  4. Set up your own self-hosted WordPress installation on your own server.

  5. Import the file you exported from Wordpress.com.


Images you have uploaded to LJ will, as I've mentioned, need to be uploaded to your WordPress blog. (Thank God I've never done this; I've always put my images on my own server and linked to them there.)

The problem is compounded by the fact that LiveJournal has never wanted you to move. There's no graceful way to export your LJ blog. There is an exporter of sorts, but it only exports a month at a time. The Wayback Machine at archive.org doesn't archive LiveJournal posts, at least not consistently (it has crawled my blog only 37 times despite the fact that I have some 1,700 blog entries).




This is a huge problem. LiveJournal was one of the first blogging platforms, and a tremendous amount of very valuable information about the rise of social media is in danger of being lost.

This is, of course, the curse of the modern age. A diary written with pen and paper can be lost in an attic for centuries and then, once discovered, provide insight into the lives of people in a long-gone time. But we don't record our lives that way any more. Today, our journals are kept on computer servers--servers owned by other people. And there's no leaving these journals in an attic for a century for future people to find. They require constant, and sometimes very difficult, work to maintain. Anything you host on someone else's servers for free is subject to someone else's whims.

I am dedicated to doing the work to preserve my journal. From now on, I will not be posting new journal entries here. This blog will remain for as long as it can, and I will post links here to blog updates over on blog.franklinveaux.com. I encourage others to do the same. Anything here is subject to the vargarities of Russian law and should be assumed to be unstable, subject to deletion without warning.

From this point forward, please link to new blog posts on blog.franklinveaux.com, not LiveJournal. Over the next few months, I plan to work on linking my most popular LiveJournal entries back to their mirrors on franklinveaux, and updating links there to point ot blog posts there rather than here.

Oh, and the last person to leave LJ, please remember to turn off the lights.

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There is an Italian version of More Than Two. Or rather, there is, in an alternate universe in which the Italian publisher who published the Italian-language edition of More Than Two was honest and abided by its agreements, an Italian version of More Than Two. Alas, that universe is not this universe.

In the universe we live in, the publisher signed an agreement, but then never made the payment that would have activated the rights transfer. They also added a foreword without consulting with us first, something explicitly forbidden in the agreement.

Okay, so that's shitty and all, but the place where things get especially weird is that so far, every Italian person we've talked to about this has nodded sagely and said, "Well, yes. That's Italy."

Since things have gone sideways with the Italian publisher, I've heard a number of stories of commiseration from Italians. This is, it seems, about par for the course when one sets out to do business in Italy.

Which is really weird, when you think about it.

But I didn't come here to complain about the Italian publisher of More Than Two. I came here to talk about game theory.




Say you're a businessperson who deals with a certain...unsavory element buying and selling products you legally oughtn't. Say that, for your security and that of your clients, you always do business anonymously. You don't know who your clients are, they don't know who you are, and never the two of you shall meet. You do business indirectly: you leave a suitcase full of money under the tree stump at the old Dearborn farm, and your client leaves a sack with the shady goods under a trestle out by the abandoned railroad bridge.

This is a variant on the Prisoner's Dilemma problem, which I've touched on before in the context of polyamory. This is a classic problem in game theory. You have a choice: leave your money or leave an empty suitcase. Your mystery client has a choice: leave the goods or leave an empty sack. If you both leave what you're supposed to leave, you both benefit. If one of you leaves what you're supposed to leave and the other leaves nothing, then whoever left nothing makes out double--he gets the money and the goods. And if you both leave nothing, neither of you loses but neither of you gains, either.

In game theory terms, you each have a choice: cooperate (C) or defect (D). Each of you chooses C or D. If you both choose C, you both benefit a little; if you both choose D, neither of you benefits but you also don't lose; if one chooses C and once chooses D, the person who chooses C loses and the person who chooses D gains.

The temptation, then, is very strong to defect.

Ah, but what if you don't have just a single exchange? What if you have a standing arrangement where you do the transaction every Friday night at midnight? If your mystery partner defects, you will naturally lose trust, and you'll have no reason to cooperate. But if both of you defect all the time, neither of you is getting what you want! Presumably you want the goods more than you want the money, and presumably they want the money more than they want the goods, or else you'd never agree to the exchange. So what benefit is there in both of you practicing an all-defect strategy?

So the calculation is a bit different in one-off exchanges (where there's strong incentive to defect) vs. an ongoing relationship (where there's incentive to cooperate).




These situations play out all the time in real life. Every day, we have choices to cooperate or defect, where defecting might give us short-term gain, but at the cost of long-term success. Some of those choices are made in situations where there won't be an ongoing relationship, and some in situations where there will.

Most of the time, we know the other player in these games; it's rare the other side is totally anonymous. It's also rare each side is powerless to seek redress if one party defects. In fact, you could make a case for the notion that's what civilization is: a system designed to prevent people from practicing an all-defect strategy without consequence.

