Sunday, March 23, 2008
I recently finished watching both seasons of Dexter. The series has a fascinating premise: the titular hero, Dexter Morgan, is a forensic analyst (he's a "blood spatter expert") for the Miami police by day, but a serial killer by night. He operates by a "code," only murdering other murderers (usually ones who've beaten the system). The most interesting thing about Dexter's code is the implication that he does not follow the code out of some sort of dedication to morality or justice. He knows what he does is evil, but he follows his code because it's the most constructive way to channel his aggression. Of course, the code is not perfect, and a big part of the series is how the code shapes him and how he, in turn, shapes it. To be honest, watching the series is a little odd and disturbing when you realize that you're essentially rooting for a serial killer (an affable and charming one, to be sure, but that's part of why it's disturbing). I started to think about this a bit, and several other examples of similar characters came to mind. There's a lot more to the series, but I don't want to ruin it with a spoiler-laden discussion here. Instead, I want to talk about vigilantes.
Despite the lack of concern for justice (or perhaps because of that), Dexter is essentially a vigilante... someone who takes the law into his own hands. There is, of course, a long history of vigilantism, in both real life and art. Indeed, many classic instances happened long before the word vigilante was coined - for example, Robin Hood. He stole from the rich to give to the poor, and was immortalized as a folk hero whose tales are still told to this day. I think there is a certain cultural fascination with vigilantes, especially vigilantes in art.
Take superheroes, most of whom are technically vigilantes. Sure, many stand for all that is good in the world and often cite truth and justice as motivation, but the evolution of comic books shows something interesting. I haven't read a whole lot of comic books (especially of the superhero kind), but the impression I get is that when the craze started in the 1930s, it was all about heroics and people serving the common good. There was also a darker edge to some of them, and that edge has grown as time progressed. Batman is probably the most relevant to this discussion, as he shares a complicated relationship with the police and a certain above-the-law attitude towards solving crimes. Interestingly, the Batman of the 1930s was probably a darker, more violent superhero than he was in the 1940s, when one editor issued a decree that the character could no longer kill or use a gun. As such, the postwar Batman became more of an upstanding citizen, and the stories took on a lighter tone (definitely an understandable direction, considering what the world had been through). I'm sure I'm butchering the Batman chronology here, but the next sigificant touchstone for Batman came in 1986, with the publication of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Written and drawn by Frank Miller, the series reintroduced Batman as a dark, brooding character with complex psychological issues. A huge success, this series ushered in a new era of "grim and gritty" superheros that still holds today.
In general, our superheroes have become much more conflicted. Many (like Batman) tackle the vigilante aspect head on, and if you look at something like Watchmen (or The Incredibles, if you want a lighter version), you can see a shift in the way such stories are told. I'm sure there are literally hundreds of other examples in the comic book world, but I want to shift gears for a moment and examine another cultural icon that Dexter reminded me of: Dirty Harry.
Inspector Harry Callahan is an incredibly popular character, but apparently not with critics:
Critics have rarely cracked the whip harder than on the Dirty Harry film series, which follows the exploits of a trigger-happy San Francisco cop named Harry Callahan and his junior partners, usually not long for this world. On its release in 1971, Dirty Harry was trounced as 'fascist medievalism' by the potentate of the haut monde critic set, Pauline Kael, as well as aspiring Kaels like young Roger Ebert. Especially irksome to the criterati was a key moment in the film when Inspector Callahan, on the trail of an elusive serial sniper, is reprimanded by his superiors for not taking into account the suspect's Miranda rights. Callahan replies, through clenched teeth, "Well, I'm all broken up about that man's rights." Take that, Miranda.I should say that critics often give the film (at least, the first one) generally good overall marks, praising its "suspense craftsmanship" or calling it "a very good example of the cops-and-killers genre." But I'm fascinated by all the talk of fascism. Despite working within the system, Dirty Harry indeed does take the law into his own hands, and in doing so he ignores many of our treasured Constitutional freedoms. And yet we all cheer him on, just as we cheer Batman and Dexter.
Why are these characters so popular? Why do we cheer such characters on even when we know what they're doing is ultimately wrong? I think it comes down to desire. We all desire justice. We want to see wrongs being made right, yet every day we can turn on the TV and watch non-stop failures of our system, whether it be rampant crime or a criminal going free or any other number of indignities. Now, I'm not an expert, but I don't think our society today is much worse off than it was, say, a hundred years ago (In fact, I think we're significantly better off, but that's another discussion). The big difference is that information is disseminated more widely and quickly, and dramatic failures of the system are attention grabbing, so that's what we get. What's more, these stories tend to focus on the most dramatic, most obscene examples. It's natural for people to feel helpless in the face of such news, and I think that's why everyone tends to embrace vigilante stories (note that people don't generally embrace actual real-life vigilantes - that's important, and we'll get to that later). Such stories serve many purposes. They allow us to cope with life's tragedies, internalize them and in some way comfort us, but as a deeper message, they also emphasize that the world is not perfect, and that we'll probably never solve the problem of crime. In some ways, they act as a critique of our system, pointing out it's imperfections and thereby making sure we don't become complacent in the ever-changing fight against crime.
Of course, there is a danger to this way of thinking, which is why critics like Pauline Kael get all huffy when they watch something like Dirty Harry. We don't want to live in a police state, and to be honest, a real cop who acted like Dirty Harry would probably be an awful cop. Films like that deal in extremes because they're trying to make a point, and it's easy to misinterpret such films. I doubt people would really accept a cop like Dirty Harry. Sure, some folks might applaud his handling of the Scorpio case that the film documents (audiences certainly did!), but police officers don't handle a single case in the course of their career, and most cases aren't that black and white either. Dirty Harry would probably be fired out here in the real world. Ultimately, while we revel in such entertainment, we don't actually want real life to imitate art in this case. However, that doesn't mean we enjoy hearing about a vicious drug dealer going free because the rules of evidence were not followed to the letter. I think deep down, people understand that concepts like the rules of evidence are important, but they can also be extremely frustrating. This is why we have conflicting emotions when we watch the last scene in Dirty Harry, in which he takes off his police badge and throws it into the river.
I think this is a large part of why vigilante stories have evolved. Comic book heroes like Batman have become more conflicted, and newer comic books often deal with the repercussions of vigilatism. The Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force, was apparently made as a direct answer to the critics of Dirty Harry who thought that film was openly advocating law-sanctioned vigilantism. In Magnum Force, the villains are vigilante cops. Then you have modern day vigilantes like Dexter, which pumps audiences full of conflicting emotions. I like this guy, but he's a serial killer. He's stopping other killers, but he's doing so in such a disturbing way.
Are vigilante stories fascist fantasies? Perhaps, but fantasies aren't real. They're used to illustrate something, and in the case of vigilante fantasies, they illustrate a desire for justice. The existence of a show like Dexter will repulse some people and that's certainly an understandable reaction. In fact, I think that's exactly what the show's creators want to do. They're walking the line between satisfying the desire for justice while continually noting that Dexter is not a good person. Ironically, what would repulse me more would be the complete absence of stories like Dexter, because the only way such a thing could happen would be if everyone thought our society was perfect. Perhaps someday concepts like justice and crime will be irrelevant, but that day ain't coming soon, and until it does, we'll need such stories, if only to remind us that we don't live in a perfect world.
Posted by Mark on March 23, 2008 at 07:16 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Every so often, I see someone who is genuinely concerned with reaching the unreachable. Whether it be scientists who argue about how to frame their arguments, alpha-geek programmers who try to figure out how to reach typical, average programmers, or critics who try to open a dialogue with feminists. Debates tend to polarize, and when it comes to politics or religion, assumptions of bad faith on both sides tend to derail discussions pretty quickly.
How do you reach the unreachable? Naturally, the topic is much larger than a single blog entry, but I did run accross an interesting post by Jon Udell that outlines Charles Darwin's rhetorical strategy in the book, On the Origin of Species (which popularized the theory of evolution).
Darwin, says Slatkin, was like a salesman who finds lots of little ways to get you to say yes before you're asked to utter the big yes. In this case, Darwin invited people to affirm things they already knew, about a topic much more familiar in their era than in ours: domestic species. Did people observe variation in domestic species? Yes. And as Darwin piles on the examples, the reader says, yes, yes, OK, I get it, of course I see that some pigeons have longer tail feathers. Did people observe inheritance? Yes. And again, as he piles on the examples, the reader says yes, yes, OK, I get it, everyone knows that that the offspring of longer-tail-feather pigeons have longer tail feathers.I think Udell simplifies the inception and development of the idea of evolution, but I think the point generally holds. Darwin's ideas didn't come into mainstream prominence until he published his book, decades after he had begun his work. Obviously, Darwin's strategy isn't applicable in every situation, but it is an interesting place to start (I suppose we should keep in mind that evolution is still controversial amongst the mainstream)...
