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Sunday, November 28, 2004

Recent Viewings
I've seen quite a few movies lately, so I figured I'd give some capsule reviews for the better ones...
  • The Fog of War (2003): Brilliant documentary chronicles the life of former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. The film starts with two seemingly innocuous clips of McNamara. In the first, he prepares for a press conference, and in the second, he is talking to an interviewer in what a behind the scenes sort of moment moment. In both clips, you get the impression that you're seeing someone who is intent on controlling what is being revealed. And with the placement of those clips, you know that Errol Morris, the director, is also intent of controlling what you see by employing numerous stylish devices (Morris has mastered the Reflexive documentary techniques often discussed on this blog). The closeups of old documents, numbers, typewriters, slowly revolving tape recorders, etc... are well used and call attention to Morris as a filmmaker. The film takes us through eleven lessons from McNamara's life, but what is more striking is the questions it brings up. They aren't easy questions, and though McNamara has had to answer them during the course of his life, you aren't required to come to the same conclusions. McNamara is often blamed for the debacle of Vietnam, but Morris doesn't demonize the man (as perhaps, a lesser director would), though you're able to do so if you like... If you see the movie, keep an open mind. It's not what you'd expect. Four Stars (****)
  • The Polar Express (2004): A sweet little Christmas movie, and an effective one at that. As James notes, this movie shares more than a few similarities with The Wizard of Oz, both thematically and stylistically.
    As I was watching The Polar Express, I was reminded of The Wizard of Oz. The similarities are, at times, remarkable. The characters in this film are on a journey to a mythical place - not Oz, but the North Pole. And they're following train tracks, not the yellow brick road. But the four companions are all searching for something intangible. Our hero, an unnamed boy, is on a quest for faith. His companions are seeking confidence, courage, and humility. The entire story may be the figment of the main character's imagination. But at least there's no Wicked Witch or a surrogate. The Polar Express is a tale with plenty of heart and no traditional villain.
    It's also a little creepy, in a way that many children's movies are... Good stuff. Three stars (***)
  • El Mariachi (1992): Robert Rodriguez's $7,000 action flick about a traveling mariachi getting mixed up in a drug war. The film isn't quite as interesting as the trivia surrounding it, but it is a reasonably good flick, and has held up to the test of time reasonably well (considering it's humble beginnings). Two and a half stars (**1/2)
  • 21 Grams (2003): The story is somewhat mundane, but the film is elevated by exceptional performances from the three main leads and a jumpy non-linear presentation. The film demands your attention because of the erratic progression of the story, but the style ends up betraying the ending of the film. It ends with a touch of hope, but it doesn't quite feel like it. It's not a fun movie to watch because of the subject matter (almost unbearable), but it is very well done, from every aspect of the production. Three stars (***)
  • City of God (2002): This film tells the story of two boys growing up in a rough neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. The narrator becomes a photographer, and the other becomes a drug dealer. The director, Fernando Meirelles, employs a stunningly effective style to tell the story and he somehow manages to infuse enough of a sense of humor in the film that you don't despair, despite the brutally violent nature of the story (which is driven by the drug dealer's rise and fall). The film is very violent, yet there is almost no bloodshed. Ironically, the ending of this film is much more bleak than 21 Grams, but it doesn't feel that way (it's still bleak, but it's not unbearable). Three and a half stars (*** 1/2)
Posted by Mark on November 28, 2004 at 06:26 PM .: link :.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Polarized Debate
This is yet another in a series of posts fleshing out ideas initially presented in a post regarding Reflexive Documentary filmmaking and the media. In short, Reflexive Documentaries achieve a higher degree of objectivity by embracing and acknowledging their own biases and agenda. Ironically, by acknowledging their own subjectivity, these films are more objective and reliable. I expanded the scope of the concepts originally presented in that post to include a broader range of information dissemination processes, which lead to a post on computer security and a post on national security.

I had originally planned to apply the same concepts to debating in a relatively straightforward manner. I'll still do that, but recent events have lead me to reconsider my position, thus there will most likely be some unresolved questions at the end of this post.