We are a social species. Social entities have to work together. If everyone defects all the time, social structures break down. This is, in fact, hypothesized as the root of altruism: for social species, altruism has positive survival value. Working together, we can accomplish more, and survive challenges we can't survive apart. (There's a book about this, in fact; it's called The Evolution of Cooperation.)

But there's no getting around the fact that defecting does offer a short-term payoff, especially if you do it and your partner doesn't. And there's a huge penalty for cooperating if your partner defects. Them's the facts.

In most human societies, most people cooperate most of the time. In some societies, however, it seems people are more prone to defect.

The Italian publisher applied and all-defect strategy with us. They defected when they didn't pay us, and defected again when they added a foreword. When we complained, they said they'd stop selling the book until we resolved our differences; and while we were in the process of negotiating with them to do so, they defected yet again, continuing to sell and advertise the book when they'd said they'd stop. And then, when we complained again, they said, "Ok, sue us, Italian courts are so slow it'll never go to trial--and even if it does, we don't have any money anyway."

So finally, we stopped trying to negotiate, issued a statement, and started filing takedown requests. From the publisher's perspective, this probably felt like a defection. And neither we nor the publisher got what we wanted. And everyone shrugged and said, "Yeah, that's Italy for you."

Worse, the fact that we pulled the plug probably validated the publisher's idea. "See," they might say, "this is why we behave the way we do--because, look, people are always screwing us!" When you practice an all-D strategy, your partners are going to defect too. Which means you should defect, because they're going to defect, so why should you be the only chump cooperating?




But here's the thing: Since we are, arguably, evolved to be cooperative; since most of the encounters we have are not one-off exchanges (and even if they are, word gets around--if you screwed your last ten customers, the eleventh might not want to deal with you); and since societies need some minimum level of cooperating in order to function...why do we occasionally see places where people appear to play an all-D strategy?

One person Eve and I have spoken to has suggested that Italy has such a long history of corrupt, dysfunctional politics and essentially broken legal systems that people have developed a habit of breaking rules, simply because in a corrupt society, you must break rules simply to get anything done. This pattern has played out in Russia as well, another place where, it seems, all-D strategies are common. If that's true, it would seem to create a perfect storm of positive feedback: people begin to defect routinely, as a matter of course, because the social systems have become dysfunctional. This causes the social systems to become more dysfunctional, because societies in which many people tend to defect are intrinsically dysfunctional. That increased dysfunction causes more people to defect more often in their exchanges with others, which leads to greater dysfunction, and so it goes.

Which, if that's true, bodes ill.

There is, right now, in the US White House, a person who has made a career of defecting. The Cheeto-in-Chief is notorious for screwing his contractors, his vendors, and his financial backers; that's why he ended up in bed with Russian banks--American banks refuse to do business with him. His Orangeness has surrounded himself with people who also tend to practice all-D strategies; indeed, one could argue that the Tea Party was virtually built on a foundation of all-D behavior.

I fear that, if this idea becomes entrenched enough in US society, it will become normalized to defect as a matter of course, in all kinds of business and social interactions. Once that positive feedback loop sets in, I'm not sure how, or if, it can be reversed.

And people will sigh, and nod, and say, "You got screwed by an American company? Yeah, that's the Americans for you."

A society that works this way will never remain a world power. (Russia, I'm looking at you here.)


The Return of the Spam Tsunami

As regular readers of this blog know, I am an amateur infosec researcher, and I track spam and malware as a hobby. And, as many of you know, there are certain names--ISPs, people, affiliate networks, content delivery networks--that tend to come up again and again whenever you do a deep dive into the seedy, twisted world of spam and malware.

A while back, I wrote a blog post about a prolific spammer named Mike Boehm, who makes money sending spam emails that advertise affiliate links on affiliate Web sites. Every time someone clicks a link in one of his spam emails, they're redirected through a network of computers, all designed to put distance between the spam email and the final site, until eventually arriving at an affiliate Web site, which pays Mr. Boehm for the referral.

Lately, I've found myself buried under a blizzard--nay, dare I say, a tsunami--of spam emails that all have very similar characteristics. They advertise a site, usually with a cheap top level domain that nobody wants such as .stream or .science or .faith. Visiting the site shows a plain white page with an animated "Loading" graphic. Then, after a few seconds, you end up on a completely different site, the one actually advertised in the spam.

These spam emails have some but not all of the characteristics of Mike Boehm spam. It's been hard to track them, because they use complex JavaScript to attempt to hide how the redirection works, what affiliate network they're using, and where they redirect to. I've been collecting examples, and as the number of these spam emails arriving in my inbox has risen, so too has my blood pressure.

Today, it finally reached the point where I sat down and did the work to take apart the tricky JavaScript redirectors and figure out what's happening.

Lo and behold, the JavaScript is used to redirect visitors through Clickbank, a favored affiliate network used by Mike Boehm in the past.