Posted by Mark on December 05, 2007 at 08:29 PM .: link :.
Sunday, September 11, 2005
Lots of Stuff
A little short on time this week, so here's a bunch of links:
Sunday, July 10, 2005
I'd been at a loss for what to say about Thursday's terrorist attacks in London until I saw this somehow appropriately obscure historical reference from Mindles H. Dreck of Asymmetrical Information:
"Whither thou goest I will go, and whither thou lodgest I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Even to the end."For details on the attack, check out this comprehensive Wikipedia entry (an impressive example of self-organization in action). Also, the British Red Cross has set up a relief fund for victims of the bombings and is accepting donations.
Sunday, May 29, 2005
Sharks, Deer, and Risk
Here's a question: Which animal poses the greater risk to the average person, a deer or a shark?
Most people's initial reaction (mine included) to that question is to answer that the shark is the more dangerous animal. Statistically speaking, the average American is much more likely to be killed by deer (due to collisions with vehicles) than by a shark attack. Truly accurate statistics for deer collisions don't exist, but estimates place the number of accidents in the hundreds of thousands. Millions of dollars worth of damage are caused by deer accidents, as are thousands of injuries and hundreds of deaths, every year.
Shark attacks, on the other hand, are much less frequent. Each year, approximately 50 to 100 shark attacks are reported. "World-wide, over the past decade, there have been an average of 8 shark attack fatalities per year."
It seems clear that deer actually pose a greater risk to the average person than sharks. So why do people think the reverse is true? There are a number of reasons, among them the fact that deer don't intentionally cause death and destruction (not that we know of anyway) and they are also usually harmed or killed in the process, while sharks directly attack their victims in a seemingly malicious manner (though I don't believe sharks to be malicious either).
I've been reading Bruce Schneier's book, Beyond Fear, recently. It's excellent, and at one point he draws a distinction between what security professionals refer to as "threats" and "risks."
A threat is a potential way an attacker can attack a system. Car burglary, car theft, and carjacking are all threats ... When security professionals talk abour risk, they take into consideration both the likelihood of the threat and the seriousness of a successful attack. In the U.S., car theft is a more serious risk than carjacking because it is much more likely to occur.Everyone makes risk assessments every day, but most everyone also has different tolerances for risk. It's essentially a subjective decision, and it turns out that most of us rely on imperfect heuristics and inductive reasoning when it comes to these sorts of decisions (because it's not like we have the statistics handy). Most of the time, these heuristics serve us well (and it's a good thing too), but what this really ends up meaning is that when people make a risk assessment, they're basing their decision on a perceived risk, not the actual risk.
Schneier includes a few interesting theories about why people's perceptions get skewed, including this:
Modern mass media, specifically movies and TV news, has degraded our sense of natural risk. We learn about risks, or we think we are learning, not by directly experiencing the world around us and by seeing what happens to others, but increasingly by getting our view of things through the distorted lens of the media. Our experience is distilled for us, and it’s a skewed sample that plays havoc with our perceptions. Kids try stunts they’ve seen performed by professional stuntmen on TV, never recognizing the precautions the pros take. The five o’clock news doesn’t truly reflect the world we live in -- only a very few small and special parts of it.When I first considered the Deer/Shark dilemma, my immediate thoughts turned to film. This may be a reflection on how much movies play a part in my life, but I suspect some others would also immediately think of Bambi, with it's cuddly cute and innocent deer, and Jaws, with it's maniacal great white shark. Indeed, Fritz Schranck once wrote about these "rats with antlers" (as some folks refer to deer) and how "Disney's ability to make certain animals look just too cute to kill" has deterred many people from hunting and eating deer. When you look at the deer collision statistics, what you see is that what Disney has really done is to endanger us all!
Given the above, one might be tempted to pursue some form of censorship to keep the media from degrading our ability to determine risk. However, I would argue that this is wrong. Freedom of speech is ultimately a security measure, and if we're to consider abridging that freedom, we must also seriously consider the risks of that action. We might be able to slightly improve our risk decisionmaking with censorship, but at what cost?
Schneier himself recently wrote about this subject on his blog. In response to an article which argues that suicide bombings in Iraq shouldn't be reported (because it scares people and it serves the terrorists' ends). It turns out, there are a lot of reasons why the media's focus on horrific events in Iraq cause problems, but almost any way you slice it, it's still wrong to censor the news:
It's wrong because the danger of not reporting terrorist attacks is greater than the risk of continuing to report them. Freedom of the press is a security measure. The only tool we have to keep government honest is public disclosure. Once we start hiding pieces of reality from the public -- either through legal censorship or self-imposed "restraint" -- we end up with a government that acts based on secrets. We end up with some sort of system that decides what the public should or should not know.Like all of security, this comes down to a basic tradeoff. As I'm fond of saying, human beings don't so much solve problems as they do trade one set of problems for another (in the hopes that the new problems are preferable the old). Risk can be difficult to determine, and the media's sensationalism doesn't help, but censorship isn't a realistic solution to that problem because it introduces problems of its own (and those new problems are worse than the one we're trying to solve in the first place). Plus, both Jaws and Bambi really are great movies!
Posted by Mark on May 29, 2005 at 08:50 PM .: link :.
Sunday, May 22, 2005
Voters and Lurkers
Debating online, whether it be through message boards or blogs or any other method, can be rewarding, but it can also be quite frustrating. When most people think of a debate, they think of a group arguing an opponent, and one of the two factions "winning" the argument. It's a process of expression in which different people with different points of view will express their opinions, and are criticised by one another.
I've often found that specific threads tend to boil down to a point where the argument is going back and forth between two sole debaters (with very few interruptions from others). Inevitably, the debate gets to the point where both sides' assumptions (or axioms) have been exposed, and neither side is willing to agree with the other. To the debaters, this can be intensely frustrating. As such, anyone who has spent a significant amount of time debating others online can usually see that they're probably never going to convince their opponents. So who wins the argument?
The debaters can't decide who wins - they obviously think their argument is better than their opponents (or, at the very least, are unwilling to admit it) and so everyone thinks that they "won." But the debaters themselves don't "win" an argument, it's the people witnessing the debate that are the real winners. They decide which arguments are persuasive and which are not.
This is what the First Amendment of the US Constitution is based on, and it is a fundamental part of our democracy. In a vigorous marketplace of ideas, the majority of voters will discern the truth and vote accordingly.
Unfortunately, there never seems to be any sort of closure when debating online, because the audience is primarily comprised of lurkers, most of whom don't say anything (plus, there are no votes), and so it seems like nothing is accomplished. However, I assure you that is not the case. Perhaps not for all lurkers, but for a lot of them, they are reading the posts with a critical eye and coming out of the debate convinced one way or the other. They are the "voters" in an online debate. They are the ones who determine who won the debate. In a scenario where only 10-15 people are reading a given thread, this might not seem like much (and it's not), but if enough of these threads occur, then you really can see results...
I'm reminded of Benjamin Franklin's essay "An apology for printers," in which Franklin defended those who printed allegedly offensive opinion pieces. His thought was that very little would be printed if publishers only produced things that were not offensive to anybody.
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.
Posted by Mark on May 22, 2005 at 06:58 PM .: link :.
Sunday, April 24, 2005
Are Libertarians Pragmatic?
Russ Nelson recently argued that there is no such thing as a "left-libertarian." In so doing, he points to a larger issue:
I think there's a larger issue here. "Liberal" used to mean the philosophy which is called in the US "libertarian", and which is still called "liberal" in some other countries. Since this philosophy generally promotes happiness and distributes power, people who seek power object to it. Since the philosophy is hard to understand and is counter-intuitive, it only takes a little bit of effort to undermine it.[Emphasis mine] Is a philosophy that is easy to undermine and difficult to understand in the first place a realistic philosophy? Well, self-organizing systems such as this often display emergent properties that are more than the simple sum of their parts. So the people contributing to the system don't necessarily need to understand the system in order for the system to work. However, it is the "easy to undermine" part that causes the major problem...
I find libertarian ideas and concepts interesting and useful, but I can never seem to get rid of the nagging pragmatic objections to it, such as the one outlined above.
Posted by Mark on April 24, 2005 at 10:55 AM .: link :.