So the obvious implication with respect to debating is that a debate can be more productive when each side exposes their own biases and agenda in making their argument. Of course, this is pretty much required by definition, but what I'm getting at here is more a matter of tactics. Debating tactics often take poor forms, with participants scoring cheap points by using intuitive but fallacious arguments.

I've done a lot of debating in various online forums, often taking a less than popular point of view (I tend to be a contrarian, and am comofortable on the defense). One thing that I've found is that as a debate heats up, the arguments become polarized. I sometimes find myself defending someone or something that I normally wouldn't. This is, in part, because a polarizing debate forces you to dispute everything your opponent argues. To concede one point irrevocably weakens your position, or so it seems. Of course, the fact that I'm a contrarian, somewhat competitive, and stubborn also plays a part this. Emotions sometimes flare, attitudes clash, and you're often left feeling dirty after such a debate.

None of which is to say that polarized debate is bad. My whole reason for participating in such debates is to get others to consider more than one point of view. If a few lurkers read a debate and come away from it confused or at least challenged by some of the ideas presented, I consider that a win. There isn't anything inherently wrong with partisanship, and as frustrating as some debates are, I find myself looking back on them as good learning experiences. In fact, taking an extreme position and thinking from that biased standpoint helps you understand not only that viewpoint, but the extreme opposite as well.

The problem with such debates, however, is that they really are divisive. A debate which becomes polarized might end up providing you with a more balanced view of an issue, but such debates sometimes also present an unrealistic view of the issue. An example of this is abortion. Debates on that topic are usually heated and emotional, but the issue polarizes, and people who would come down somewhere around the middle end up arguing an extreme position for or against.

Again, I normally chalk this polarization up as a good thing, but after the election, I'm beginning to see the wisdom in perhaps pursuing a more moderated approach. With all the red/blue dichotomies being thrown around with reckless abandon, talk of moving to Canada and even talk of secesssion(!), it's pretty obvious that the country has become overly-polarized.

I've been writing about Benjamin Franklin recently on this here blog, and I think his debating style is particularly apt to this discussion:
Franklin was worried that his fondness for conversation and eagerness to impress made him prone to "prattling, punning and joking, which only made me acceptable to trifling company." Knowledge, he realized, "was obtained rather by the use of the ear than of the tongue." So in the Junto, he began to work on his use of silence and gentle dialogue.

One method, which he had developed during his mock debates with John Collins in Boston and then when discoursing with Keimer, was to pursue topics through soft, Socratic queries. That became the preferred style for Junto meetings. Discussions were to be conducted "without fondness for dispute or desire of victory." Franklin taught his friends to push their ideas through suggestions and questions, and to use (or at least feign) naive curiousity to avoid contradicting people in a manner that could give offense. ... It was a style he would urge on the Constitutional Convention sixty years later. [This is an exerpt from the recent biography Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson]
This contrasts rather sharply with what passes for civilized debate these days. Franklin actually considered it rude to directly contradict or dispute someone, something I had always found to be confusing. I typically favor a frank exchange of ideas (i.e. saying what you mean), but I'm beginning to come around. In the wake of the election, a lot of advice has been offered up for liberals and the left, and a lot of suggestions center around the idea that they need to "reach out" to more voters. This has been recieved with indignation by liberals and leftists, and one could hardly blame them. From their perspective, conservatives and the right are just as bad if not worse and they read such advice as if they're being asked to give up their values. Irrespective of which side is right, I think the general thrust of the advice is that liberal arguments must be more persuasive. No matter how much we might want to paint the country into red and blue partitions, if you really want to be accurate, you'd see only a few small areas of red and blue drowning in a sea of purple. The Democrats don't need to convince that many people to get a more favorable outcome in the next election.

And so perhaps we should be fighting the natural polarization of a debate and take a cue from Franklin, who stressed the importance of deferring, or at least pretending to defer, to others:
"Would you win the hearts of others, you must not seem to vie with them, but to admire them. Give them every opportunity of displaying their own qualifications, and when you have indulged their vanity, they will praise you in turn and prefer you above others... Such is the vanity of mankind that minding what others say is a much surer way of pleasing them than talking well ourselves."
There are weaknesses to such an approach, especially if your opponent does not return the favor, but I think it is well worth considering. That the country has so many opposing views is not necessarily bad, and indeed, is a necessity in democracy for ideas to compete. But perhaps we need less spin and more moderation... In his essay "Apology for Printers" Franklin opines:
"Printers are educated in the belief that when men differ in opinion, both sides ought equally to have the advantage of being heard by the public; and that when Truth and Error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter."

