Wednesday, October 29, 2003
Yet another Baghdad Journal
The fifth installment of New York artist Steve Mumford's excellent Baghdad Journal is up. As usual, it makes for excellent reading. Good art too.
Update 10.31.03 - Kevin Murphy comments, "The amazing thing is that it is the best eyewitness reporting coming out of Iraq right now, and it isn't coming from the press but from an internet art magazine." Heh.
Posted by Mark on October 29, 2003 at 07:26 PM .: link :.
Sunday, October 26, 2003
All of the bickering over media piracy can be intensely frustrating because many of the issues have clear and somewhat obvious truths that are simply being ignored. For instance, it should be obvious by now that it is impossible for any media provider to completely prevent piracy of their product, especially digital piracy (A perfectly secure system is also a perfectly useless system). It should also be obvious that instituting increasingly draconian security measures only serve to exacerbate these problems as one of the main driving forces behind file sharing is ease of use and convenience.
The music industry, lead by iTunes and EMusic (certainly not perfect, but it's a start), is finally coming to recognize some of the potential inherent in digital media. Rather than fight against the flow of technology, they're beginning to embrace it and as they further commit themselves to this path, they will begin to see success. There is, after all, a lot to like about digital distribution of content, and if a reasonable price structure is set up, you could even make it more convenient to download from an approved source than from a file-sharing service like Kazaa. Of course, the music industry still has a lot of work to do if they truly want to establish a profitable digital content business model (they need to stop prosecuting file-sharers, for example), but they're at least taking steps in the right direction.
The movie industry, on the other hand, seems content to repeat the mistakes of the music industry. With the introduction of low-cost/high-bandwidth internet connections and peer-to-peer file sharing networks, the movie industry is becoming increasingly concerned with digital piracy, which is understandable, and has responded by making (or, at least, trying to make) DVDs and other media more difficult to copy. Again, this solution does little to slow the tide of piracy, and in extreme cases it makes the experience of purchasing and using the media cumbersome and frustrating. Naturally, some degree of protection is needed, and none of the really invasive solutions have caught on (for obvious reasons), but the movie industry appears to have the same moronic policy of blaming the average consumer for piracy.
Recent research out of AT&T Labs appears to show that the movie industry should reexamine who the culprit really is.
We developed a data set of 312 popular movies and located one or more samples of 183 of these movies on file sharing networks, for a total of 285 movie samples. 77% of these samples appear to have been leaked by industry insiders. Most of our samples appeared on file sharing networks prior to their official consumer DVD release date. Indeed, of the movies that had been released on DVD as of the time of our study, only 5% first appeared after their DVD release date... [emphasis mine]As Bruce Schneier notes:
One of the first rules of security is that you need to know who your attacker is before you consider countermeasures. In this case, the movie industry has the threat wrong. The attackers aren't DVD owners making illegal copies and putting them on file sharing networks. The attackers are industry insiders making illegal copies long before the DVD is ever on the market.Obviously, piracy is a problem which can pose a significant financial threat to the movie industry, but it has become clear that piracy is here to stay, and that the best course of action for media industries is to restructure their business model to survive even in the face of piracy, rather than go to absurd and obtrusive lengths to prevent it. As it stands now, their close-minded policies are only exacerbating the situation, frustrating customers (and potential customers) without even adequately addressing the problem... [Thanks to ChicagoBoyz for the pointer to Bruce Schneier's excellent newsletters]
Posted by Mark on October 26, 2003 at 07:59 PM .: link :.
Monday, October 20, 2003
Hindsight isn't Necessarily 20/20
It is conventional wisdom that hindsight is 20/20, but is that really accurate? I get the feeling that when people speak of clarity in hindsight, what they are really talking about is creeping determinism. They aren't really examining the varied and complex details of a scenario so much as they are rationalizing an outcome perceived to have been inevitable (since it has already happened, surely it must have been obvious). This is known in logic as "begging the question" or "circular logic."
In the creeping determinism sense, hindsight is liberally filtered to the point where only evidence that leads to the scenario's conclusion is seen. All other evidence is dismissed as inaccurate or irrelevant.