Sunday, February 20, 2005
The Stability of Three
One of the things I've always respected about Neal Stephenson is his attitude (or rather, the lack thereof) regarding politics:
Politics - These I avoid for the simple reason that artists often make fools of themselves, and begin to produce bad art, when they decide to get political. A novelist needs to be able to see the world through the eyes of just about anyone, including people who have this or that set of views on religion, politics, etc. By espousing one strong political view a novelist loses the power to do this. Anyone who has convinced himself, based on reading my work, that I hold this or that political view, is probably wrong. What is much more likely is that, for a while, I managed to get inside the head of a fictional character who held that view.Having read and enjoyed several of his books, I think this attitude has served him well. In a recent interview in Reason magazine, Stephenson makes several interesting observations. The whole thing is great, and many people are interested in his comments regarding an American technology and science, but I found one other tidbit very interesting. Strictly speaking, it doesn't break with his attitude about politics, but it is somewhat political:
Speaking as an observer who has many friends with libertarian instincts, I would point out that terrorism is a much more formidable opponent of political liberty than government. Government acts almost as a recruiting station for libertarians. Anyone who pays taxes or has to fill out government paperwork develops libertarian impulses almost as a knee-jerk reaction. But terrorism acts as a recruiting station for statists. So it looks to me as though we are headed for a triangular system in which libertarians and statists and terrorists interact with each other in a way that I’m afraid might turn out to be quite stable.I took particular note of what he describes as a "triangular system" because it's something I've seen before...
One of the primary goals of the American Constitutional Convention was to devise a system that would be resistant to tyranny. The founders were clearly aware of the damage that an unrestrained government could do, so they tried to design the new system in such a way that it wouldn't become tyrannical. Democratic institions like mandatory periodic voting and direct accountability to the people played a large part in this, but the founders also did some interesting structural work as well.
Taking their cue from the English Parliament's relationship with the King of England, the founders decided to create a legislative branch separate from the executive. This, in turn, placed the two governing bodies in competition. However, this isn't a very robust system. If one of the governing bodies becomes more powerful than the other, they can leverage their advantage to accrue more power, thus increasing the imbalance.
A two-way balance of power is unstable, but a three-way balance turns out to be very stable. If any one body becomes more powerful than the other two, the two usually can and will temporarily unite, and their combined power will still exceed the third. So the founders added a third governing body, an independent judiciary.
The result was a bizarre sort of stable oscillation of power between the three major branches of the federal government. Major shifts in power (such as wars) disturbed the system, but it always fell back to a preferred state of flux. This stable oscillation turns out to be one of the key elements of Chaos theory, and is referred to as a strange attractor. These "triangular systems" are particularly good at this, and there are many other examples...
Some argue that the Cold War stabilized considerably when China split from the Soviet Union. Once it became a three-way conflict, there was much less of a chance of unbalance (and as unbalance would have lead to nuclear war, this was obviously a good thing).
Steven Den Beste once noted this stabilizing power of three in the interim Iraqi constitution, where the Iraqis instituted a Presidency Council of 3 Presidents representing each of the 3 major factions in Iraq:
...those writing the Iraqi constitution also had to create a system acceptable to the three primary factions inside of Iraq. If they did not, the system would shake itself to pieces and there was a risk of Iraqi civil war.It should be interesting to see if that structure will be maintained in the new Iraqi constitution.
As for Stephenson's speculation that a triangular system consisting of libertarians, statists, and terrorists may develop, I'm not sure. They certainly seem to feed off one another in a way that would facilitate such a system, but I'm not positive it would work out that way, nor do I think it is particularly a desirable state to be in, all the more because it could be a very stable system due to its triangular structure. In any case, I thought it was an interesting observation and well worth considering...
Posted by Mark on February 20, 2005 at 08:06 PM .: link :.
Sunday, January 30, 2005
Elections in Iraq
Iraq held its first national elections in over 50 years today. I don't have much to add to what has already been said, but I will note that it doesn't surprise me that the insurgents were quieter than expected. One of the big advantages of terrorism is the surprise factor, and on a day like today, security forces are expecting attacks and are much more likely to spot unusual activities and investigate. My guess is that attacks will intensify in the coming weeks, as the insurgents test the new government...
Lots of people are commenting on this so I'll try to perform some of that information aggregation that blogs are known for, starting with the Iraqi Blogs, then moving on to the rest of the blogosphere...
Update: Moved all the links into the extended entry. Click below to read on... Iraqi Blogs:
Several Updates: Gah! Information overload. Many links added, but I think I'm done for the night. The funny thing is that I haven't even begun to scrape the tip of all the good information that's out there. Partaking in an exercise like this is one of the things that really puts the need for good information aggregation into perspective. But this is a start, I guess...
Another Update: I lied, several new links.
Posted by Mark on January 30, 2005 at 07:06 PM .: link :.
Sunday, December 26, 2004
Is Patriotism Self-Organizing?
Scott has been writing a lot about patriotism and recently emailed me suggesting that it would be interesting to consider that subject from the perspective of self-organizing systems.
Are we genetically predisposed to work together in large groups for the common good of the group? How large the group? Are we genetically predisposed to organise ourselves into large nations?One of the problems I have with discussions about patriotism is that there is no adequate definition for the term. In my mind, patriotism is more of an amalgam of several other, more general, properties of man. One such property is that human beings tend to work together in groups. Doing so gives the group greater overall strength. This occurs frequently in nature, with packs of wolves, flocks of birds, schools of fish, and so on. It is clear that there is some sort of evolutionary advantage to working together in a group. So this particular property of man acts as a selection mechanism. Those who stubbornly act alone cannot compete with others who are cooperating. Over the millenia, man has become more and more likely to work together in groups.
It's interesting to consider, though, that this property developed spontaneously. It is an emergent property of a self-organizing system - evolution. It's also important to remember that no single property exists in a vacuum. The property we're talking about, the tendency for humans to work together in groups, is interconnected with several other properties: communication skills, loyalty, physical strength, and so on. The point is that the group is configured more efficiently than the individual. An individual needs to be good at several activities in order to survive. But individuals who are part of a group can specialize, and other members of the group will take care of any shortcomings. Being a self-organized system, it is also constantly improving on itself. It does so through a continuous reproduction and selection process.
So what is the optimal size of the group? There is no answer to that question, but lucky for us, this is exactly the sort of question nature is designed to answer. Just as nature has selected people who work in groups, it will select groups which work more efficiently. Part of what makes a group efficient is the group's size.
It seems obvious that the larger the group, the better, but as the group gets larger, it begins to experience scaling problems. In a small group, communication and coordination between the members is important, but can be accomplished with relatively simple means. As the group gets larger, it becomes more important and much more difficult to coordinate. Governments and nations arose out of the need for a useful framework for large groups of individuals (and large groups of groups, as it were).
There are, of course, several competing forms of government. Some are better than others, but the important thing is that governments allow for large scale collaboration. They institute laws and regulations which are intended to make the group operate more efficiently. Currently, it seems that governments which employ democratic mechanisms are the most successful. Depending on your view of things, there is considerable room for improvement though. To quote Winston Churchill:
"Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried."Large scale collaboration is difficult. It quite often produces poor results (see groupthink) and those who are adept at recognizing such properties can exploit them. However, it is a matter of tradeoffs. Human beings don't so much solve their problems as they trade one set of problems for another (with the hope that the new set is more advantageous than the old).
Humanity has imposed patriotism on itself because of nature (not in spite of it), and it has done so because all of the alternatives we have tried could not compete with a system that exhibits "patriotism." Scott writes:
I would suggest that the patriotic field will prove to be just as ephemeral as the first born sacrifice field. The fact that a field flourishes does not mean that the field is more beneficial to human survival than a field that does not flourish. Witness the ravages of war, racism, or the pollution of the environment. There exists in the space of potential fields, one which governs us to view humanity as a single species who share one fragile planet. Whether this field will ever find a hospitable environment remains to be seen.Personally, I think patriotism is here to stay. It may be further refined by the evolutionary process, but it is quite clear that human beings benefit from working together in groups, and as long as that is the case there will exist people who seek to exploit such instincts. The real question here is whether the current situation is the most efficient possible configuration of the system, and how to improve the system of collaboration. The idea is to keep expanding the group's size until the point in which all of humanity is a member. To a certain extent, we are proceeding along those lines with things like international organizations and globalization, though there is, again, considerable room for improvement (this is, perhaps, because there is also considerable room for improvement in individual governments - the problems of the smal writ large). Patriotism would still exist in such a system, though it probably would not operate in the same way it does now.
Scott wonders whether or not his ideal world will ever find a hospitable environment. This is the wrong way to think about the problem. The environment is governed by nature which is continuously seeking to maximize efficiency. If it is hospitable to a specific configuration, it will gravitate towards that configuration (it would be an attractor).
Again, this subject is enormous, and the discussion above is a very high level analysis. Take it with a grain of salt. I'm still trying to get my head around the general concept of self-organizing systems. Part of that is that I see it operating everywhere, probably sometimes where it is not...
Posted by Mark on December 26, 2004 at 09:02 PM .: link :.
Sunday, December 19, 2004
The Final Baghdad Journal
The final entry in an exceptional series of articles written by a New York artist, Steve Mumford, on his experiences in Iraq has been posted. As always, it is compelling reading and depicts an Iraq not normally seen from the usual sources.
Apparently Mumford's work has been gathering more and more attention; those who have been following his work will be interested in this NY Times article (registration required) which provides a little background into Mumford's motivations and inspiration.
