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Sunday, March 28, 2004

USA Today has a fascinating look inside an interesting CIA initiative:
...In-Q-Tel is the venture-capital arm of the CIA.

That's right: The CIA is investing in tech start-ups. At a time when the CIA has come under fire for intelligence lapses, In-Q-Tel offers a promising path to technology that might help the agency spot trouble sooner and make fewer errors.

In-Q-Tel, set up in 1999, invests about $35 million a year in young companies creating technology that might improve the ability of the United States to spy on its nemeses. It has kept a low profile and is not much known outside of the intelligence community and Silicon Valley.
The program has apparently been very successful, and will most likely be renewed. The DoD has expressed interest in duplicating the model for their own purposes.

Despite it's name being inspired by James Bond's Q, In-Q-Tel doesn't seem to be investing in high-tech weaponry or spy gadgets. Their focus seems to run more towards finding, sorting and communicating data. Products range from an application that can translate documents from Arabic into English, to an advanced Google-like search engine, to weblogging software(!). Public/private partnerships aren't very common in the US, but there are some exceptions, and in this case, it looks like it was a good idea.
...Tenet explained that the CIA and government labs had always been on the leading edge of tech. But the Internet boom poured so much money into tech start-ups, the start-ups leapt ahead of the CIA. And scientists and technologists who had innovative ideas went off to be entrepreneurs and get rich ? they didn't want government salaries at the CIA.

At the same time, tech companies were booming and didn't want the hassle of dealing with the government's procurement process. Most never thought of contacting the CIA. Tech companies didn't know what the CIA might need, and the CIA had no idea what the tech companies were inventing ? a dangerous disconnect with lives on the line.
Of course, the public/private and somewhat low profile nature of the program makes for some strange rumors:
In-Q-Tel has become known for being thorough yet furtive. These days, when a young company is making a presentation at an event, an unknown man or woman might come in, listen intently, then disappear. Such is In-Q-Tel's mystique that entrepreneurs often believe those are In-Q-Tel scouts even when they're not.
As I said before, the program has been successful (though success is measured in more than just money here - they're actually finding useful applications, and that's what the real goal is) but the CIA is characteristically cautious:
"It has far exceeded anything I could've hoped for when we had that first meeting," Augustine says. But he adds a note of caution, apropos for the CIA, which had been stuck for too long in old ways of finding new technology. "No idea is good forever," Augustine says. "We'll have to see how it holds up with time."
Update: Charles Hudson is a blogger who works for In-Q-Tel. Interesting.
Posted by Mark on March 28, 2004 at 04:58 PM .: link :.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Inherently Funny Words, Humor, and Howard Stern
Here's a question: Which of the following words is most inherently funny?
  • Boob (and its variations, such as boobies and boobery)
  • Chinchilla
  • Aardvark
  • Urinal
  • Stroganoff
  • Poopie
  • Underpants
  • Underroos
  • Fart
  • Booger
Feel free to advocate your favorites or suggest new ones in the comments. Some words are just funny for no reason. Why is that? In Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, a character says:
Words with a 'k' in it are funny. Alkaseltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a 'k'. 'L's are not funny. 'M's are not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomatoes is not funny. Lettuce is not funny. Cucumber's funny. Cab is funny. Cockroach is funny -- not if you get 'em, only if you say 'em.
Well, that is certainly a start, but it doesn't really tell the whole story. Words with an "oo" sound are also often funny, especially when used in reference to bodily functions (as in poop, doody, booger, boobies, etc...) In fact, bodily functions are just plain funny. Witness fart.

Of course, ultimately it's a subjective thing. To me, boobies are funnier than breasts, even though they mean the same thing. To you, perhaps not. It's the great mystery of humor, and one of the most beautiful things about laughter is that it happens involuntarily. We don't (always) have to think about it, we just do it. Here's a quote from Dennis Miller to illustrate the point:
The truth is the human sense of humor tends to be barbaric and it has been that way all along. I'm sure on the eve of the nativity when the tall Magi smacked his forehead on the crossbeam while entering the stable, Joseph took a second away from pondering who impregnated his wife and laughed his little carpenter ass off. A sense of humor is exactly that: a sense. Not a fact, not etched in stone, not an empirical math equation but just what the word intones: a sense of what you find funny. And obviously, everybody has a different sense of what's funny. If you need confirmation on that I would remind you that Saved by the Bell recently celebrated the taping of their 100th episode. Oh well, one man's Molier is another man's Screech and you know something thats the way it should be.
There has been a lot of controversy recently about the FCC's proposed fines against Howard Stern (which may have been temporarily postponed). Stern has been fined many times before, including "$600,000 after Stern discussed masturbating to a picture of Aunt Jemima." Stern, of course, has flown off the handle at the prospect of new fines. Personally, I think he's overreacting a bit by connecting the whole thing with Bush and the religious right, but part of the reason he is so successful is that his overreaction isn't totally uncalled for. At the core of his argument is a serious concern about censorship, and a worry about the FCC abusing it's authority.