Which leads me to an excellent article by Adam Garfinkle called Foreign Policy Immaculately Conceived. In it, he argues:
The immaculate conception theory of U.S. foreign policy operates from three central premises. The first is that foreign policy decisions always involve one and only one major interest or principle at a time. The second is that it is always possible to know the direct and peripheral impact of crisis-driven decisions several months or years into the future. The third is that U.S. foreign policy decisions are always taken with all principals in agreement and are implemented down the line as those principals intend - in short, they are logically coherent.When these premises are laid out in such a way, one can't help but see them for what they really are. And yet so much of what passes for commentary these days is based wholly upon this immaculate conception theory of U.S. foreign policy .
Case in point, the American liberation/occupation of Iraq is often portrayed as a failure. They say that we are not "winning the hearts and minds" of the Iraqis, or that we have "gone into the God business" and that "we want the Iraqis to love us for destroying their orchards too." (Never mind that this is emphatically not what we're doing, but I digress) These people are engaging in creeping determinism before the situation has even played out! They've started with a conclusion, that we have failed in Iraq, and they then collect any and all negative aspects of the occupation and proclaim this outcome inevitable (some perhaps hoping for a form of self-fulfilling prophecy).
But even this is hardly new. Jessica's Well points to a pair of magnificent historical examples. Do you remember that other time when we were mired in a quagmire, failing to win the hearts and minds of our occupied foes? The one in Europe, circa 1946? Yes, you know, the one that resulted in Europe's longest unbroken peaceful period since Charlemagne? These articles are amazingly familiar. Replace "Hitler" with "Saddam", "Nazis" with "Baathists", and "Germany" with "Iraq" and you'll see what I mean.
Naturally, since the overwhelmingly positive results of the US military occupation of Europe are generally acknowledged, these articles are pushed by the wayside, dismissed as irrelevant and forgotten forever (or until an intrepid blogger takes the initiative to post it). Success in Europe was by no means inevitable, both during and after the war, and in a certain respect, these articles are a great example of creeping determinism or Garfinkle's immaculate conception theory of U.S. foreign policy.
They're also an example of just how shortsighted pessimistic reporting on a lengthy process can be. As Garfinkle notes:
American presidents, who have to make the truly big decisions of U.S. foreign policy, must come to a judgment with incomplete information, often under stress and merciless time constraints, and frequently with their closest advisors painting one another in shades of disagreement. The choices are never between obviously good and obviously bad, but between greater and lesser sets of risks, greater and lesser prospects of danger. Banal as it sounds, we do well to remind ourselves from time to time that things really are not so simple, even when one's basic principles are clear and correct.Indeed. Hindsight isn't necessarily 20/20, but it always purports to be.
Update 10.21.03 - I don't remember where I found this, but I had bookmarked it: That Was Then: Allen W. Dulles on the Occupation of Germany provides some more perspective on post-war Germany. He outlined many of the difficulties they faced and lamented, despite his obvious respect for those in charge, that "the problems inherent in the situation are almost too much for us." It's an excellent piece, so read the whole thing, as they say...
Posted by Mark on October 20, 2003 at 08:58 PM .: link :.
Sunday, October 19, 2003
Punk Kids Play Pong
Video games have come a long way since Pong, but Electronic Gaming Monthly wanted to see what today's kids think about classic video games. The results are uniformly funny:
Niko: Hey?Pong. My parents played this game.Brilliant. They were a little short on Atari games though. I would've loved to have seen what they said about Pitfall or Chopper Command. And this needs to be applied to all sorts of media, not just video games. We need to strap these kids in for a viewing of Knight Rider or Airwolf and see what they think. [via arstechnica]
Posted by Mark on October 19, 2003 at 11:51 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, October 15, 2003
Style as Substance
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is one of those movies that I've been keeping track of for years. From the beginning, I wondered why Tarantino was choosing such material for his next film. The plot certainly isn't edgy. Uma Thurman plays The Bride, a woman miraculously survives a bullet to the head on her wedding day (the groom was not so lucky). After an extended stay in a coma, she awakes and makes a list of five people to exact revenge upon. Then she goes and kills them. That's the plot.