Now 44, Mr. Mumford had been comfortably embedded in the London and New York gallery worlds. He was known for paintings that seemed to pit two disparate Americas - wilderness and society - against each other by depicting, for example, a car seen against a sublime landscape or a wild animal about to pounce at a house. ... Mr. Mumford says his inspiration for the project stemmed directly from his admiration for the painter Winslow Homer, who was sent to the front during the Civil War to sketch for Harper's Weekly.The article mentions that this latest installment is unfortunately also the final one (though one wonder whether his newfound friendships with Iraqi artists will lead to further "journal" entries in the future). As always, it is an excellent read. Artnet has collected all of the Baghdad Journals here, if you're interested.
Posted by Mark on December 19, 2004 at 10:49 PM .: link :.
Sunday, November 21, 2004
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.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."Indeed.
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.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 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 :.
Sunday, October 24, 2004
Life & Art in Wartime Baghdad
Yet another Baghdad Journal from Steve Mumford. For those unfamiliar with Mumford's work, he is a New York artist who has gone to Iraq a number of times and posted a series of excellent articles about his travels. They usually provide a much different perspective on the happenings in Iraq than you're used to seeing in the media. In this latest installment he describes a run-in with the mehdi army (he meets them in a falafel place where one of them asks him, "Mister, you like Muqtada?" Talk about a loaded question!), among other less scary but still concerning anecdotes (this entry seems to portray a more dangerous Baghdad than previous entries), and as usual he has posted some excellent artwork. The art seems a little more detailed than usual, and he also posted a piece from Iraqi artist and friend Esam Pasha (pictured to the right) as well as some photographs of various friends and artwork. Very cool stuff. If you liked this installment, I've collected all of the Baghdad Journal entries here for easy access. Highly recommended reading.
Posted by Mark on October 24, 2004 at 11:36 AM .: link :.
Sunday, September 19, 2004
Catfight in Iraq
The latest Baghdad Journal from Steve Mumford is, as usual, chock-full of interesting bits about Iraq that you're not likely to hear about elsewhere. For those who are unaware of Mumford's excellent column (there are now 14 such articles), he is a New York artist who has travelled to Iraq on a number of occasions over the past few years, sometimes embedding with the military, sometimes just visiting Iraqi artists he's made friends with. He writes about his trips and thus provides us with an interesting perspective that is unlike most of what you see about Iraq. I highly recommend you check out his other articles, which I have collected here.
His articles are always accompanied by artwork, usually drawn by him, ranging from brief sketches to more detailed paintings. If you haven't noticed, there are often little mini-anecdotes hidden in the individual art pages. In the most recent article, Mumford describes a Psy-ops meeting with an Iraqi communist:
Psy-Ops at Communist Party Headquarters, BaqubahCommunists a fan of the U.S. because they support democracy? That sounds a bit odd to me, but interesting nonetheless. Other highlights from the recent article include a "shady" Iraqi mayor, reconstruction woes, the Iraqi football/soccer team, and the Miller Lite Catfight Girls. Again, highly recommended reading.
Posted by Mark on September 19, 2004 at 08:36 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, September 15, 2004
A Reflexive Media
"To write or to speak is almost inevitably to lie a little. It is an attempt to clothe an intangible in a tangible form; to compress an immeasurable into a mold. And in the act of compression, how the Truth is mangled and torn!" - Anne Murrow LindberghThere are many types of documentary films. The most common form of documentary is referred to as Direct Address (aka Voice of God). In such a documentary, the viewer is directly acknowledged, usually through narration and voice-overs. There is very little ambiguity and it is pretty obvious how you're expected to interpret these types of films. Many television and news programs use this style, to varying degrees of success. Ken Burns' infamous Civil War and Baseball series use this format eloquently, but most traditional propaganda films also fall into this category (a small caveat: most films are hybrids, rarely falling exclusively into one category). Such films give the illusion of being an invisible witness to certain events and are thus very persuasive and powerful.
The problem with Direct Address documentaries is that they grew out of a belief that Truth is knowable through objective facts. In a recent sermon he posted on the web, Donald Sensing spoke of the difference between facts and the Truth:
Truth and fact are not the same thing. We need only observe the presidential race to discern that. John Kerry and allies say that the results of America's war against Iraq is mostly a failure while George Bush and allies say they are mostly success. Both sides have the same facts, but both arrive at a different "truth."I'm not sure Sensing chose the best example here, but the concept itself is sound. Any documentary is biased in the Truth that it presents, even if the facts are undisputed. In a sense objectivity is impossible, which is why documentary scholar Bill Nichols admires films which seek to contextualize themselves, exposing their limitations and biases to the audience.
Reflexive Documentaries use many devices to acknowledge the filmmaker's presence, perspective, and selectivity in constructing the film. It is thought that films like this are much more honest about their subjectivity, and thus provide a much greater service to the audience.
An excellent example of a Reflexive documentary is Errol Morris' brilliant film, The Thin Blue Line. The film examines the "truth" around the murder of a Dallas policeman. The use of colored lighting throughout the film eventually correlates with who is innocent or guilty, and Morris is also quite manipulative through his use of editing - deconstructing and reconstructing the case to demonstrate just how problematic finding the truth can be. His use of framing calls attention to itself, daring the audience to question the intents of the filmmakers. The use of interviews in conjunction with editing is carefully structured to demonstrate the subjectivity of the film and its subjects. As you watch the movie, it becomes quite clear that Morris is toying with you, the viewer, and that he wants you to be critical of the "truth" he is presenting.
Ironically, a documentary becomes more objective when it acknowledges its own biases and agenda. In other words, a documentary becomes more objective when it admits its own subjectivity. There are many other forms of documentary not covered here (i.e. direct cinema/cinema verité, interview-based, performative, mock-documentaries, etc... most of which mesh together as they did in Morris' Blue Line to form a hybrid).
In Bill Nichols' seminal essay, Voice of Documentary (Can't seem to find a version online), he says:
"Documentary filmmakers have a responsibility not to be objective. Objectivity is a concept borrowed from the natural sciences and from journalism, with little place in the social sciences or documentary film."I always found it funny that Nichols equates the natural sciences with journalism, as it seems to me that modern journalism is much more like a documentary than a natural science. As such, I think the lessons of Reflexive documentaries (and its counterparts) should apply to the realm of journalism.
The media emphatically does not acknowledge their biases. By bias, I don't mean anything as short-sighted as liberal or conservative media bias, I mean structural bias of which political orientation is but a small part (that link contains an excellent essay on the nature of media bias, one that I find presents a more complete picture and is much more useful than the tired old ideological bias we always hear so much about*). Such subjectivity does exist in journalism, yet the media stubbornly persists in their firm belief that they are presenting the objective truth.
The recent CBS scandal, consisting of a story bolstered by what appear to be obviously forged documents, provides us with an immediate example. Terry Teachout makes this observation regarding how few prominent people are willing to admit that they are wrong:
I was thinking today about how so few public figures are willing to admit (for attribution, anyway) that they’ve done something wrong, no matter how minor. But I wasn’t thinking of politicians, or even of Dan Rather. A half-remembered quote had flashed unexpectedly through my mind, and thirty seconds’ worth of Web surfing produced this paragraph from an editorial in a magazine called World War II:As he points out later in his post, I don't think we're going to be seeing such admissions any time soon. Again, CBS provides a good example. Rather than admit the possibility that they may be wrong, their response to the criticisms of their sources has been vague, dismissive, and entirely reliant on their reputation as a trustworthy staple of journalism. They have not yet comprehensively responded to any of the numerous questions about the documents; questions which range from "conflicting military terminology to different word-processing techniques". It appears their strategy is to escape the kill zone by focusing on the "truth" of their story, that Bush's service in the Air National Guard was less than satisfactory. They won't admit that the documents are forgeries, and by focusing on the arguably important story, they seek to distract the issue away from their any discussion of their own wrongdoing - in effect claiming that the documents aren't important because the story is "true" anyway.Soon after he had completed his epic 140-mile march with his staff from Wuntho, Burma, to safety in India, an unhappy Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell was asked by a reporter to explain the performance of Allied armies in Burma and give his impressions of the recently concluded campaign. Never one to mince words, the peppery general responded: "I claim we took a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is as humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, and go back and retake it."Stilwell spoke those words sixty-two years ago. When was the last time that such candor was heard in like circumstances? What would happen today if similar words were spoken by some equally well-known person who’d stepped in it up to his eyebrows?
Should they admit they were wrong? Of course they should, but they probably won't. If they won't, it will not be because they think the story is right, and not because they think the documents are genuine. They won't admit wrongdoing and they won't correct their methodologies or policies because to do so would be to acknowledge to the public that they are less than just an objective purveyor of truth.