On the other hand, some people don't see what all the fuss is about. What's wrong with having a standard for the public airwaves that broacasters must live up to? Well, in theory, nothing. I'm not wild about the idea, but there are things I can understand people not wanting to be broadcast over public airwaves. The problem here is what is acceptible.

Just what is the standard? Sure, you've got the 7 dirty words, that's easy enough, but how do you define decency? The fines proposed against Stern are supposedly from a 3 year old broadcast. Does that sound right to you? Recently Stern wanted to do a game in which the loser had to let someone fart in their face. Now, I can understand some people thinking that's not very nice, but does that qualify as "indecent"? Apparently, it might, and Stern was not allowed to proceed with the game (he was given the option to place the looser in a small booth, and then have someone fart in the booth). Would it actually have resulted in a fine? Who knows? And that is what the real problem with standards are. If you want to propose a standard, it has to be clear and you need to straddle a line between what is hurtful and what is simply disgusting or offensive. You may be upset at Stern's asking a Nigerian woman if she eats monkeys, but does that deserve a fine from the government? And how much? And is it really the job of the government to decide these sorts of things? In the free market, advertisers can choose (and have chose) not to advertise on Stern's program.

At the bottom of this post, Lawrence Theriot makes a good point about that:
Yes a lot of what Stern does could be considered indecent by a large portion of the population (which is the Supreme Court standard) but in this case it's important to consider WHERE those people might live and to what degree they are likely to be exposed to Stern's brand of humor before you decide that those people need federal protection from hearing his show. Or, in other words, might the market have already acted to protect those people in a very real way that makes Federal action unnecessary?

Stern is on something like 75 radio stations in the US and almost every one of them is concentrated in a city. Most people who think Stern is indecent do not live in city centers. They tend to live in "fly-over" country where Stern's show does not reach.

Rush Limbaugh by comparison (which no one could un-ironically argue is indecent in any way) is on 600 stations around the country, and reaches about the same number of listeners as Howard does (10 million to 14 million I think). So in effect, we can see that the market has acted to protect most of those who do not want to hear the kind of radio that Stern does. Stern's show, which could be considered indecent is not very widely available, when you compare it to Limbaugh's show which is available in virtually every single corner of the country, and yet a comparable number of people seem to want to tune in to both shows.

Further, when you take into account the fact that in a city like Miami (where Stern was taken off the air last week) there may be as many as a million people who want to hear his show, any argument that Stern needs to be censored on indecency grounds seems to fly right out the window.

Anyway, I think both sides are making some decent points in this argument, but I hadn't heard one up until now that took the market and demographics into account until last night, and we all know how much faith I put in the market to solve a lot of society's toughest questions, so I thought I'd point this one out as having had an impact on me.
In the end, I don't know the answer, but there is no easy solution here. I can see why people want standards, but standards can be quite impractical. On the other hand, I can see why Stern is so irate at the prospect of being fined for something he said 3 years ago - and also never knowing if what he's going to say qualifies as "indecent" (and not really being able to take such a thing to court to really decide). Dennis Miller again:
We should question it all; poke fun at it all; piss off on it all; rail against it all; and most importantly, for Christ's sake, laugh at it all. Because the only thing separating holy writ from complete bullshit is your perspective. Its your only weapon. Keep the safety off. Don't take yourself too seriously.
In the end, Stern makes a whole lot of people laugh and he doesn't take himself all that serious. Personally, I don't want to fine him for that, but if you do, you need to come up with a standard that makes sense and is clear and practical to implement. I get the feeling this wouldn't be an issue if he was clearly right or clearly wrong...
Posted by Mark on March 21, 2004 at 09:04 PM .: link :.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Elephants and the Media
I've been steadily knocking off films from my 2003 Should Have Seem Em list. Among the films recently viewed was Gus Van Sant's striking Elephant. The film portrays the massacre at an ordinary high school much like Columbine (I originally thought it was Columbine, and the similarities are numerous, but apparently not). It simply shows the events as they unfold, from the ordinary morning to the massacre that follows. There is no explanation, no preaching about the ills of modern society, no empty solutions proffered. It is the events of one day, as seen by a number of people, laid bare. Van Sant employs the use of a series of long tracking shots, following this person or that, to lend an air of detached documentary to the film, and it works. This lack of sensationalism was a bold move, but I think the correct one, and it's the only way a movie about such a thing could possibly be relevant. Van Sant has said of this film: "I want the audience to make its own observations and draw its own conclusions," and I think he has succeeded admirably.

