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Tuesday, July 30, 2002

Spy Games
Working with the CIA by Garrett Jones : An interesting and informative article written by a retired case officer for the CIA. His stated goal is to provide insight into the working relationship between the military and the CIA. Basically, what it comes down to is communication: The CIA doesn't understand enough about the Military and its operations, and, conversely, the Military doesn't understand enough about the CIA and its operations. Good, effective communication is essential. In the course of explaining the ins-and-outs of the profession, Jones illuminates some of the unique logistical challenges of the profession, as well as some of the "pretty strange people" you meet when recruiting intelligence "assets":
Before everything else, human assets are recruited because they have access to secret information that can be obtained in no other manner. This means that not only may the asset not be a nice person, it also means he was not selected because he was brave, smart, or particularly hard-working.
Thus, by definition, the best assets are pretty strange people. The case officers handling these assets normally develop a fairly complicated relationship with their assets, becoming everything from father confessor to morale booster, from disciplinarian to best buddy. Like sausages and laws, if you have a queasy stomach, you don't want to see the case officer-asset relationship up close.
As usual, crappy movies and video games have given us the wrong idea about the intelligence community... Spies aren't super-commandos or James Bond-like secret agents, they are mostly just repeating what they've heard from people or what has come across their desk. They do not react favourably to being asked to do something new and strange. Additionally, Jones notes that "existing CIA stations were not established in order to support your mission, and existing CIA human assets were not originally recruited to support your mission". What this means is that intelligence is slow, and that there will be a lot of frustration and anxiety before the situation improves. Again, its a fascinating article, and well worth the read. [found via the Punchstack]
Posted by Mark on July 30, 2002 at 11:44 PM .: link :.

Monday, July 29, 2002

The internet has given voice to many an amateur, and usually, the term "amateur" is appropriate. But in some cases, the quantity and quality of material produced renders the term meaningless. James Berardinelli has been reviewing films on the internet for years, and he does so more consistantly and thouroughly than many professional film critics. In a certain sense, he is anything but an "amateur". Take this recent review of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. With one line he completely sums up my feelings about the movie:
Watching this movie is like eating cotton candy - there's a lot of sweetness and not much substance, but it's a joy to consume while it lasts.
That line is just so dead-on that it's almost scary. Unlike a lot of web gems, Mr. Berardinelli actually has achieved a certain amount of recognition, from people like me to big name film critics like Roger Ebert, and it is well deserved, too.
Posted by Mark on July 29, 2002 at 05:50 PM .: link :.

Monday, July 22, 2002

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!
Cargo Cult Science by Richard Feynman : Feynman's classic scathing critique of the pseudo-science typified by the "cargo cult" of South Sea islanders:
In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.
You see this sort of thing often, usually done purposely in order to advance a certain agenda. As Feynman notes, one of the classic examples is advertising. "Wesson oil doesn't soak through food" - well, that's true. But what's missing is that no oils soak through food (when operated at a certain temperature, which is an additional misleading implication). To do away with this, Feynman makes a few suggestions:
In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.
If you've made up your mind to test a theory, or you want to explain some idea, you should always decide to publish it whichever way it comes out. If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make the argument look good. We must publish BOTH kinds of results.
These practices are indeed very important, and are often glossed over in the name of brevity or to save money... don't allow yourself to be fooled by silly correlations and inflated numbers. I've found that there are a lot of issues that are quite simply on the outside, but when you dig deep, you find lots of contradicting information, making the issue that much more complex... [link found via USS Clueless in the midst of a discussion of international law, though the entry about "benchmarks" of Macs also seems relevant]
Posted by Mark on July 22, 2002 at 05:47 PM .: link :.

Sunday, July 21, 2002

Footnotes from Beyond the Zero, part II
For those who will inevitably be flummoxed by this entry, be aware that it is part of an ongoing attempt to illustrate some of the things in Thomas Pynchon's novel, Gravity's Rainbow, that I find interesting (see Part I)... This is going to be a weird one, folks, so lets stay frosty:

Dr. Laszlo Jamf was a Pavlovian psychologist who sought to condition an infant (Tyrone Slothrop), but previous attempts at such experiments brought in too much subjectivity. How can you quantitatively measure fear (as a previous experiment had attempted)? Dr. Jamf, therefore, decided that his indicator would be the erection of a male infant. Fear is subjective, "but a hardon, that's either there, or it isn't. Binary, elegant. The job of observing it can even be done by a student".