Yet I would argue that they should do so, that it is their duty to do so just as it is the documentarian's responsibility to acknowledge their limitations and agenda to their audience.
It is also interesting to note that weblogs contrast the media by doing just that. Glenn Reynolds notes that the internet is a low-trust medium, which paradoxically indicates that it is more trustworthy than the media (because blogs and the like acknowledge their bias and agenda, admit when they're wrong, and correct their mistakes):
The Internet, on the other hand, is a low-trust environment. Ironically, that probably makes it more trustworthy.The mainstream media as we know it is on the decline. They will no longer be able to get by on their brand or their reputations alone. The collective intelligence of the internet, combined with the natural reflexiveness of its environment, has already provided a challenge to the underpinnings of journalism. On the internet, the dominance of the media is constantly challenged by individuals who question the "truth" presented to them in the media. I do not think that blogs have the power to eclipse the media, but their influence is unmistakable. The only question that remains is if the media will rise to the challenge. If the way CBS has reacted is any indication, then, sadly, we still have a long way to go.
* Yes, I do realize the irony of posting this just after I posted about liberal and conservative tendencies in online debating, and I hinted at that with my "Update" in that post.
Thanks to Jay Manifold for the excellent Structural Bias of Journalism link.
Posted by Mark on September 15, 2004 at 11:07 PM .: link :.
Sunday, September 12, 2004
Original Sources vs Analysis
A little while ago, Brad Wardell wrote about a difference between Left-Wing and Right-Wing zealots. Basically, liberals tend to rely on third-party analysis of data, while conservatives tend to dig into the data themselves and come to their own conclusions. Each group will sometimes get into trouble sometimes because of this:
Bear with a generalization for a moment: people who are left of center politically tend not to be quite as analytical as the general population. You don't find too many engineers, for example, arguing for liberal causes. And you don't find too many artists arguing for conservative causes. There are exceptions of course but as a generalization, I think you'd agree this is true.I tend to dislike generalizations like this, especially when they're made about groups that are as vague and undefined as liberals and conservatives. However, this struck a chord with me as I could identify with the premise - I've debated a lot online, and I've seen this sort of thing in action. It turns out that I'm more in line with the conservative side of things, preferring to look at the data myself rather than relying on some analysis of the data (though I try to avoid referencing a "liberal media" and I don't generally like conspiracies). Still, I'm hesitant to buy into such a broad generalization.
In any case, it is interesting to note that the recent 60 Minutes story that was thoroughly debunked* on the internet within 12 hours of airing provides us with a good example of Wardell's theory in action.
CBS aired this story which questioned President Bush's National Guard service on Wednesday night, citing newly discovered memos written by Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian (Bush's commanding officer). The story was picked up by all the major media outlets, which ran the story the next day. Such stories were immediatately trumpeted by liberals in discussion forums and blogs everywhere. During that same period, some intrepid bloggers were piecing together evidence that the newly discovered memos were forged. It didn't take long for the evidence to mount, and soon other independent threads of investigation were coming to the same conclusion and the media picked up this side of the story. Experts were consulted, family members spoke out, and even CBS sources came out against the documents. All along, some liberals denied the scandal, pointing to CBS's continued insistence that the documents were genuine as proof (i.e. not actually answering the questions about the documents' authenticity, but pointing to CBS's third party analysis of the documents).
This is just a brief summary of the story, and others have much more comprehensive overviews*. What I found interesting, though, was that this is a textbook example of liberals relying on analysis, and conservatives digging into the data and coming to their own conclusions. I'm still not sure I subscribe to Wardell's theory, but I found it interesting that this scandal clearly demonstrates his point.
Update: In the comments, Spencer notes that Wardell's theory "seems like a conclusion one would make as a result of confirmation bias. This person 'notices' a slight trend in the way liberals and conservatives treat information, and then only notices the evidence that supports this trend, making it seem like a stronger and stronger hypothesis." That makes a lot of sense to me, and though I still find the theory interesting, I don't think it holds up in the end. There is something about the propensity to label people that is beginning to bother me more and more, and the division between liberals and conservatives is a prime example. On the one hand, it can be useful to think about such divisions, but it is also easy to get carried away.
* I'm linking to one of the original posts at Power Line because it is large and provides a good summary of the complaints regarding the documents. There have been many posts on many different weblogs that have continued the debate, ranging from the humorous to the serious. Here are some other blogs that might help you get a better grasp of the story:
Posted by Mark on September 12, 2004 at 03:44 PM .: link :.
Sunday, July 25, 2004
Back in Iraq
Once again, artist Steve Mumford has made the trek to Iraq and has produced yet another entry in the Baghdad Journal series. As always, he provides a much needed different perspective on Iraq:
After checking in at my hotel, we spend the day wandering around downtown Baghdad. I’m trying to gauge how much things have changed since I was here last, back in March, before all the violence with Muqtada Sadr and in Falluja. We’re hanging out in the park, underneath the massive sculptural mural in Tarir Square when Esam notices that someone’s got a gun underneath his shirt. We leave, but in fact, I can’t shake the impression of a certain optimism pervading at least this area. Businesses are open; the streets are relatively clean and bustling. People seem as friendly as ever. One shopkeeper kisses my shoulder when I tell him I’m American. Esam advises me to tell Iraqis that I’m Canadian. I find myself oddly resistant to telling this lie. I haven’t yet encountered overt hostility. I’ve met a lot of Iraqis while out drawing. If they haven’t been happy about my nationality, they’ve politely kept it to themselves. Yet it would be foolish to imagine that I’m safe here.It's funny, I'm beginning to recognize many of Mumford's friends from previous columns. Indeed, Mumford appears to have made some truly good friends over there:
Looking across at the crowd of journalists eating and chatting, I’m reminded of summer dinner parties in New York, among artist friends. But thinking of my companions here in Iraq, I feel proud to be with them. My project has allowed me the time and luxury to become close to people with whom I don’t need to have a professional relationship. I’m wondering if it will ever be possible for them to travel as Iraqi tourists to the U.S.Excellent, stuff, as usual. If you're not familiar with Mumford's work, you might want to check on the previous installments of the Baghdad Journal. Highly recommended.
Posted by Mark on July 25, 2004 at 08:57 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 09, 2004
In Smash's World
Mr. Smash has made something of a habit of attending anti-war rallies and recording some of their less-than-savory aspects for posterity. Reading about these events is a strange experience; it doesn't seem like reality. It almost feels like I'm reading one of Frank's In My World posts. Smash's latest piece crystalized it for me. Specifically, the people involved. You've got the former Ukrainian there to enlighten the A.N.S.W.E.R. folks. Then you've got a Guardian Angel named "Sledge" there to provide some protection, if needed. Best of all, there is "Red". Red is a recurring character in Smash's exploits. I say "character" becaues Red is so over-the-top that he is almost a caricature of himself.
I recognized Pete Reilly (aka "Red") from a previous A.N.S.W.E.R. rally in San Diego. He was the guy who called me a "f---ing fascist," and then ran off to complain to the cops. This time around, Red made the mistake of approaching Eric first, perhaps assuming that he was the most easily intimidated of the three.It's funny, Smash posted a picture of Red this time, and he looks exactly how I pictured him. Smash likes to keep quiet and blend into the crowd, allowing him a certain fly on the wall perspective that gives him some funny opportunities (such as this interview). As I said, it feels strange reading this, as if it isn't reality... but it is.
Posted by Mark on June 09, 2004 at 10:25 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?
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?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 :.
Sunday, February 22, 2004
The Eisenhower Ten
The Eisenhower Ten by CONELRAD : An excellent article detailing a rather strange episode in U.S. History. During 1958 and 1959, President Eisenhower issued ten letters to mostly private citizens granting them unprecedented power in the event of a "national emergency" (i.e. nuclear war). Naturally, the Kennedy administration was less than thrilled with the existence of these letters, which, strangly enough, did not contain expiration dates.
So who made up this Shadow Government?
...of the nine, two of the positions were filled by Eisenhower cabinet secretaries and another slot was filled by the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. The remaining six were very accomplished captains of industry who, as time has proven, could keep a secret to the grave. It should be noted that the sheer impressiveness of the Emergency Administrator roster caused Eisenhower Staff Secretary Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster (USA, Ret.) to gush, some 46 years later, "that list is absolutely glittering in terms of its quality." In his interview with CONELRAD, the retired general also emphasized how seriously the President took the issue of Continuity of Government: "It was deeply on his mind."Eisenhower apparently assembled the list himself, and if that is the case, the quality of the list was no doubt "glittering". Eisenhower was a good judge of talent, and one of the astounding things about his command of allied forces during WWII was that he successfully assembled an integrated military command made up of both British and American officers, and they were actually effective on the battlefield. I don't doubt that he would be able to assemble a group of Emergency Administrators that would fit the job, work well together, and provide the country with a reasonably effective continuity of government in the event of the unthinkable.