Update: Andrew Olmsted posted something along these lines, and he has a good explanation as to why debates often go south:
I exaggerate for effect, but anyone spending much time on site devoted to either party quickly runs up against the assumption that the other side isn't just wrong, but evil. And once you've made that assumption, it would be wrong to even negotiate with the other side, because any compromise you make is taking the country one step closer to that evil. The enemy must be fought tooth and nail, because his goals are so heinous.

... We tend to assume the worst of those we're arguing with; that he's ignoring this critical point, or that he understands what we're saying but is being deliberately obtuse. So we end up getting frustrated, saying something nasty, and cutting off any opportunity for real dialogue.
I don't know that we're a majority, as Olmsted hopes, but there's more than just a few of us, at least...
Posted by Mark on November 21, 2004 at 03:29 PM .: link :.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Hockey Video Games
With the NHL lockout upon us, I have been looking for some way to make up for this lack of hockey viewing. I've always been a big fan of hockey video games, so I figured that might do the trick. Over the past year, I've bought 2 hockey games: EA Sports NHL 2004, and ESPN NHL 2K5. I was very happy with EA's 2004 effort, but there were some annoyances and I appear to have misplaced it during the move, so I figured I'd get a 2005 game.

EA Sports is pretty much dominant when it comes to just about any sports game out there, and hockey is no exception. Ever since the halcyon days of NHL 1994 for the Genesis, EA has dominated the hockey space. So last year, in an effort to compete with EA, Sega announced that it's own hockey title was going to be branded with ESPN. Not only that, but they dropped their prices to around $20 (as compared to the standard $50 that EA charges) in the hope that the low price would lure gamers away from EA. So in looking at the reviews for EA's and ESPN's 2005 efforts, it appeared that ESPN had picked up significant ground on EA. With those reviews and that price, I figured I might as well check it out, so I took a chance and went with ESPN. To be honest, I'm not impressed. Below is a comparison between ESPN's 2005 effort and EA's 2004 game.