And yet it's still a good film (not a great film, but good). The plot doesn't matter. Nor, really, do the characters. None of them are developed, or really likable. You root for the Bride, a textbook anti-hero, not because she's been wronged and is seeking revenge, but because she's such a badass. It is the style of the film that gets me, and like it or not, Tarantino is a master of style. The man knows how to manipulate the audience, and he is brutally unmerciful in this outing.
Let me rewind a bit. Do you remember the scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent blows Marvin's head off by accident? Somehow, Tarantino is able to make that scene, and the ensuing events, funny. Not ha-ha funny, it's still black comedy, but funny nonetheless. You don't really know why you are laughing, but you are. And that is what this movie is like. It's like two hours of that one scene in Pulp Fiction.
Blood. Hundreds of gallons of it. Spraying, shooting, fountains of blood. The grisly murder rate in this film approaches triple digits. It's not for everyone. James Lileks says he had "no desire to see clever violence," and that is certainly understandable. These scenes are cold, merciless, and often disgusting, yet I found myself laughing. It's just a natural reaction when you see someone's head cut off and blood sprays out like a sprinkler. The gore is so over the top that it eventually ceases to be disgusting and takes on a blurry, surreal quality. Tarantino knows this works, but he's not content to leave it there.
This isn't an easy movie. It's not the roller coaster kung-fu action flick it's advertised as. It's difficult. Why? Because in those moments where the gore goes beyond the surreal, you still sense gravity in the violence. Tarantino grounds the violence just enough so that you laugh when it happens, but you're hit by an aftertaste of guilt a few seconds later. The blood may be completely over the top, but other details are what got me. The gurgling, the spasms, the screams. These things creeped the hell out of me. And on top of that, towards the end of the film, Tarantino keeps the film rocketing along at such a pace that your conscience can't keep up with the violence, and you know it. That is, I suppose the essense of black comedy. It's not easy and it's not fun, but it makes you laugh anyway.
It is difficult to say, though. It's not as obvious as I'm describing. The black comedy is more subtle than you might think from reading this, so take it with a grain of salt.
Walter sums it up perfectly:
I think Tarantino wanted a 180 from Pulp Fiction's tone. I think he feinted high and then socked us in the gut. And it worked. Bold as hell, and he pulled it off. Now I'm sick to my stomach, but I respect the bastard.I don't like this movie the way I like Tarantino's other work. I like it like I like Taxi Driver or Requiem for a Dream, which is to say, I don't like it, but it is so well done that I can't stop myself from watching it. The filmmakers, damn them, are so good at manipulating the elements of cinema that I'm spellbound even as I'm wimpering.
Kill Bill doesn't have the weight of Taxi Driver or Requiem and it's a flawed film, but it has it's moments of brilliance too. There is a lot more to say about it, but I am at a loss to say more. It is difficult to describe because what's important about this film isn't what happens, it's how it happens. It's style as substance, and Tarantino makes it work. Damn him.
Posted by Mark on October 15, 2003 at 08:29 PM .: link :.
Sunday, October 12, 2003
Treason. Such an ugly word. Aldrich Ames prefers "spying." Such rationalizations are a part of what made Ames one of the most cold-blooded traitors in U.S. history. He also remains the most damaging mole (to our knowledge) to betray the CIA.
Spying was in Ames' blood. His father was a spy, and he spent summers working for the agency (nothing devious of course; he was only 16 and simply helped prepare resources, such as fake money, for training exercises.) With the help of his father, he was later hired by the agency and began training to become a case officer in the Directorate of Operations, the CIA's covert branch. His early career proved to be lackluster. He seemed to have difficulty recruiting spies.
He eventually cought a few breaks managing already-turned "assets" (as spies are referred to) and began to make some progress. He was, however, consistently passed over for promotions, due to his lack of recruiting abilities. His personal life was a mess and his marriage was falling apart. He began drinking heavily. In order to prove his worth, he took a tour in Mexico City where he once again failed to recruit a single spy. Distraught, his failure in Mexico City only led to more drinking and disillusionment. His agency friends were worried about him, and set him up with Maria del Rosario, a cultural attach� for the Colombian Embassy in Mexico. Ames promptly fell in love.