Unconditioned stimulus = stroking penis with antiseptic cotton swab.
Unconditioned response = hardon.
Conditioned stimulus = x.
Conditioned response = hardon whenever x is present, stroking is no longer necessary, all you need is that x.

But what is x? It is the "Mystery Stimulus" that has fascinated generations of behavioral-pyschologists, and that is the whole point of the experiment. Traditionally, the subject of the experiment would have to be de-conditioned. Dr. Jamf would have to "extinguish" the hardon reflex he'd built up. This is where things get tricky: "...we must also realize that extinction can proceed beyond the point of reducing a reflex to zero. We cannot therefore judge the degree of extinction only by the magnitude of the reflex or its absence, since there can still be a silent extinction beyond the zero."

Apparently, Dr. Jamf extinguished only to the point of zero, ignoring the "silent extinction beyond the zero". Lt. Tyrone Slothrop was discovered many years later (now a man) to be quite sexually active. He even has a map on which he has marked his sexual conquests. Oddly, the marked points on the map happen to coincide identically with V-2 rocket impact sites! This is what seems to indicate some sort of latent conditioned response in Slothrop... Naturally, there is all sorts of speculation as to how this could be.

Further complicating matters, apparently the list of sexual conquests/rocket impact sites are described by a Poisson Distribution, a probability density function (one that tends to pop up in nature quite often).

So, yes, Gravity's Rainbow has its share of interesting ideas, existing beside all of its beautiful nonsensical prose. Just one interesting note concerning the etymology of "Jamf": apparently it is derived from an abbreviation of "jive-ass mother-fucker" which is said to have originated with Charlie Parker. Naturally, this lets me see Dr. Lazlo Jamf in a substantially different, and much less trustworthy, light...

And just for fun, some more quotes, further illustrating my fascination with how Pynchon's language is structured:
  • "...but it's something they want to keep, so much that to keep it, they will take on more than propaganda has ever asked them for. They are in love. Fuck the war."
  • "Who can find his way about this lush maze of initials, arrows solid and dotted, boxes big and small, names printed and memorized?" - This in reference to the confusing proliferation of secret governmental agencies, each with their own acronym and each ordered in a mezmerizing hierarchy. The specific line quoted struck me because it could just as easily be applied to the computer industry...
Posted by Mark on July 21, 2002 at 10:53 PM .: link :.

Thursday, July 18, 2002

Footnotes from Beyond the Zero, Part I
Perhaps a sign of literary masochism, I've taken to reading the infamous rainbow. To be perfectly honest, I'm in way over my head. Is it too much to hope that the novel is deliberately nonsensical? That I don't understand what is going on half the time because I'm actually not supposed to? Maybe. I don't know, and I'm not sure I ever will. However, for whatever reason, there is one thing I'm really enjoying about the novel, and that is the footnotes, or, rather, the lack therof. Pynchon salts his prose with words, concepts, and ideas that are vague and esoteric; they require a certain amount of work in order to be understood. Though there is one resource that makes this exercise thankfully simpler, I have enjoyed going through these references and figuring them out. So, kind of as a way to keep track of what I've learned, I'll be posting whatever interesting tidbits I've found. Heres to hoping you find this interesting...
  • Gravity's Rainbow: No better place to start than the title. The most obvious, and therefore common, interpretation for "gravity's rainbow" is the parabola described by the rocket's trajectory from launch to hit, as the projectile gradually loses its battle with gravity (the point at which gravity begins to win is known as Brennschluss) and is finally pulled back to earth. There are other interpretations, including a speculation concerning a poem by Rilke and the assertion that the very structure of the plot (such as it can be referred to as a "plot") demonstrates the same guiding principles as the arcing path of a rocket...
  • Narodniks: Coming from the Russian root narod, meaning "people", Narodniks literally means "going to the people". It was a movement among idealistic Russian intellectuals in the 1860s and 1870s in which they abandoned their urban life and attempted to "go to the people" in the hopes of convincing the peasantry of their moral duty to revolt. They found almost no support among the suspicious peasants, and were swiftly and brutally crushed by the Tsarist Police (known as Okhrana). Though they experienced little success, their tactics, ideas and practices influenced later revolutionary groups.
  • dacoit: "The Dacoits were Burmese guerrillas who fled to the hills and jungle after the overthrow of Burma in 1886, and waged a desultory campaign against the British for several years." The term dacoity has come to be known more generally as robbery by soldiers or a gang.
  • Fuzzy Wuzzies: No, they aren't bears. A derogatory term used by the British for Sudanese muslims (in reference to their hair, which was, well fuzzy). In 1884, a British force was badly defeated by a local tribe (known as "Mahdists") which fought with spears. The British eventually proved victorious, and the Mahdists' bravery against the British was honored in a poem by Rudyard Kipling.
  • I just like this quote: "Shit, money, and the World, the three American truths, powering the American mobility, claimed the Slothrops, clasped them for good to the country's fate. But they did not prosper... about all they did was persist" [page 28] I like it not so much for its content, but, rather, its structure.
Well, that's all for tonight. I hope you've found this interesting. I certainly have. At the rate I am going, I should finish the book sometime around Christmas! Next up is the enigmatic Dr. Lazlo Jamf and Poisson distributions, among other oddities...
Posted by Mark on July 18, 2002 at 10:39 PM .: link :.