Upon learning of these letters, Kennedy's National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, asserted that the "outstanding authority" of the Emergency Administrators should be terminated... but what happened after that is somewhat of a mystery. Some correspondance exists suggesting that several of the Emergency Administrators were indeed relieved of their duties, but there are still questions as to whether or not Kennedy retained the services of 3 of the Eisenhower Ten and whether Kennedy established an emergency administration of his own.
It is Gen. Goodpaster's assertion that because Eisenhower practically wrote the book on Continuity of Government, the practice of having Emergency Administrators waiting in the wings for the Big One was a tradition that continued throughout the Cold War and perhaps even to this day.On March 1, 2002, the New York Times reported that Bush had indeed set up a "shadow government" in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. This news was, of course, greeted with much consternation, and understandably so. Though there may be a historical precident (even if it is a controversial one) for such a thing, the details of such an open-ended policy are still a bit fuzzy to me...
CONELRAD has done an excellent job collecting, presenting, and analyzing information pertaining to the Eisenhower Ten, and I highly recommend anyone who is interested in the issue of continuity of government to check it out. Even with that, there are still lots of unanswered questions about the practice, but it is still fascinating reading....
Posted by Mark on February 22, 2004 at 09:31 PM .: link :.
Thursday, February 19, 2004
Welcome to the Hotel Baghdad
Steve Mumford has made his way back to Iraq and posted the seventh installment of his brilliant Baghdad Journal. Once again, he puts the traditional media reporting to shame with his usual balanced and thoughtful views. Read the whole thing, as they say.
For those who are not familiar with Mumford, he is a New York artist who has travelled to Iraq a few times in the past year and published several "journal" entries detailing his exploits. I've been posting his stuff since I found it last fall. Here are all the installments to date:
At Hewar, I meet Qassim, who says he's waiting for some of "your countrymen." He's preparing one of his renowned grilled fish lunches. Soon the guests arrive: it's the Quakers with Bruce Cockburn, who eye me warily. I don't think Qassim realizes how much foreigners tend to avoid one another in their jealous rush to befriend Iraqis. Or maybe he does, and enjoys watching the snubs and one-upmanship. I take my leave, and relax in the teahouse, when the artists Ahmed al Safi and Haider Wadi show up. They seem like old friends now, and I'm happy to see them.Again, excellent reading. [Thanks must go again to Lexington Green from Chicago Boyz for introducing me to Mumford's writings last fall]
Updates: Several updates have been made, adding links to new columns in the series.
Posted by Mark on February 19, 2004 at 09:51 PM .: link :.
Sunday, December 14, 2003
Ladies and gentlemen, we got him
U.S. forces have captured Saddam Hussein. This is exceptional news! And it figures that I had just commented on how intelligence successes are transparent, that we never see them. D'oh! This is a major intelligence victory. We developed an intelligence infrastructure that allowed us to find Hussein, who had burried himself in a hole in a family member's cellar. We captured him with shovels. This will most likely lead to an intelligence windfall, as already captured Iraqi officals who may have been biting their tongue for fear of Saddam may start talking... (not to mention Saddam himself)
The circumstances of the arrest are about as good as we could ever hope:
A lot will depend on how things go from here. The impending trial and how it is executed will be very important. We will also need to make sure Saddam doesn't kill himself or get killed (a la Goering or Oswald). If he turns up dead, we'll lose out on a lot.
Lots of others are commenting on this, so here goes:
Update: I've been updating the link list like crazy...
Update: Dean Esmay steals my picture! Hee hee. He's got more good stuff as well..
Update 12.15.03: And I thought yesterday represented information overload. Tons of new stuff appearing today, much of it excellent, and a lot of it having to do with the challenge of what to do with Hussein...
Posted by Mark on December 14, 2003 at 11:52 AM .: link :.
Friday, December 05, 2003
A few weeks ago, Donald Sensing posted an excellent article by one Fawaz Turki, an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq who has since adopted a "revisionist view" of the conflict:
At issue here is whether the Iraqi people have benefited from the overthrow of the Baathist regime and whether the American occupation will eventually benefit their country even more. I'm convinced - and berate me here from your patriotic bleachers, if you must - that what we have seen in the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates in recent months may turn out to be the most serendipitous event in its modern history. ...Intrigued by Turki's commendable self-critical attitude, I looked up some of his other writings. To be sure, he has been a relentless critic of US foreign policy, but he does appear to have a good understanding of America and it's virtues as well. He lays this out in his article Only in America, Folks rather well:
No, I said, the relentless criticism that he has been reading in my column over the years is of American politics - or more accurately American foreign policy - not the American political system. When he began to carp about "Jewish power" on the Hill, I explained that when Arab-Americans, along with Muslim Americans, one day become smart enough, organized enough and influential enough to exercise their constitutional right to lobby Congress effectively, as the Jewish community is doing today, which is what the whole shebang of "Jewish power" is about, then I'll take my hat off to them.It is an excellent article and he makes a point I've long thought obvious, but have rarely seen - that Muslim Americans need to "one day become smart enough, organized enough and influential enough to exercise their constitutional right to lobby Congress effectively, as the Jewish community is doing today." Fawaz Turki is a critic of my country, yes, but he is a reasonable critic who makes valid points and does not respond with reflexive hatred of all things American. Check out his stuff, it's good reading...
Posted by Mark on December 05, 2003 at 04:59 PM .: link :.
Sunday, November 16, 2003
A memo detailing the working relationship between al-Qaeda and Iraq and addressed to the Senate Intelligence Committee was recently leaked to the The Weekly Standard.
The memo, dated October 27, 2003, was sent from Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith to Senators Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller, the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. It was written in response to a request from the committee as part of its investigation into prewar intelligence claims made by the administration. Intelligence reporting included in the 16-page memo comes from a variety of domestic and foreign agencies, including the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency. Much of the evidence is detailed, conclusive, and corroborated by multiple sources. Some of it is new information obtained in custodial interviews with high-level al Qaeda terrorists and Iraqi officials, and some of it is more than a decade old. The picture that emerges is one of a history of collaboration between two of America's most determined and dangerous enemies.Naturally, the memo's contents are interesting, but what concerns me is that this memo was leaked at all, and that it surfaced so quickly after it was sent (October 27, 2003). Doug Feith, the memo's author, appears to already be on thin ice... Oh, and it turns out that, though interesting, the memo's contents are also "inaccurate" (according to a DOD statement). This seems to be an excellent example of "stovepiping" in action: it contained raw intelligence with no analysis and no conclusions. Of course, since it was leaked to the media, the public will no doubt make their assumptions. Or so the leaker hopes. David Adesnik notes:
My guess is that someone in the government feels very strongly about this report, and is trying to get the White House to stand behind it by indirectly going public. But if the case can't be made on its own merits within the government, then something may be very wrong. We'll find out exactly what that is when the Washington press corps gets a hold of the story and starts telling us far more than the Weekly Standard's source wants us to know.This leak is yet another example of the fragile state of U.S. Intelligence that I wrote about last week. It is a purely partisan political maneuver in a field that is supposed to be devoid of such pettiness. We need to be better than this. [Thanks to Citizen Smash for the pointers]
Update 11.20.03: Citizen Smash has more on this subject. For what it's worth, I was not attempting to comment on the validity of the report in the post above (though you could read it that way). My point is that this should not have been leaked at all, and, to a lesser extent, that such raw intelligence should include analysis (which confirmed my recent thoughts on the state of our intelligence community). As the DOD says: "Individuals who leak or purport to leak classified information are doing serious harm to national security; such activity is deplorable and may be illegal."
That said, Hayes' article brought a lot of new information to light which should prompt further investigation... but the only Congressional response so far has been to condemn the act of leaking. Everybody got that? Citizen Smash has done more intelligence oversight than Congress.
Posted by Mark on November 16, 2003 at 06:43 PM .: link :.
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 :.
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 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 :.
Sunday, September 28, 2003
Freedom from Tyranny
I was thinking more about Pynchon's new forward to 1984, and I wanted to expand on my disagreement with his assertion that 1984 is not only a warning against the dangers of communism but that it also equally applies to the current US administration. I granted the general point, but rejected the notion that we were actually headed in that direction (to be fair, Pynchon didn't come out and directly say we're headed towards totalitarianism, but you could certainly read him that way).
The point of a law is to discourage people from committing certain actions. Alas, this does not mean that people will automatically follow that law, which is why our system clearly specifies consequences for when a law is broken. Fines, jail time, whatever... the point is that just because we pass a law, that doesn't mean we assume everyone will follow that law. Indeed, we know they won't, which is why we set up various forms of punishment and rehabilitation.