Thanks to an agency friend who only knew of Ames' success with managing assets, Ames was finally promoted, and moved back to Washington. He was named counterintelligence branch chief in Soviet operations, a job that would give him access to nearly all of the agency's Soviet cases. Eventually, Rosario came to join him, and he divorced his first wife and remarried.
At the time, the CIA was enjoying an extensive network of intelligence assets, penetrating every aspect of the Soviet system. The range and degree of programs was wider than it had ever been, and Ames had access to all of it. Meanwhile, Rosario was running up huge bills that Ames simply couldn't afford to pay. She talked with her mother on the telephone every day, running up enormous long-distance phone bills. The phone bills along with other gratuitous spending and the cost of his divorce put Ames in deep debt.
When and how Ames exactly began his espionage for the Soviet Union is still debated. Ames claims that he had come up with the "perfect scam." In exchange for $50,000 (roughly the amount of debt he had run up), he would give the Soviets the names of three Russians spying for the CIA. However, the three agents he claims he gave up were actually "double agents" who still worked for the KGB. This was a rather elegant proposal: he was able to shield the U.S. and the CIA from harm because he was only giving the KGB the names of its own agents.
The FBI and CIA disagree, however. They claim Ames gave up the CIA agents who were most likely to discover Ames' betrayal.
Regardless of how malicious he was when he started, this act represented the first step down a slippery slope, indeed. Two days after Ames had received his first payment from the Soviets, the infamous Walker spy ring was broken up and arrested for betraying Naval secrets to the Soviets (and not long after that, another Soviet spy, Ronald Pelton, was arrested for giving away, among other things, the cable tapping operation known as Operation Ivy Bells.) The timing of Walker's arrest was suspicious and Ames became scared.
"I knew how well we had the Soviet system penetrated. It was only a matter of time before one of our spies learned what I had done. I was very vulnerable."Ames immediately moved to protect himself. He met with his Soviet handlers and gave them the name of all of the CIA's "human assets" that he knew (with the exception of one friend whom he did not want to betray, but later did - on 2 occasions!) along with several pounds of CIA intelligence reports (apparently, he simply whisked them out of the CIA's office in his briefcase.) The Soviet Politburo, severely embarrassed by the CIA's success in recruiting spies, ordered a mass arrest, executing many of the spies that Ames sold out.
Naturally, the CIA noticed that their spies were disappearing and ordered an investigation. Still reeling from the paralyzing effects of a career-destroying witch-hunt a few years earlier, the investigation did not focus on trying to find a mole, preferring to explore other logical explanations. CIA investigators mistakenly concluded that the "1985 losses" (as they became known) were unrelated. Some were thought to have been caused by a defecting agent, others by mistakes made by the spies themselves. This was apparently not convincing, however, and several hard-nosed agents pressed for further investigation.
One of the CIA officers assigned to the case had a background in accounting and had the brilliantly obvious insight that the best way to find a mole was to find unexplained wealth among your own agents (such a tact may have helped nail Pelton, who sold out Ivy Bells for $35,000 to pay off his debts, and maybe even Walker too.)
All during this time, Ames was working, and getting paid (rather generously), for the Soviets. He made no attempts to hide his newfound wealth, nor did his free-spending wife. Expensive wardrobe, a Jaguar sports car, Rolex watches, and so on. Most assumed that Rosario came from a wealthy family (some rather sloppy investigation confirmed that, but it turns out that though the family was socially prominent it was still poor), but one agent who knew her and Ames from Mexico City knew that wasn't true, and reported it.
That proved to be Ames' undoing. He and his wife's overspending were a vital clue, though it didn't actually prove anything. One investigator noticed, however, that Ames had made several suspicious bank deposits in 1985. These deposits happened to coincide with the days that he had lunch with his Soviet handler (whom everyone thought Ames was trying to develop as an "asset.") Ames had taken few precautions to hide his payments, and it was easy to build a case from there.