Sunday, July 14, 2002

Two Years of Kaedrin
Today marks the two year anniversary of the Kaedrin Weblog. Its damn hard to believe it has been this long. In porting this thing over to Movable Type, I had the opportunity to read through almost every post I ever made. Some of the first are almost embarrassing. I started slow, mostly as a consequence of my host banning FTP, thus not allowing me to use Blogger (and I had only just discovered it!). Eventually, I figured out a manually intensive workaround, and got to posting full force. I think October of 2000 is really when the blog really began to resemble what it does today. By February 2001, I had purposely stopped linking to all the regular sources, and started searching, in earnest, for things a bit off the beaten path. I really kicked it into high gear in May and somehow kept it up until July. These were the months where I really came into my own, and they are the ones I am most proud of... I found original sources, played reporter for a few topics, linked to independant type stuff, and overall the quality was very high during those three months. One interesting aspect of them, I think, is their timeless quality. They're just as relevant today as they ever were, though maybe I'm just being overly sentimental. You decide...

After that things petered out for a bit. All those entertaining links were difficult to come by, after all, and I began to slow down a bit. August wasn't a bad month, but it wasn't at the same level as the preceding months... Then came September 11... and things dropped off almost entirely, as I discussed below. I might add that at no point did the blog really find an audience beyone my loyal Kaedrin minions, and that might have played a part in my floundering. By the way, this doesn't mean I don't appreciate my loyal Kaedrin visitors, most of whom have been here since the beginning, when Kaedrin was little more than a place where I collected quotes and sound clips... They are what kept Kaedrin going all this time, and I truly, genuinely, appreciate their kindness and support. And so here we are, after two years, and a lot of links. Its been interesting. Heres to another two!

So, anyone have any favourite entries? Venerable praise, bitter criticism, adroit observations, astute suggestions, death threats? Lets give this new commenting system a workout, why don't we?
Posted by Mark on July 14, 2002 at 09:10 PM .: link :.

Saturday, July 13, 2002

Chef Wars
Call Me Lenny by James Grimmelmann : Taco Bell is running a new ad called "Chef Wars" and it is an Iron Chef parody. The commercial is pathetic and James laments that Iron Chef is no longer considered to be a piece of elite culture. Essentially, Iron Chef is no longer cool because it has become so popular that even culturally bereft Taco Bell customers will understand the reference.

As a long time fan of Iron Chef, I suppose I can relate to James. Several years ago, a few drunk friends and I discovered Iron Chef one late night and fell in love with it. In the years that followed, it has grown more and more popular, to the point where there was even an pointless American version (hosted by Bill Shatner) and a rather funny parody on Saturday Night Live. Seeing those things made it less fun to be an Iron Chef fan, and to a certain extent, I agree with that point. But in a different way, Iron Chef is just as cool as it ever was and, in my mind, a genuinely good show is well... good, no matter how popular it is.