On a more systemic level, our country operates with a set of limited governance. The power is split between the federal and state governments, with the federal government further divided into three branches including an independent judiciary. Going even further than that, this power is granted to the government by the people, and we submit to it voluntarily. We don't give away this power unconditionally though, and as such, we have clear ways with which to express our displeasure with the government's actions. Our Founding Fathers had a deep distrust of government; they believed that any excess power that a government has will eventually be abused, so they made it very clear in our Constitution what the government was permitted to do and what it was forbidden to do.
However, just because the government is forbidden to do something doesn't mean it won't do it, similar to how laws do not imply a complete cessation of the acts they forbid. Indeed, that our Founding Fathers clearly laid out methods to remove those in power implies that they knew that power would be abused. They divided the powers granted to our government because they knew that individuals in the government would attempt to abuse that power. They further provided the people with direct and indirect ways to correct any problems with the government.
This is an example of what is called fault tolerance. The idea is to make a system robust enough so that variations in use or a chance of component failure won't cause the overall system to crash. Generally this is achieved by introducing a certain amount of redundancy into the system or perhaps allowing a system to fail gracefully. In a system that is fault tolerant, when some component fails, a backup component kicks in and the system continues to operate at acceptable levels while the initial failure is corrected (obviously, its more complicated than that, but you get the point).
The American system of governance has shown a lot of resilience and flexibility in its history. Part of this is due to our inherent freedoms. Freedom of speech, for example, has the fortunate attribute of allowing dangerous people make fools of themselves. "No free speech produces Hitler. Free speech produces David Duke." (I don't remember who said that, but its a good line:) Our system is not devoid of abuses of power (component failures), but we have shown on many occasions that these abuses of power can be worked out within our system.
The 18th Amendment provides us with an excellent example:
After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.There is a lot to be said about this, but what it comes down to is this: The 18th Amendment was essentially infringing upon our natural rights (which are inherently protected by the 9th Amendment). It ultimately destroyed more liberty than it created, and it was completely incompatible with the basic concepts of our system. It is also the only Amendment that's ever been repealed (by the 21st Amendment). One of the things we found out during the course of Prohibition was that, on a practical level, the government was incapable of enforcing such a thing. Ratification of the 18th Amendment formally granted power to the government to implement Prohibition, but that didn't stop people from drinking (Rex Banner: "What kind of pet shop is filled with rambunctious yahoos and hot jazz music at 1:00 in the morning?" Moe: "Er, uh... the... best damn pet shop in town!" Crowd: "Yeah!" Heh).
Another example of the strength of our system is Congress' power to impeach and convict a President, removing him from office. The official criteria for an impeachment is "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors," but in practice an impeachable offense is whatever Congress says it is. When it became clear that Richard Nixon had committed an egregious crime (obstruction of justice), he stepped down to avoid being prosecuted and there was a peaceful transfer of power as defined in our system.
The 18th Amendment and the Nixon scandal are examples of component failures, but also of systemic success. That they were able to wrong the nation does not imply that our nation as a whole has failed. Our system is explicitly designed to handle such failures and though it may not do so perfectly (or very quickly), it has done so adequately in the past and it appears to be in working order now. It also has mechanisms built into it that allow us to improve upon the system itself. Of course, I suppose it is possible to pervert those same mechanisms to degrade the system. The "War on Terror" is shaping up to be a long one, and while what we're seeing at the start is a lot of potential abuse, that doesn't mean we're headed towards a totalitarian state. Ironically, a sure sign that we are headed down that road would be if we could find no examples of abuse, as that would mean our government is acting perfectly. And we all know how likely that is.
Posted by Mark on September 28, 2003 at 05:31 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
I stopped by the bookstore tonight to pick up Quicksilver and while I was there, I happened upon the new edition of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. This new edition contains a foreward by none other than Thomas Pynchon, vaunted author and recluse whose similarly prophetic novel, Gravity's Rainbow, has been giving me headaches for the past year or so... Pynchon was a good choice; he's able to place Orwell's novel, including its conception and composition, in its proper cultural and historical context while at the same time applying the humanistic themes of the novel to current times (without, I might add, succumbing to the tempation to list out what Orwell did or didn't "get right" - indeed, Pynchon even takes a humorous swipe at the tendency to do so - "Orwellian, dude!"). And to top that off, I'm a sucker for his style - whatever one he might be employing at the time (this time around it's his nonfiction style, with an alternating elegance and brazenness that works so well).
It's interesting reading, though I don't agree with everything he says. Towards the beginning of the forward, he mentions this bit:
Now, those of fascistic disposition - or merely those among us who remain all too ready to justify any government action, whether right or wrong - will immediately point out that this is prewar thinking, and that the moment enemy bombs begin to fall on one's homeland, altering the landscape and producing casualties among friends and neighbours, all this sort of thing, really, becomes irrelevant, if not indeed subversive. With the homeland in danger, strong leadership and effective measures become of the essence, and if you want to call that fascism, very well, call it whatever you please, no one is likely to be listening, unless it's for the air raids to be over and the all clear to sound. But the unseemliness of an argument - let alone a prophecy - in the heat of some later emergency, does not necessarily make it wrong. 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.Though he doesn't clearly come out and say it and he is careful even with his historical example, Pynchon clearly fears for America's future in the wake of the "war on terror" and sees Orwell's work not only as a commentary on the perils of communism, but as a warning to democracy. As a general point, I can see that, but you could read Pynchon as believing that Orwell's point equally applies to the policies of, say, the current administration, which I think is a bit of a stretch. For one thing, our system of limited governance already has mechanisms for self-examination and public debate, not to mention checks and balances between certain key elements of the government. For another, our primary enemies now are no longer the forces of progress.
As Pynchon himself notes, Orwell failed to see religious fundamentalism as a threat, and today this is the main enemy we face. It isn't the progress of science and technology that threatens us (at least not in the way expected), but rather a reversion to fundamentalist religion, and Pynchon is hesitant to see that. He tends to be obsessed with the mechanics of paranoia and conspiracy when it comes to technology. This is exemplified by his attitude towards the internet:
...the internet, a development that promises social control on a scale those quaint old 20th-century tyrants with their goofy moustaches could only dream about.As erich notes, perhaps someone should introduce Pynchon to the hacker subculture, where anarchists deface government and corporate websites, bored kids bring corporate websites to their knees with viruses or DDOS attacks, and bloggers aggregate and debate. Or perhaps our problem will be that with an increase in informational transparency, "Orwellian" scrutiny will to some extent become democratized; abuse of privacy will no longer limited to corporations and states. As William Gibson notes:
"1984" remains one of the quickest and most succinct routes to the core realities of 1948. If you wish to know an era, study its most lucid nightmares. In the mirrors of our darkest fears, much will be revealed. But don't mistake those mirrors for road maps to the future, or even to the present.Stranger problems indeed. But Pynchon isn't all frowns, he actually ends on a note of hope regarding the appendix, which provides an explanation of Newspeak:
why end a novel as passionate, violent and dark as this one with what appears to be a scholarly appendix?Overall, Pynchon's essay is excellent and thought-provoking, if a little paranoid. He tackles more than I have commented on, and he does so in affable style. A commentor at erich's site concludes:
Orwell, to his everlasting credit, saw clearly the threat posed by communism, and spoke out forcefully against it. Unfortunately, as Pynchon's new introduction reminds us, the same cannot be said for far too many on the Left, who remain incapable of making rational distinctions between our constitutional republic and the slavery over which we won a great triumph in the last century.Indeed.
Update - Most of the text of Pynchon's essay can be found here.
Another Update - Rodney Welch notices a that Pynchon's theory regarding the appendix appears to have been lifted by Guardian columnist, Margaret Atwood. Dave Kipen comments that it's possible that both are paraphrasing an old idea, but he doubts it. Any Orwellians care to shed some light on the originality of the "happy ending" theory?
Another Update: More here.
Posted by Mark on September 24, 2003 at 12:40 AM .: link :.
Monday, September 22, 2003
Cheney's Evil LIES!
I had an interesting debate with a liberal friend of mine at the 4degreez.com politics board last week. I was being completely antagonistic and unfair; basically picking a fight, but it was fun, in a way, to see the reactions. It was an attempt to point out the irony that dominates the BUSH LIED! meme. I can't say as though I know how successful I was. It's a little long, but I think its interesting reading nonetheless (worthy of a skim at least)... My basic refrain ended up being some variation of this question:
Why is it acceptable for you to bend facts and selectively quote an interview to make your point?Heh. Thanks to Eugene Volokh's NRO article and Porphyrogenitus' comments on the BUSH LIED! meme, as they helped me flesh out some of the ideas and are worth of reads on their own...
The thread is reproduced here on my site with permission, as the 4degreez Politics board is not public and the site is no longer accepting new members. Some of the code that is used to format the indentation for the thread is ancient, so some browsers might have trouble displaying it. The thread, however, is linear enough that it doesn't really matter...
Posted by Mark on September 22, 2003 at 11:44 PM .: link :.