On February 21, 1994, Ames and his wife were arrested by the FBI. Investigators had found several damning pieces of evidence, including letters to and from his Soviet handlers, and further evidence of he and his wife's gluttony. She was sentenced to 5 years in prison, then deported back to Columbia. He was sentenced to life in prison. He jokes that, ironically, he sealed his own fate: The KGB had no one to swap for him. It had killed all of the spies it had arrested who were worth trading.
Ames would later attempt to rationalize his treason. "A lot of the barriers that should have stopped me from betraying my country were gone," he said. "The first barrier was the idea that political intelligence matters. It doesn't." Ames said he had become disillusioned because several presidents, beginning with Richard Nixon, had ignored the CIA's findings because they did not suit the White House's political agenda. "I realized these men's actions do not excuse mine, but they did influence my decision making and help grease the slope...I also had come to believe that the CIA was morally corrupt. The CIA is all about maintaining and expanding American imperial power, which I had come to think was wrong... and finally, I did not feel any sense of loyalty to what mass culture had become. How does treason fit into all of this? In some ways, not at all. I would love to say that I did what I did out of some moral outrage over our country's acts of imperialism or a political statement or out of anger toward the CIA or even a love of the Soviet Union. But the sad truth is that I did what I did because of the money and I can't get away from that. I wanted a future. I wanted what I saw [Rosario and I] could have together. Taking the money was essential to the recreation of myself and the continuous of us as a couple."Interestingly enough, a recent Nicolas Kristof column in the New York Times purports that the CIA suspected that Aldrich Ames gave up Valerie Plame's identity to the Soviets before his arrest, thus compromising her undercover security long before White House officials reportedly leaked the information. I generally take Kristof with a grain of salt, however, so you're free to take from that what you want...
Furthermore, the investigator who has taken up the Plame case is one John Dion, the head of the Justice Department's counterespionage division. He also just happens to have been the lead investigator on the Aldrich Ames case (as well as on former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, another infamous spy.)
In case you can't tell, I'm endlessly fascinated by these tales of espionage. For more information regarding the Ames case, check out:
Posted by Mark on October 12, 2003 at 10:50 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, October 08, 2003
Annals of the Mathematically Challenged
Fritz Schranck relates a story of a mathematically challenged fast-food cashier whose register was broken and couldn't figure out how to make change (the customer had given the cashier $10 for a bill of $8.95). He goes on to say that he's heard these sorts of stories before, but he'd never seen it for himself untl then...
But I think I've got him beat. A few years ago, I happened to be perusing some titles at the 'tique, when someone asked the sales clerk what time it was. He picked up a watch, and a confused frown spread across his face. He then grinned, and grabbed a calculater from under the counter and began punching in numbers. At this point he responded to the customer's quizzical look by explaining "The watch is on military time." It was 1400 hours (aka 2:00 p.m.)
Posted by Mark on October 08, 2003 at 11:28 PM .: link :.
Tuesday, October 07, 2003
A Compendium of DARPA Programs
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been widely criticized for several of its more controversial programs, including the now defunct Terrorism Information Awareness program (rightly so) and a Futures Market used to predict terror (perhaps wrongly so), but (as Steven Aftergood has noted) it has not received the credit to which it is arguably entitled for conducting those programs in an unclassified form, in which they can be freely debated, criticized and attacked.
DARPA has recently published a complete descriptive summary of all of its (unclassified) programs, and some of it reads like a science fiction author's wishlist. It's a fascinating collection of programs and it makes for absorbing reading.
I've read a good portion of the report and while I find it impossible to provide a summary (it is, after all, a summary in itself), though I was particularly enthralled by how DARPA is attempting to exploit the intersection of biology, information technology, and physical sciences. For instance:
The Brain Machine Interface Program will create new technologies for augmenting human performance through the ability to noninvasively access codes in the brain in real time and integrate them into peripheral device or system operations.Essentially this means that they are attempting to create an interface in which a brain accepts and controls a mechanical device as a natural part of it's body. The applications for this are near limitless and, though designed for military applications (of the type you're likely to see in science fiction novels), this technology would be extremely valuable for giving paralysis or amputation patients the ability to control a motorized wheelchair or a prosthetic limb as an extension of their body.