As commentor Julia (at the bottom) notes, there are two main issues that James is hitting on:
  1. The watering down of concepts from 30 minutes to 30 seconds completely distorts and lessens the impact of the elements that make the original great.
  2. The idea that a cultural item becomes less "cool" when it goes from 1 million to 100 million consumers.
Certainly, there is truth in those statements, but that is not all that is at work here. Iron Chef is a great show, and will always be so. After a while, a piece of culture will lose its "new and exciting" flavour, but if the show is good, its good. James gives away how uncool he really is when he admits that he's only seen 6 episodes or so. Isn't it just a sham then? A facade? A ruse? Of what use is the cool if you never really enjoy it?

I suppose it all comes down to exclusion. Things are cool, in part, because you are cool enough to recognize them as such. But if everyone is cool, what's the point? Which brings us to Malcolm Gladwell and his Coolhunt:
"In this sense, the third rule of cool fits perfectly into the second: the second rule says that cool cannot be manufactured, only observed, and the third says that it can only be observed by those who are themselves cool. And, of course, the first rule says that it cannot accurately be observed at all, because the act of discovering cool causes it to take flight, so if you add all three together they describe a closed loop, the hermenuetic circle of coolhunting, a phenomenon whereby not only can the uncool not see cool but cool cannot be even adequately described to them."
But is it cool to just recognize something as cool? James recognized Iron Chef as cool, but he didn't really enjoy it. So I guess that we should seek the cool, but not be fooled into thinking something is cool simply because it is going to be big one day...
Posted by Mark on July 13, 2002 at 02:19 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

The Post 9/11 Doubt
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Evil by Nick Mamatas : Neil Gaiman's oeuvre, and the genre of horror/fantasy in general, is typically looked down upon as unsophisticated or childish, and the past decade saw a marked decrease in the Horror genre's relevance.
"9-11 resembled cheap, lazy fiction, and because it did, it made it strange for writers to decide what is valid artistically."
Horror was beginning to find new voices and new readers even before the attacks on the WTC, but now, after a initial period of doubt, there appears to be a renewed interest in the genre... "The everyday twisted horribly awry is, of course, the state of the nation post-9-11." Will Horror become popular again because it evokes fear of the magnitude we all felt on September 11? Time will tell. [thanks BJ]

Just to rewind a bit, I think the period of doubt mentioned above is a very important phenomenon, and I can see it happening all over the place. My very own weblog here, for instance, is a good example. I had posted fairly regularly up until September, focusing mainly on Film and various interesting articles on culture and whatnot, but after 9/11 my posting dropped off sharply and has been irregular ever since. The reason for this, I think, was because I felt that there were more important things in life than my stupid blog. It just seemed so futile. There are certainly other factors, personal and professional, that also contributed to the dropoff, but I also think I needed to re-examine my goals here. My post 9/11 entries were scarce, and they began to lean more towards politics, as I became determined to keep up on current events. But I didn't want to become a warblogger (I still don't), and this limited my ability to post because I didn't want every entry to be about the latest bullet flying over in the Middle East. So I'm hoping that I can live up to the demands of My Shifting Paradigm...
Posted by Mark on July 10, 2002 at 10:37 PM .: link :.

Movable Type
I've finally made the switch. I'm now using Movable Type to update the weblog. Multitudes of advantages over Blogger, but my favourite is that MT is running on my webserver, so when Blogger goes down, I can still post. I had toyed with the notion of creating my own blogging system, based on the XSLT solution I use for the rest of the site, but MT is suprisingly powerful and is much better-suited for blogging than Blogger or anything I could dream up... I actually imported all of my previous entries into MT (all 235 posts!); it was suprisingly easy, though there were a few catches (all fixed). I installed MT about a month ago, and I'm only now making it public, mainly because if I wait until I've got all the templates ironed out and am content with the design, I'll probably never finish it, and I am aching to get back to posting. So expect to see a lot of template changes, especially on archive type pages. In the mean time, I hope to write a few posts that you could enjoy, despite my templating woes...
Posted by Mark on July 10, 2002 at 10:00 PM .: link :.

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