The system works like this:



Basically, the spamvertised site contains hidden iFrames and/or hidden divs that have a redirection JavaScript. The redirection JavaScript attempts to conceal where the page is redirecting to. The code on the Spamvertised pages looks like this:


<script type="text/javascript" src="hxxp://[spamvertised domain]/ajax/get_js/main/"></script>
<title>Loading...</title>
<meta hxxp-equiv="content-type" content="text/html; charset=UTF-8" />
</head>
<body>
<div style="position:absolute;top:-1000px;left:-1000px;height:0px;width:0px;"><a href="hxxp://www.buzsounds.faith/tr11/6/685/416/510/81/26391725/index.htm" style="border=0;"><div></div></a></div>
<div id="show_loading">
<center><br /><br /><img src='hxxp://[spamvertised domain]/ajax/get_imgl/loading.gif/' /></center>
</div>
<div id="content" style="display:none;">
<iframe id="content_window">
<html>
<body>
<center><br /><br /><img src='hxxp://[spamvertised domain]/ajax/get_imgl/loading.gif/' /></center>
</body>
</html>
</iframe>
</div>
<script type="text/javascript">
$(document).ready(
function() {
if (ajax._loaded == false) {
var _doc = ajax.getIframeCW(document.getElementById('content_window'));
_doc.body.innerHTML = '<html><body><center><br /><br /><img src=\'hxxp://[spamvertised domain]/ajax/get_imgl/loading.gif/\' /></center></body></html>';
}
}
);
ajax.getMainPage(
param1,
param2,
param3,
param4,
param5,
param6,
param7,
qs
);
</script>



The JavaScript loaded from the script tag assembles a URL from the parameters, then loads the content of that URL.


getMainPage : function(m,l,li,s,u,o,c) {
var _u = "";

if (u == '') {
if (o == '' && c == '') {
_u = host_name+'ajax_m/get_main_page/'+m+'/'+l+'/'+li+'/'+s+'/';
}else{
_u = host_name+'ajax_m/get_main_page/'+m+'/'+l+'/'+li+'/'+s+'/'+o+'/'+c+'/';
}
}else {
if (o == '' && c == '') {
_u = host_name+'ajax_m/get_main_page/'+m+'/'+l+'/'+li+'/'+s+'/'+u+'/';
}else{
_u = host_name+'ajax_m/get_main_page/'+m+'/'+l+'/'+li+'/'+s+'/'+u+'/'+o+'/'+c+'/';
}

}

if(qs != '') {
_u = _u+"qs/?"+qs;
}

$.ajax({
url: _u,
success: function(data) {

if (pg_st == 0) {
var _w = window;
_w.location = data;
}else{
$('#show_loading').css('display','block');
$('#content').css('display','none');
var _doc = document.getElementById('content_window');
_doc.src = data;
_doc.onload = ajax.flip;
}
}
});
},



The URL that's assembled contains nothing but a text string to yet another URL. And, as it turns out, that URL belongs--surprise!--to Clickbank.

In the past, Clickbank has been reasonably responsive to spam complaints. I won't say they're great (they're slow and often don't take action until I've complained multiple times), but they do eventually shut down spamming affiliates.

They shut Mike Boehm down multiple times, and for a while, I was seeing very little spam from him.

This new tsunami of spam, accompanied by the sneaky attempts to conceal the Clickbank redirects, suggests that he's back to his old tricks, but this time trying to prevent anyone from complaining and having him shut down again.

I've managed to find the affiliate IDs he's using and file complaints with Clickbank. I hope they shut him down again.

There's a degree of entitlement among spammers I rarely see outside abusers.


Movie review: The Great Wall

We didn't plan to see The Great Wall. We actually intended to see Get Out, but owing to an unfortunate accident with a parallax time distortion unit and a group of Brazilian terrorists, we ended up in the theater a week early. The only movie that had not yet started playing was The Great Wall, starring a bunch of CG space aliens, Willem Dafoe as John Hurt doing an impression of Keanu Reeves, Matt Damon as Matt Damon, and Tian Jing as an archer-specialized player character from Skyrim.


Seriously, tell me this isn't glass armor from Skyrim.


So, with some trepidation, we ventured into the theater, expectations and parallax time distortion unit appropriately recalibrated.

The movie goes something like this:

MATT DAMON: The Chinese have the secret of black powder. We do not. Let us venture to China and steal black powder from the Chinese.
MATT DAMON'S SIDEKICK: Wait, what? If they have black powder and we don't, doesn't that mean they have better weapons than we do, thus making stealing from their military kind of a bad idea?
MATT DAMON: That's why we brought expendable extras with us. Plus, I have a magnet.
MATT DAMON'S SIDEKICK: Why do you have a magnet?
MATT DAMON: Because unlike you, I read the script.
EXPENDABLE EXTRAS: Hang on, back up a second. What was that part about expendable--

CG SPACE ALIENS come out of NOWHERE and kill the EXPENDABLE EXTRAS.

MATT DAMON: Matt Damon!

MATT DAMON and MATT DAMON'S SIDEKICK kill a CG SPACE ALIEN and chop off its ARM

MATT DAMON: Let's take that arm with us.
MATT DAMON'S SIDEKICK: Wait, what? Why?
MATT DAMON: Because it's a CG space alien's arm, of course!

Arr! Spoilers be down below!Collapse )