As you might expect, many of the projects work along similar lines and could theoretically provide supporting characteristics to one another. For instance, it seems to me that a brain machine interface would be particularly useful if paired with the Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation program, again creating something right out of science fiction. It also raises some rather interesting questions about our place in evolution, and whether making the transition to a cyborg-like species is inevitiable. I remember Arthur C. Clarke forwarding the idea that as technology progressed far beyond our capabilities, human beings would find a way to transfer their consciousness to a mechanical (or, given the amount of biological engineering going on, let's just say constructed) being, as these machines would be more efficient than the human body. Of course, that is quite far off, but it is interesting to ponder (and Clarke even went further, postulating that we would only spend a short time in our "robot" form and even transcend our physical form...)
Again, I found the biological technologies (as well as many of the nanotechnologies) that are being explored to be the most interesting buch. One such program is attempting to actively collect information from insect populations to map areas for biohazards, another is set to develop biomolecular motors (nanomachines that convert chemical energy into mechanical work at a very high rate of efficiency). There are a lot of programs that utilize BioMagnetics and nanotechnology to attain a better monitoring capability for the human body.
Some of these projects or ideas have been around for a while and many of them are still in preliminary phases, but it is still interesting to see the breadth of ideas DARPA is exploring...
Note: Some of the information in the report is out of date, notably with respect to the "Total Information Awareness" project which was later renamed "Terrorism Information Awareness" and is now defunct.
Posted by Mark on October 07, 2003 at 10:59 PM .: link :.
Sunday, October 05, 2003
Alright, last entry on this I swear! Thinking a little bit more about Pynchon's new forward to 1984 and my response to one of his points, I realized that I had not yet made the point I wished to make.
In my last post on this subject, I outlined some of the strengths and weaknesses of the American system of governance. I want to make it clear that I was not attempting to excuse or defend abuses of the system; my intention was simply to explain how and why these abuses happen. Our government is a human construct, and as such it is apt to fail at some point or another. This world of ours is constantly changing, as are the threats to our way of life. My point was that our Founding Fathers recognized this and built in a degree of fault tolerance so as to allow for such failures. We cannot hope to plan for every possible outcome, we can only allow enough flexibility and adaptability to react swiftly and surely in the face of an emergency, correcting problems as we go along. Times of national crisis, such as war, can place an enormous amount of stress on the system, thus it is natural that such times will produce more component failures. This is not meant to excuse those failures, but rather to explain them.
Pynchon points out that "One could certainly argue that Churchill's war cabinet had behaved on occasion no differently from a fascist regime, censoring news, controlling wages and prices, restricting travel, subordinating civil liberties to self-defined wartime necessity." Indeed one could argue this, but then one would have to understand, as Pynchon himself noted, that the wartime powers led by Churchill were immediately booted out of power by the British electorate the first chance they got (in a landslide victory for the Labour party). A few years later, America ratified the 22nd amendment (which officially codified the precedent set by George Washington that no president should serve more than two terms. FDR died a few months after his fourth inauguration, and while many were no doubt comforted by FDR's presence in the White House, they were also somewhat scared by the possibility of someone becoming intoxicated with the power of the Presidency and attempting to become "President-for-Life".) In the Soviet Union, tens of millions of peasants were slaughtered to force collectivization.
The reason the British and American systems fared better than the Soviet system was not just because the British and American systems were better than the Soviet system on an absolute scale, but rather because our systems were designed to handle failures and adapt to changing times while the Soviet system was rigid and unchanging (and also denied human nature, but that is a whole different can of worms).
Posted by Mark on October 05, 2003 at 09:21 PM .: link :.
Friday, October 03, 2003
Is that all you got?
For the past few weeks, my chain-smoking monkey underlings and I have been running across various stories or thoughts and it's high time I actually find some time to post them. Some of them you've no doubt seen before (that's what I get for sitting on them so long), but they're worth posting anyway, so here goes.
Posted by Mark on October 03, 2003 at 10:08 AM .: link :.
Where am I?
This page contains entries posted to the Kaedrin Weblog in October 2003.
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Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections
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Weird Movie of the Week
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