Roger Ebert wrote an excellent review of the movie, and in it, he comments:
Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. "Wouldn't you say," she asked, "that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?" No, I said, I wouldn't say that. "But what about 'Basketball Diaries'?" she asked. "Doesn't that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?" The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it's unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. "Events like this," I said, "if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn't have messed with me. I'll go out in a blaze of glory."

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of "explaining" them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.
Ouch. The entire review is good, so check it out.
Posted by Mark on March 18, 2004 at 08:56 PM .: link :.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

My New Toy
Pictured to the right is my new toy, a Pioneer DVR 106 DVD±RW Burner. I wanted to get a DVD drive for the computer so that I could do screen grabs for film reviews and scene analysis (for instance, it would help a great deal to have screenshots on my scene analysis of Rear Window), but when I looked into it, I found out that DVR drives were shockingly inexpensive. In fact, it cost approximately $100 less than my CD Burner (which I bought several years ago, when they hadn't yet become commonplace). For the record, a simple DVD ROM drive is also shockingly inexpensive, but the added functionality in a DVR drive seemed worth the price.
Posted by Mark on March 14, 2004 at 08:16 PM .: link :.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Ender's Humility
Thanks to Chris Wenham's short story Clear as mud, I've been craving a good science fiction novel. So I started reading Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. It's an excellent book, and though I have not yet finished the book, Card makes a lot of interesting choices. For those interested, there will be spoilers ahead.

The story takes place in the distant future where aliens have attacked earth twice, almost destroying the human race. To prepare for their next encounter with the aliens, humans band together under a world government and go about breeding military geniuses, and training them. The military pits students against each other in a series of warlike "games." Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is one such genius, but his abilities are far and above everyone else. This is in part due to his natural talent, but it is also due to certain personality traits: curiosity, an analytical thought process, and humility (among others).

The following passage takes place just after Ender commands his new army to a spectacular victory in just his first match as commander. It was such a spectacular victory, in fact, that Ender becomes a subject of ire amongst the other commanders.
Carn Carby made a point of coming to greet Ender before the lunch period ended. It was, again, a gracious gesture, and, unlike Dink, Carby did not seem wary. "Right now I'm in disgrace," he said frankly. "They won't believe me when I tell them you did things that nobody's ever seen before. So I hope you beat the snot out of the next army you fight. As a favor to me."

"As a favor to you," Ender said. "And thanks for talking to me."

"I think they're treating you pretty badly. Usually new commanders are cheered when they first join the mess. But then, usually a new commander has had a few defeats under his belt before he first makes it here. I only got here a month ago. If anybody deserves a cheer, it's you. But that's life. Make them eat dust."

"I'll try." Carn Carby left, and Ender mentally added him to his private list of people who also qualified as human beings.
One of the interesting things about Ender is that he's not perfect, and he freely admits it all the time. His humility is essential. Failure doesn't matter unless you learn from your failures (the ceramics parable is a recent example of this sort of thing). Ender doesn't fail much, but he's not afraid to confront the reality that someone might think of something he hasn't thought of. He relies on others to help him all the time. The passage above shows how much Ender values humility in his peers as well.

