Libertarian Conservatives

In the past I’ve often described someone’s views as “right-wing” only to have the person disagree vehemently. Invariably, they claim to be libertarian, and hasten to point out the differences between their views and (how they view) conservatives’. This article is an attempt to reconcile my view of them as right-wing with their view of themselves as libertarian. It’s a very US-centric discussion because that’s the context in which most of my own political debate occurs, but I hope it will be at least slightly interesting to those outside the US as well.

The classical distinction in US politics is between “liberal” and “conservative”. Both terms have, of course, drifted far from their original or intuitive meanings, but here’s my attempt to summarize:

  • Liberals believe that the government can and should act to improve the lot of individual citizens. There’s an implicit assumption that the individual citizen needs such action to overcome factors or forces – either impersonal “market forces” or plutocratic conspiracy – that would otherwise hold back and oppress them. Associated with this belief set are aspects of (mostly economic) equalization and tolerance for a larger government that liberals’ ideological opponents often mischaracterize as socialist.
  • Conservatives reject the belief that such external factors or forces play a significant role in individual success. According to them, everyone is rich or poor due only to personal merit (or lack thereof) and no intervention on their behalf by the government is called for. Conservatives therefore oppose most government spending on “entitlements” and other liberalist measures, although they’re not above replacing that spending with other spending on what they see as the legitimate functions of government – e.g. the military, or law enforcement, or improving public morality.

It’s really much more complicated than that, but in a nutshell the main point of division seems to be whether or not the government has a legitimate role helping individuals.

This brings us to the libertarians, who believe that the liberal/conservative debate misses the real point, which is individual liberty. Most people seem to think that libertarians are a third distinct group, forming an ideological triangle with liberals and conservatives. However, I think that libertarian beliefs represent a whole second axis, dividing the ideological space into not three but four segments. Libertarians believe that personal liberty must be protected against inevitable attack, but they are divided with regard to where they believe the threat lies:

  • Left-wing libertarians mostly subscribe to the liberal belief set, and think that the greatest threat to liberty comes from “special interests” (e.g. corporations or organized religion) or government acting as proxy for those special interests. Privacy issues tend to be the major focus for this group.
  • Right-wing libertarians mostly subscribe to the conservative belief set, and think that the greatest threat to liberty comes from the government’s attempts to provide for equality and other elements of the liberal agenda. Free speech, taxation, and gun control tend to be the hot buttons for this group.

There are, of course, areas where the two types of libertarians agree – e.g. copyright law. Far from indicating that libertarians are in fact a monolithic group, this is just an example of some data points in a two-axis graph lying on one of the axes.

It’s this “lying along an axis” that brings me back to my original point. The people I mention in my first paragraph are what I would call right-wing libertarians. I call them right-wing because on many issues (most notably foreign and economic policies, and hatred of Bill Clinton) they are way over on the conservative end of the liberal/conservative axis. They deny that they’re right-wing because they’re still thinking of an ideological triangle and they think right-wing only applies to the classic conservatives. In particular they seek to distance themselves from the “theocrat” form of classic conservative, much as many left-wing liberals take pains to distance themselves from the “socialist” classic liberals. All of this denial is simply the result of being stuck with the “triangle” model mentioned above. IMO the “two-axis” model does a much better job of highlighting the true philosophical differences between what really are four distinct groups plus a few individuals scattered in between.

Weblog Ecosystems

Most of my weblog activity – both reading and writing – has historically had a technical focus. Recently, though, I’ve been trying to explore more non-technical weblogs, and tonight I decided to use Steven Den Beste’s USS Clueless as a starting point. Yeah, I know Steven’s a hawkish libertarian/screwyouitarian twit sometimes, but he’s the kind of twit who provokes thought. Anyway…it didn’t take me long, as I was working through his “blogroll” to find the Blogosphere Ecosystem. Maybe everyone else knew about it before I did, but just in case I’m not the last I’ll describe it. It basically scans the front pages for a list of registered weblog sites, looking for links to other sites on the list. Then it counts up the links to each site, sorts the results, and displays rankings.

Sound familiar? It’s a lot like Google’s PageRank, or the sort of “distributed reputation system” probably best exemplified by Advogato. One thing I naturally wonder about, having made those comparisons, is how resistant the ecosystem’s tally is to deliberate tampering. If I and a bunch of friends all register our sites, and then fill up our front pages with links to each other, will we get ranked near the top?

I also wonder how much the results are dominated by the linkage to/from the highly-rated “warblogs” that the author started with. If you remove the top twenty or so from the equation, how much do the standings among the rest change? I imagine you could find all sorts of separate clusters if you really wanted to. Then again, maybe not. The tech-blog community hardly seems visible at all in the ecosystem’s lists. Similarly, the gay-blog community seems to be one of the most cohesive on the net and large enough that I run into it frequently even though I have little interest in gay issues, but they don’t seem represented either. Maybe we need multiple ecosystems. Maybe, even better, we need some automatic way to take a big unwieldy graph of links between sites and break it down naturally into separate clusters.