To give you an idea where I'm coming from, my favorite mode is franchise, so a lot of my observations will be coming from that perspective. Some things that annoy me might not annoy the casual gamer who just wants to play a game with their buddies every now and again. I'm playing on a Playstation 2, and I'm a usability nerd, so stuff that wouldn't bother other people might bother me. I'd also like to mention that I am far from a hardcore gamer, so my perceptions might be different than others.
  • Gameplay: Playing a hockey game is fun in both games, but ESPN is the king here. EA's gameplay was one of my minor annoyances. The controls were jerky and awkward, the speed of gameplay was too slow by default (but could be sped up), and the player behavior could be extremely frustrating (especially with Off Sides turned on). ESPN, by contrast, has smooth controls and movements, a good default gameplay speed, and much better player behavior and computer AI. EA's gameplay was rife with 2 line passes and off sides calls, which makes for frustrating play. Another advantage for ESPN is that it offers more and better gaming modes, including a franchise mode which is deeper than it's EA counterpart (more on that later) and a skills competition (which EA doesn't have). Advantage: ESPN
  • Sound: EA wins this one, hands down. Both games have decent sounds during an actual game, but where EA excels is in the maintenance screens. In all EA games, not just hockey, they have assembled a trendy group of songs from real mainstream bands, most of which seem appropriate as a soundtrack to a sports game. I don't know if EA has launched any bands into stardom, but they seem to have a knack for finding good music. ESPN totally falls flat in this respect. The only music they have that is even remotely compelling is the ESPN theme song, which is good, but short and when it repeats for the 10th time, it grates. Their other music is this lame generic instrumental rock music. Normally this wouldn't be that bad, but it just pales in comparison to EA's stylish lineup. This becomes especially important in dynasty or franchise modes, as you spend a significant amount of time tweaking team settings, doing offseason stuff, etc... Both games have play by play announcers that get annoying after a while, but EA's is slightly better in that their comments are usually relevant to what is happening. ESPN commentators will inexplicably throw out some odd comments from time to time. Advantage: EA
  • Graphics: Both games have decent graphics engines, but I think EA has a better overall look and feel. This goes both for the menu design and the gameplay design. The menus are neat and orderly, they look great, and are easy to use (this will be covered in more detail in the usability section). ESPN's menus are allright, but nothing special. In terms of gameplay, while ESPN has a better experience, EA just looks better. Their player animations are great, and their graphics engine is simply superior. ESPN has some nice touches (it sometimes feels like you're literally watching ESPN, as all of the screen elements have the same look and feel as ESPN tv) but it doesn't quite reach EA's heights. Advantage: EA
  • Usability: This isn't something that is usually covered in video game reviews, but this is an area I think is important. Again, this is something that becomes more relevant when you get into dynasty or franchise modes, where a lot of fiddling with team settings and player manipulations are required. You need to be able to navigate through a number of menus and screens to accomplish various tasks. I think EA has the edge here. Their menus and screens look great and are easy to use. More importantly the controls are somewhat intuitive, and there are usually enough hints at the bottom of the screen to let you know what button to press. ESPN, on the other hand, is awful at this. Sometimes their screens are poorly laid out to start with, but when you add to that the clumsy controls, it just makes things that much worse. Take, for instance the Edit Lines screens, typically consisting of one or more lines, along with a list of players you can substitute. Neither interface is perfect, but ESPN's list of substitutions is tiny and requires a lot of scrolling just to see your options. Another good example is sorting. EA's sort is generally accomplished with the O button, while ESPN makes you use one of the least featured buttons on the PS2, the L3 button (and I needed to use ESPN's help to figure that out). ESPN is just too awkward when it comes to this sort of thing. Gameplay controls are fine for both games, but EA is much better when it comes to the maintenance menus and screens. Advantage: EA
  • Depth of Features: As already mentioned, ESPN has more and better gaming modes than EA, and even within the modes, they have a much deeper feature set. Most notably in their franchise mode, where your control of the coaching staff, contracts (which are themselves much more detailed than their EA counterparts), young players, scouting, and drafting is very detailed, to the point of even setting up travel itineraries for your scout and exerting a large amount of control over your minor league team. Even when it comes to unlockables, ESPN has the edge. On the other hand, EA covers most of the same ground, but in a much less detailed fashion. Their simplistic approach will probably appeal to some people more than others. I have not played enough of ESPN's game to really give a feel for this, as one of the most enjoyable things about a franchise or dynasty mode is to watch your young players progress. EA's simplicity could make for a better overall experience, despite the lack of detail. Sometimes, less is more. One other thing to keep in mind is that ESPN's depth is partly nullified by their usability problems, sometimes making their more detailed features more confusing than anything else. If, that is, you can even find them. There are some features, such as the ability to specify line matchups for a game, which must be found by accident (as there is no way to even know such features exist, let alone how to use them). Advantage: ESPN, but it depends on what you're looking for. More depth doesn't necessarily mean more fun. EA's simplicity might be a better overall experience.