I don't know why Ender's humility surprised me, as Ender is, after all, only human. But it did. It's an interesting perspective, and I'm enjoying the book a lot. As I said, I haven't finished it yet, so for all I know, he becomes an arrogant and ignorant prick towards the end of the novel, but I doubt that. Ender's humility is integral to his success, as humility plays an important part in success. We'll need to keep this in mind, and point out failures we're making as they happen so that we can learn from them and apply those lessons. Naturally, everone will disagree with each other as to what constitutes a failure and what lessons must be learned from which actions, but criticism never bothers me unless it's of the mean spirited unproductive variety. In short, I take Lileks' Andre the Giant philosophy:
Look. I'm a big-tent kinda guy. I'm willing to embrace all sorts of folk whose agendas may differ from mine, as long as we share the realization that there are many many millions out there who want us stone-cold bleached-bones dead. It?s the Andre the Giant philosophy, expressed in "Princess Bride":

I hope we win.

That's all. If you can agree with that without doing a Horshack twitch, intent on adding conditions - oh! oh! what about genetically modified soy? - then we understand each other. We know that we have many disagreements, but we agree: I hope we win. Oh, we can argue about every word in that four-syllable statement. But when it comes down to it all, we're on the same page.

I hope we win.

Now let's pick it apart. Who's we? And what does win mean?
Well, I hope we win.
Posted by Mark on March 07, 2004 at 08:57 PM .: link :.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Link Dump
As usual, my chain smoking simian research staff has been doing some excellent work lately:
  • Baghdad Journal Part 8: Yet another exceptional Mumford column. This installment details his experiences while embedded with a few US Military units. Interestingly, when I first read this article, it was in more of a journal format, including some more mundane observations (but no less interesting, imho) about life as an embedded reporter, but the article seems to have been significantly edited since then, giving greater attention to the more dramatic episodes in Mumford's Journal. One of the remaining episodes that Mumford tells is the confrontation between an Imam who had organized a protest and an American officer, Captain Ricardo Roig. It demonstrates the fine line that such officers must walk between balancing the wants and needs of the Iraqis with the safety of his troops:
    The Imam is a handsome man who looks to be in his early 30s, with an elegant white turban, smoldering green eyes beneath a monobrow. He tells Roig through our translator that he's giving him two days to release the prisoner. Roig looks offended by the Iraqi's ultimatum.

    "You come to me with these demands -- when I ask for your help, you ignore my requests. You're supposed to get a cooperation request before having a demonstration. You don't bother.

    "When have I ever gone into your mosques? When have I ever bothered your women? We try to understand your culture and be sensitive to it, but there are some bad guys out there who want to kill us. I'm not going to let my men get hurt."
    The confrontation goes on, and it is a fascinating read. Also, the art included in this installment appears to be of a higher quality than usual. I've updated this post so that it still contains all of Mumford's columns.
  • Sabotaging the Soviets: Since the end of the Cold War, interesting espionage stories like these have been coming out.
    In January 1982, President Ronald Reagan approved a CIA plan to sabotage the economy of the Soviet Union through covert transfers of technology that contained hidden malfunctions, including software that later triggered a huge explosion in a Siberian natural gas pipeline, according to a new memoir by a Reagan White House official.
    Stories like this, or Operation Ivy Bells or any other of a host of Cold War espionage stories that I find fascinating, always make me wonder what sorts of things will be coming out twenty or thirty years from now. What sorts of espionage are we conducting against terrorists now, if any? [via Power Line]
  • U.S. Push for Mideast Democracy: An ambitious U.S. effort to promote democracy in the Middle East. Word of this plan has been circulating quietly for a while, and it is always compared to the interestingly successful Helsinki Accords of the 1970s, which provided a framework for pressing democracy in the communist East Bloc. The only problem is that the Helsinki Accords' most helpful bits about human rights and whatnot, if I understand correctly, were sort of snuck in as an afterthought. The Soviets would never have participated had they actually known how the accords would play out. In comparing this new plan to the Helsinki Accords, aren't we telegraphing the blow to our enemies? [via OxBlog]
  • Full Text of Zarqawi Letter: This letter has often been commented upon, but the full text, as usual, provides a better understanding of what Zarqawi is actually getting at than the media (and thus the susequent analysis based on media accounts). There are some things that do indicate American success, but there are also plenty of discouraging things in the memo as well.
  • The Family Guy is Coming Back! On a lighter note, this show was one of the funniest I have ever seen, and it's lack of new episodes despite it's briliance was to be a subject of a rant on the blog at one time or another. Apparently, though, new episodes are coming. Score! We'll have to wait until 2005 to get them, however...
Posting has been somewhat sparse lately, but you can still expect the weekly Sunday updates, even if the mid-week updates don't happen as often...
Posted by Mark on March 04, 2004 at 10:51 PM .: link :.

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