Delicious Mutants

I just ate my first pluot. Yum! If you should ever happen to see pluots, or apriums, or any of the other stone-fruit hybrids, in your grocery store they’re definitely worth a try.

New Look

As you’ve probably noticed already, the site has a new look. This is the culmination of two days of steady hacking. I used to have a home-grown content management system (unnamed) and a home-grown comment system (“PlatSpot”); now I’ve combined the two. Here are some of the technical changes:

  • The content-management code was changed to use (a slightly modified version of) the comment-system database.
  • The comment-system code was changed to store entries (but not comments) in the content-management directory tree.
  • A bunch of stuff was moved out of scripts and into templates.
  • All scripts were changed to make consistent use of the templates.

All well and good, but what does that mean to you, the reader?

  • Most importantly, every entry I make now has a “comments” link (look at the bottom right). Visually it’s a tiny little change, but it’s pretty huge in terms of how the site works.
  • Some important forms of backward compatibility have been maintained. Old links should still work, and old PlatSpot identities should still be valid. The “nogeek” and tunable-RSS features should be intact.
  • Layout and navigation should be much more consistent across the weblog/comment areas of the site.
  • All sorts of visual stuff changed.
  • I’ve tried to test this as well as I can, but there are probably still some bugs. Feel free to leave any bug reports or feedback as a comment on this entry, or send me email if you must.

    Worms II

    My mailbox continues to be flooded with bounce messages from an email worm originating at JTLnet and spoofing me as the sender. I just have to say, JTLnet just keeps moving up toward the top of my “broken companies” list. Getting them to perform even the simplest tasks was like pulling teeth even when I was a paying customer. Now it’s almost impossible, though I’m hoping that the threat of being listed as an open email relay (which will cut them and their users off from the rest of the email world) will spur them to action.

    Update 10:54: apparently my open-relay threat did indeed get their attention. I got email from one Thomas Paschal asking for more headers, and then a phone call from a tech named Adam (last name unknown). Apparently my previous report was sufficient to identify an infected machine, allegedly a customer’s, and the new headers are needed to identify the source of a second separate infection. I just have a few problems with this explanation:

    • The infected machine obviously has an address book full of JTLnet customer contacts. Would this be the case for a customer’s machine? Would such a customer have my address? I believe that the infection is inside JTLnet.
    • The odds of my being picked twice as the “bogus sender” are incredibly low, which casts serious doubt on the “two separate infections” theory. I believe that the first machine was never disinfected.
    • All else aside, if the problem was resolved a reply should have been sent informing me of the resolution. In the absence of such a reply I had no reason to believe any action had been taken, and was justified in “escalating” the matter.

    There’s another interesting aspect of my conversation with Adam. Right after he’d made vague threats of legal action if I sought to have them listed as an open relay (which I admit was a stretch, but the threat seems to’ve had the desired effect) he made several comments about “wanting to keep things on a professional level”. Let me make one thing perfectly clear: JTLnet is in no position to impugn anyone else’s professionalism. Network service providers who spread worms from their own internal systems have forfeited that right. Network service providers who fail to respond to incident reports have forfeited that right. Anyone who makes vague threats about legal action against people who complain about such things has forfeited that right. The lack of professionalism is theirs, and the only legal action that might succeed would have them as the defendant. The appropriate response for them would be to buckle down and fix the problem and keep their opinions or feelings to themselves. I’ve taken enough $#@! from them already, in the form of having to wade through all this bogus email and possible damage to my reputation (as people misidentify me as the source of the worm email), and I’m not inclined to take even one little bit more.

    Minoxidil for Birds

    We seem to get a lot of strange wildlife around here. Yesterday I spotted a very unusual blue jay. What was unusual about it? It was totally bald! I don’t know what would cause such a condition – disease, perhaps, or maybe some sort of insect infestation – but the result was a startlingly ugly bird. It’s still around today, and generally seems happy enough. I can’t help wonder what the other jays think, though.

    Desperately Seeking…Something

    I spent a little while yesterday, and most of the day today, playing around with a few web-logging systems, trying to evaluate which to use for the next generation here on the site. I have a fairly simple set of requirements:

    • PHP/MySQL base, since some hacking will be required to convert what I already have and I’d rather do it with familiar tools.
    • Built-in comment system with user registration optional and no clunky email-based activation.
    • Archive view by month or by category.
    • Entries/comments in plain text or HTML (no BBcodes, GMcodes or other half-assed kinds of markup).
    • Reasonable configuration/administration, reasonable database format, reasonable look and feel, etc.

    I looked at b2 and pMachine in the greatest detail, Drupal and Nucleus more briefly, and many others only very cursorily. Overall, I came away pretty disappointed. I don’t think my requirements are too weird, but everything I looked at fell down badly in at least one area. I don’t think I could use any of them without either major hacking or major changes to the look and feel of this site, and neither option appeals to me very much.