  • Injuries: One thing that really annoyed me with EA's 2004 game was the lack of information about injuries, especially when simming significant parts of the season. You'd sim 10 games, find out one of your star players was injured, but there was nowhere to look to find out how long that player was injured (if you were lucky enough to have your injury occur recently, you might find out through the news ticker at the bottom of the screen, but that goes away when you move a few games ahead). ESPN is better in that there is an actual injuries screen you can check. Unfortunately, that's where ESPN's advantages end - their auto-substitution code sucks, and it sometimes doesn't work at all. Indeed, injuries in general seem to really screw the game up. This is one of my major problems with the game. The game actually locks up for unknown reasons, and I literally cannot continue my franchise mode because one of my players got injured. I'm serious, I've tried it five or six times in the last hour, and nothing works. This is inexcusable, especially for a PS2 game (where there are no possible patches), and is reason enough to avoid ESPN's title altogether. Advantage: ESPN (technically, if it worked, ESPN would be better - the bug is more of a symptom of a larger problem that will play into the next section)
  • Franchise vs. Dynasty Modes: ESPN offers Franchise mode, while EA offers Dynasty mode. These are basically the same thing, where you take the role of general manager and control a team through many years, as opposed to just one season. It allows you to build your team up with young talent and watch them grow into superstars, etc... Personally, since I've been playing hockey video games for many years, and since these are among the first hockey games to have this mode, it is the most attractive part of both games (from my perspective, at least). I've already gone over some of the differences, most notably the difference in depth of features. EA is more simplistic and ESPN is more detailed. Unfortunately, since ESPN also has poor usability, the additional detail doesn't do it much good. Add to that the inexcusable crashing issues (ESPN seems to have a lot of problems handling its rosters, which leads to the game locking up all the time) and I think that EA wins this category. Honestly, it's difficult to tell, because I literally cannot continue playing the ESPN franchise. It freezes every time I try, no matter what settings I use. I honestly don't know how they could release this game with such a glaring bug. Advantage: EA
  • Customizability: ESPN has far more configurations than EA, and their defaults are near perfect. Even better, you aren't forced to choose these configurations when you start a season, but you do have the ability to change them if you want. Basically, ESPN has a lot of power under the hood, but you aren't confronted with it unless you really want to look. This is one area in which ESPN really accels. Unfortunately, it's not as important as some of the other areas and this is also sometimes hampered by poor usability. EA has some configuration too, and for the most part it's fine. Again, simplicity has its virtues, but their options are considerably fewer than ESPN's. Advantage: ESPN
  • Auto Line Changes: One thing that annoys me in both games is the auto line changes feature. It always feels like one of my lines gets the shaft. In EA, it's often the second line, which only gets around 5-10 minutes of ice time, while lines one and three get the lion's share. Line four usually gets screwed as well, but you kind of expect that. This is really baffling to me, as the second line contains, well, your second best players. They should be out there almost as often as the first line (one would think they'd get the second most ice time). ESPN is slightly better in this regard, but the third line gets next to nothing and in some games, the fourth line doesn't play at all. I'm not sure why that is, but both games could use some work when it comes to that. Advantage: ESPN
I could probably add a lot more to this, but in general, I think EA's game is better right now (at least NHL 2004 is, I can't speak for 2005, which some believe is a step back). If ESPN can work through some of their rough spots, they could really give EA a run for their money in the future. As it stands now, they're probably better if all you're looking for is a straight hockey game, but if you want to get into seasons or franchise modes, EA is far superior. EA doesn't have the depth, but their interface is excellent. ESPN has lots of neat features not available in EA, but their value is largely nullified by a lack of usability, not to mention the inexcusable crashes. Again, it's astounding that such bugs made it through, and I just can't get past that. If they can fix these bugs for next year, they'll be in good shape. Of course, there might not be a next year for hockey, so that might be a problem.