    Right now I’m thinking of just abandoning the whole “one package that does everything” idea. I already have a content-management system that works just fine; you’re using it now. I already have a comment system. It really shouldn’t be all that hard to add some hooks to tie them together a little better, and maybe share a little more code between them, and get something that at least looks more integrated. While I’m at it I might play a bit with some different layout ideas, so don’t be too surprised if there are subtle changes in how things look. Don’t worry, though; I don’t want to change the look very much. The most you should notice is more consistent behavior with respect to navbars and such, and the addition of a comment link to each log entry.

    Comfortably Numb

    A lot of people are probably wondering how my last day at EMC went, how I’m feeling about leaving, etc. I’ve deliberately left myself a couple of days to figure that out. The odd thing is that I don’t really feel that much about it. I was touched by the number of people who stopped by to talk in person about my leaving, and I’m a little bit sad to be leaving such great people. I’m also a little disappointed at leaving my project in such an uncompleted state. On the other hand, I know that the people and the work at my new job will be cool too. Overall I’m neither happy nor sad about the change. Maybe it hasn’t really sunk in yet, or maybe I’ve reached that dreaded stage where my work is just my work and not what gets me going on a deeper level. Maybe I’ve just gotten used to change. Whatever the reason is, it’s still weird to feel so little about such a big change.

    For a while now, off and on, I’ve tried to participate in discussions at Quorum. In the process, I’ve learned a few lessons about how not to design a comment/discussion system. Many of these lessons have to do with usability:

    • Displaying content in a very narrow vertical strip, with vast tracts of wasted space to the left and right, is annoying. It’s bad enough when the space is wasted because the content extends further than some kind of sidebar, but it’s absolutely inexcusable to put 200 pixels of totally empty space all the way down the left side of the page.
    • Making people click too much to see content is annoying. Presenting only one post at a time in a tree-structured discussion, with a weirdly-arranged set of links for parents/siblings/children, makes people click too much to read through a conversation.
    • Making it hard to find new posts, and especially responses to their own posts, is annoying.
    • Comment-size limits are annoying. People who want to write long posts will simply break stuff up into multiple posts, which is more cumbersome both for them and for readers.
    • Allowing HTML posts is nice, but not nearly as nice as it could be if a non-trivial set of tags were allowed. Fixing the cross-site scripting vulnerability would be nice too.

    have noticed that I used the word “annoying” multiple times above. There’s another problem with Quorum that’s more than merely annoying, and that has to do with the moderation system. I’m going to put this very simply: moderation without accountability simply invites abuse. On Quorum, moderation takes the form of “encourage” and “discourage” buttons attached to each article or comment. The moderation thus performed feeds into Quorum’s extremely weird and undocumented system for evaluating “popularity” and “relevance”. If A discourages a comment by B, everyone from C onward is less likely to see it. There are no thresholds or other tuning mechanisms C can use to express their own preference independent of A; B’s post just gets pushed down to the bottom of C’s viewing list regardless.

    The problem is that moderation in Quorum is totally anonymous, and there’s not even any kind of “meta-moderation” like Slashdot (which I consider an inferior solution anyway). There’s absolutely nothing to stop people from silencing someone they dislike or disagree with simply by pressing that “discourage” button for every single post. Several times, I’ve seen several people “drop out of sight” because of this phenomenon. Now, I’ve noticed that every single post I make, no matter how innocuous, almost immediately picks up two “discourage” moderations within a day or so, presumably because at some point in the distant past I managed to get myself on one or two abusers’ “auto-mod-down” lists.

    I’m not so much worried about my “reputation” on Quorum, because it’s of small consequence to me. The fact that I’m a target just makes the general phenomenon more visible to me. What worries me is the effect that such moderation abuse has on the conversations that occur, as some people drop out in disgust and what the remainder say is filtered through the abusers’ agendas. The motto for Quorum is “democracy is a conversation”; I’m sure its creators had aspects of democracy other than an illustration of demagoguery and astroturfing in mind, and yet those are exactly the aspects that their misguided technical decisions bring to the fore.

    I Hate Worms

    It looks like someone at my old hosting provider (JTLnet) got themselves infected with an email worm. It’s not one I recognize, but it seems to share a particularly annoying property with many other worms – it picks one address out of the infected user’s address book, and spoofs that user as it sends itself to all the rest. In fact, it’s a double spoof; the Return-path: header says one thing (always the same) and the From: header says another (varies). If I got just one hit, I’d delete it and move on, but it seems like I got picked as the lucky person whose address is used in the Return-path: so my mailbox has been filling up with bounce messages and complaints from people who received the worm from JTLnet.

    One interesting aspect of this is that the SMTP servers are even accepting connections from JTLnet. I thought they did the old POP-before-SMTP trick and other checks, but apparently not.