Before I finish, I just want to stress that I'm talking about EA NHL 2004, not 2005. I've heard that the newer edition has generated a lot of complaints, but I have not played it so I can't say. Again, I'm no expert, but I'm not very impressed with ESPN's entry into the hockey gaming space. Perhaps in a year or two, with improvements to the UI and bug fixes, that will change.
Posted by Mark on November 14, 2004 at 08:01 PM .: link :.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Arranging Interests in Parallel
I have noticed a tendency on my part to, on occasion, quote a piece of fiction, and then comment on some wisdom or truth contained therein. This sort of thing is typically frowned upon in rigorous debate as fiction is, by definition, contrived and thus referencing it in a serious argument is rightly seen as undesirable. Fortunately for me, this blog, though often taking a serious tone, is ultimately an exercise in thinking for myself. The point is to have fun. This is why I will sometimes quote fiction to make a point, and it's also why I enjoy questionable exercises like speculating about historical figures. As I mentioned in a post on Benjamin Franklin, such exercises usually end up saying more about me and my assumptions than anything else. But it's my blog, so that is more or less appropriate.

Astute readers must at this point be expecting to recieve a citation from a piece of fiction, followed by an application of the relevant concepts to some ends. And they would be correct.

Early on in Neal Stephenson's novel The System of the World, Daniel Waterhouse reflects on what is required of someone in his position:
He was at an age where it was never possible ot pursue one errand at a time. He must do many at once. He guessed that people who had lived right and arranged things properly must have it all rigged so that all of their quests ran in parallel, and reinforced and supported one another just so. They gained reputations as conjurors. Others found their errands running at cross purposes and were never able to do anything; they ended up seeming mad, or else percieived the futility of what they were doing and gave up, or turned to drink.
Naturally, I believe there is some truth to this. In fact, the life of Benjamin Franklin, a historical figure from approximately the same time period as Dr. Waterhouse, provides us with a more tangible reference point.

Franklin was known to mix private interests with public ones, and to leverage both to further his business interests. The consummate example of Franklin's proclivities was the Junto, a club of young workingmen formed by Franklin in the fall of 1727. The Junto was a small club composed of enterprising tradesman and artisans who discussed issues of the day and also endeavored to form a vehicle for the furtherance of their own careers. The enterprise was typical of Franklin, who was always eager to form associations for mutual benefit, and who aligned his interests so they ran in parallel, reinforcing and supporting one another.

A more specific example of Franklin's knack for aligning interests is when he produced the first recorded abortion debate in America. At the time, Franklin was running a print shop in Philadelphia. His main competitor, Andrew Bradford, published the town's only newspaper. The paper was meager, but very profitable in both moneys and prestige (which led him to be more respected by merchants and politicians, and thus more likely to get printing jobs), and Franklin decided to launch a competing newspaper. Unfortunately, another rival printer, Samuel Keimer, caught wind of Franklin's plan and immediately launched a hastily assembled newspaper of his own. Franklin, realizing that it would be difficult to launch a third paper right away, vowed to crush Keimer:
In a comptetitive bank shot, Franklin decided to write a series of anonymous letters and essays, along the lines of the Silence Dogood pieces of his youth, for Bradford's [American Weekly Mercury] to draw attention away from Keimer's new paper. The goal was to enliven, at least until Keimer was beaten, Bradford's dull paper, which in its ten years had never puplished any such features.

The first two pieces were attacks on poor Keimer, who was serializing entries from an encyclopedia. His intial installment included, innocently enough, an entry on abortion. Franklin pounced. Using the pen names "Martha Careful" and "Celia Shortface," he wrote letters to Bradford's paper feigning shock and indignation at Keimer's offense. As Miss Careful threatened, "If he proceeds farther to expose the secrets of our sex in that audacious manner [women would] run the hazard of taking him by the beard in the next place we meet him." Thus Franklin manufactured the first recorded abortion debate in America, not because he had any strong feelings on the issue, but because he knew it would sell newspapers. [This is an exerpt from the recent biography Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson]
Franklin's many actions of the time certainly weren't running at cross purposes, and he did manage to align his interests in parallel. He truly was a master, and we'll be hearing more about him on this blog soon.

This isn't the first time I've written about this subject before either. In a previous post, On the Overloading of Information, I noted one of the main reasons why blogging continues to be an enjoyable activity for me, despite changing interests and desires:
I am often overwhelmed by a desire to consume various things - books, movies, music, etc... The subject of such things is also varied and, as such, often don't mix very well. That said, the only thing I have really found that works is to align those subjects that do mix in such a way that they overlap. This is perhaps the only reason blogging has stayed on my plate for so long: since the medium is so free-form and since I have absolute control over what I write here and when I write it, it is easy to align my interests in such a way that they overlap with my blog (i.e. I write about what interests me at the time).
One way you can tell that my interests have shifted over the years is that the format and content of my writing here has also changed. I am once again reminded of Neal Stephenson's original minimalist homepage in which he speaks of his ongoing struggle against what Linda Stone termed as "continuous partial attention," as that curious feature of modern life only makes the necessity of aligning interests in parallel that much more important.

Aligning blogging with my other core interests, such as reading fiction, is one of the reasons I frequently quote fiction, even in reference to a serious topic. Yes, such a practice is frowned upon, but blogging is a hobby, the idea of which is to have fun. Indeed, Glenn Reynolds, progenitor of one of the most popular blogging sites around, also claims to blog for fun, and interestingly enough, he has quoted fiction in support of his own serious interests as well (more than once). One other interesting observation is that all references to fiction in this post, including even Reynolds' references, are from Neal Stephenson's novels. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out what significance, if any, that holds.
Posted by Mark on November 11, 2004 at 11:45 PM .: link :.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Open Source Security
A few weeks ago, I wrote about what the mainstream media could learn from Reflexive documentary filmmaking. Put simply, Reflexive Documentaries achieve a higher degree of objectivity by embracing and acknowledging their own biases and agenda. Ironically, by acknowledging their own subjectivity, these films are more objective and reliable. In a follow up post, I examined how this concept could be applied to a broader range of information dissemination processes. That post focused on computer security and how full disclosure of system vulnerabilities actually improves security in the long run. Ironically, public scrutiny is the only reliable way to improve security.

Full disclosure is certainly not perfect. By definition, it increases risk in the short term, which is why opponents are able to make persuasive arguments against it. Like all security, it is a matter of tradeoffs. Does the long term gain justify the short term risk? As I'm fond of saying, human beings don't so much solve problems as they trade one set of disadvantages for another (with the hope that the new set isn't quite as bad as the old). There is no solution here, only a less disadvantaged system.

Now I'd like to broaden the subject even further, and apply the concept of open security to national security. With respect to national security, the stakes are higher and thus the argument will be more difficult to sustain. If people are unwilling to deal with a few computer viruses in the short term in order to increase long term security, imagine how unwilling they'll be to risk a terrorist attack, even if that risk ultimately closes a few security holes. This may be prudent, and it is quite possible that a secrecy approach is more necessary at the national security level. Secrecy is certainly a key component of intelligence and other similar aspects of national security, so open security techniques would definitely not be a good idea in those areas.

However, there are certain vulnerabilities in processes and systems we use that could perhaps benefit from open security. John Robb has been doing some excellent work describing how terrorists (or global guerillas, as he calls them) can organize a more effective campaign in Iraq. He postulates a Bazaar of violence, which takes its lessons from the open source programming community (using Eric Raymond's essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar as a starting point):
The decentralized, and seemingly chaotic guerrilla war in Iraq demonstrates a pattern that will likely serve as a model for next generation terrorists. This pattern shows a level of learning, activity, and success similar to what we see in the open source software community. I call this pattern the bazaar. The bazaar solves the problem: how do small, potentially antagonistic networks combine to conduct war?
Not only does the bazaar solve the problem, it appears able to scale to disrupt larger, more stable targets. The bazaar essentially represents the evolution of terrorism as a technique into something more effective: a highly decentralized strategy that is nevertheless able to learn and innovate. Unlike traditional terrorism, it seeks to leverage gains from sabotaging infrastructure and disrupting markets. By focusing on such targets, the bazaar does not experience diminishing returns in the same way that traditional terrorism does. Once established, it creats a dynamic that is very difficult to disrupt.

I'm a little unclear as to what the purpose of the bazaar is - the goal appears to be a state of perpetual violence that is capable of keeping a nation in a position of failure/collapse. That our enemies seek to use this strategy in Iraq is obvious, but success essentially means perpetual failure. What I'm unclear on is how they seek to parlay this result into a successful state (which I assume is their long term goal - perhaps that is not a wise assumption).

In any case, reading about the bazaar can be pretty scary, especially when news from Iraq seems to correllate well with the strategy. Of course, not every attack in Iraq correllates, but this strategy is supposedly new and relatively dynamic. It is constantly improving on itself. They are improvising new tactics and learning from them in an effort to further define this new method of warfare.

As one of the commenters on his site notes, it is tempting to claim that John Robb's analysis is essentially an instruction manual for a guerilla organization, but that misses the point. It's better to know where we are vulnerable before we discover that some weakness is being exploited.

One thing that Robb is a little short on is actual, concrete ways with which to fight the bazaar (there are some, and he has pointed out situations where U.S. forces attempted to thwart bazaar tactics, but such examples are not frequent). However, he still provides a valuable service in exposing security vulnerabilities. It seems appropriate that we adopt open source security techniques in order to fight an enemy that employs an open source platform. Vulnerabilities need to be exposed so that we may devise effective counter-measures.
Posted by Mark on November 07, 2004 at 08:56 PM .: link :.

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