Sunday, September 21, 2003
Trying to measure the success or failure of the occupation is like the proverbial group of blind men attempting to describe an elephant: each person tends to see the war and its aftermath differently, through the prism of their own ideology and experience. Some people talk about the children who died as a result of the sanctions, some talk about the thousands of Iraqis murdered by Saddam.If only the media could get it right. Speaking of which, Glenn Reynolds has an interesting roundup of letters from non-journalists, which again paint a picture that is very different from the one we're getting from the media. On his blog, he even points out a valid criticism of his approach:
A more valid criticism of my posts would be that they're anecdotal, and don't show the big picture. That's true -- and as Daniel Drezner has noted, there may not be a coherent single narrative on Iraq right now.Anecdotal or not, you'd think we'd be hearing more about them from the media, instead of our buddies coming back and asking us what in the hell is going on with the news...
I meant to write more, but I'm out of time and I'll be sippin by the river this afternoon, so I probably won't be in any condition to revise this later on...
Update - Lex beat me to it...
Update 9.22.03 - I'm still recovering from the sippin by the river extravaganza, but Glenn Reynolds has a good follow up piece at MSNBC. Also of note is a recent Michael Barone article which laments:
Today's media have a zero-defect standard: the Bush administration should have anticipated every eventuality and made detailed plans for every contingency. This is silly. A good second-grade teacher arrives in class with a lesson plan but adapts and adjusts to pupils' responses and the classroom atmosphere. A good occupying power does the same thing.This isn't the first time that the media's "zero-defect standard" has come into play, even with respect to Iraq. Does anyone remember the third day of war? After two days of amazing success, we slowed down for a moment (ostensibly to let our troops rest, revise our plans, and allow air power to pave the way) and the media proclaimed that the war had suddenly gone wrong!
Posted by Mark on September 21, 2003 at 11:01 AM .: link :.
Sunday, July 27, 2003
The issue of Iraq seeking uranium in Africa has been interesting to me. The now infamous sixteen words in the State of the Union speech have caused untold controversy in the past few weeks, as the Bush Administration attempted to respond to critics (poorly, I might add - this is seemingly an exercise in what not to do when responding to a potential scandal). I've done a lot of reading, arguing, and head scratching in the past few weeks, and I thought I'd try and collect some of the pertinent information and perhaps some commentary I found particularly convincing.
To start, I'd like to go back to original sources. As usual, media accounts are varied and contradictory, so I find that going back to the transcripts is usually an enlightening experience. So here are some important transcripts and document excerpts (some of which have just recently become available... to me, at least):
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."Now I'm going to try and summarize the general questions and the administration's answers. The administration has done a poor job answering the questions and when compounded with the media's contradictory accounts, the picture has become somewhat muddled. I encourage you to read all of the information in the transcripts above, especially the White House background briefing and to form an opinion of your own. I am certainly not the authority on this matter, I just thought a summary was due.
Has the British government learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa?
The September 2002 British dossier was the source for the infamous 16 words, and has not yet been shown to be false. Much of the controversy hinges on a set of forged documents obtained by U.S. intelligence (these documents allegedly came from an Italian source. The forgeries, as published by the Italian paper La Repubblica, were posted at Cryptome.org). When these were shown to be false, it was assumed that the British intelligence was also false or based on the same forged documents. However, the British government maintains to this day that it's intelligence is reliable and completely separate from the forged documents. The British intelligence came from at least one, possibly 2, outside intelligence services. British intelligence is bound by bilateral agreements not to share this information without the originator's permission. There is some speculation that the French are behind the British intelligence, as Niger is a former French colony and its uranium mines are run by a French company that comes under the control of the French Atomic Energy Commission. Given the U.S. government's relationship with the French government over the past year, it would be easy to see why France would not want to grant the permission to share such intelligence, but this is again just speculation. Obviously, I have not seen the British reports, and thus cannot comment on it authoritatively.
So did Bush lie or not?
It appears that he did not. His statement in the SOTU was a general one, and it was referencing the September 2002 British dossier. The statement was based on a "body of evidence," not any single piece of information. The British information appeared to match up with the information in the October 2002 NIE. The statement did not say that Iraq had actually succeeded in purchasing uranium ore, nor did it specifically mention Niger. It said that Iraq "sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Wait, if Bush did not lie, then why has the administration acknowledged a mistake was made? What, precisely, was the mistake?
Despite this question being asked several times, I am still somewhat confused by the specifics given by administration officials (an example of how poorly they've communicated in the past few weeks). There appears to have been a communications breakdown within the CIA or between the CIA and the White House. That seems to be what they are apologizing for. As near as I can tell, in September of 2002, when the British government released their dossier, the CIA expressed some doubts to the British as to the authenticity of the claim that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa. The British insisted that their intelligence was genuine, and apparently the matter was dropped. George Tenet testified that he should have taken this into consideration when approving the SOTU, despite the fact that he was apparently unaware of the complaint (I'm not sure I have that right, however). Also, it has been said that in hindsight, what is now known about the forged documents would have played a larger part in the decision.
If this information was in the October 2002 NIE, why did the SOTU reference the British dossier?
The SOTU obviously goes through many drafts. In an early draft, the section regarding Iraq's weapons programs made a series of assertions ("We know Saddam has X. We know Saddam has Y." etc...). Apparently what happened was, as they went from one draft to the next, they thought "it would be much more credible, much more explanatory to the American people to explain how [they] knew these things." So the administration asked the speechwriters to fill in the sources of this information. Naturally, they wanted to use public sources if they were available, including UN information, IAEA information, and Iraqi defectors' information. In this particular case, there were two sources available: The October 2002 NIE, which was still highly classified at the time, and the British dossier which had already been made public. Given that choice, they cited the British document.
Is it not true that George Tenet asked the speechwriters for a speech Bush delivered in Cincinnati to remove this information? If so, why did he fail to remove it from the SOTU?
The information that was to be included in the Cincinnati speech was very specific to a specific intelligence report. It was a "foreign-based, single-sourced intelligence source." Tenet's objection was that the President shouldn't cite specifics that are based on a single source. Intelligence is often backed up by multiple sources of information and he felt that that was not appropriate to include a reference to specific quantities mentioned in a single source.
But if the information was so flawed that it was prudent to remove it from the Cincinnati speech, why was it included in the SOTU?
It was not known at the time that the information was flawed (or, at least, that was not the reason it was removed from the speech). That was shown later by the forged documents. The reason it was removed from the Cincinnati speech was because it was based on a single source and it referenced specific amounts, not because it was flawed and that is a critical distinction.
So what's the big deal?
There seems to be a great deal of confusion about the matter. The account outlined above may not be entirely true, its just what I have been able to glean from the administration (and there is more to it than what is outlined above, of course - I did not even get into Ambassador Wilson's visit to Niger, for example). Those who are truly concerned about the matter are not so much concerned solely by the uranium line, but they think there was an effort to mislead the public by presenting ambiguous intelligence as fact. What matters to critics is whether the Bush administration went beyond ethical bounds in manipulating the intelligence information they had to sell the war. Certainly a worthwhile effort, but in my opinion the shame of the uranium debacle is that it is not really indicative of a malicious effort to sell the war, and thus a lot of good questions are not garnering the attention they deserve.
To conclude, I'm going list out a few links with commentary about the issue. If you find something that you feel should be linked here, feel free to email me or post a comment below.
Posted by Mark on July 27, 2003 at 11:56 AM .: link :.
Sunday, July 13, 2003
The Point of Vanishing Interest
Tacitus threw out a brief mention of the Black Book of Communism and the Cambodian Genocide Program a few days ago, and it got me thinking. I've often debated politics in various forums, and I would sometimes come across someone who would claim that the U.S. was actually the worst source of pain, suffering, and death in recent history. I've never quite known how to respond to such arguments, much less understand how someone can even say so with a straight face. This is not to minimize American mistakes. We've made our fair share, and many have suffered because of that. But when you look at the actual numbers, it's difficult to see how the U.S. even begins to approach the horrors of Communism or fascism. When I see the estimates that Communism has killed anywhere from 85 to 100 million people, I have to wonder what those who minimize these horrors are thinking.
Indeed, its quite difficult to even internalize that many deaths. I know the numbers, but they're not quite real or comprehensible to me. Perhaps the answer lies there.
C. Northcote Parkinson, in his excellent book Parkinson's Law, wrote a short essay called High Finance or The Point of Vanishing Interest (the entire book is superb; filled with wry observations about the nature of the world which have held up over time). In it, he speculates on the nature of financial committees.
People who understand high finance are of two kinds: those who have vast fortunes of their own and those who have nothing at all. To the actual millionaire a million dollars is something real and comprehensible. To the applied mathematician and the lecturer in economics (assuming both to be practically starving) a million dollars is at least as real as a thousand, they having never possessed either sum. But the world is full of people who fall between these two categories, knowing nothing of millions but well accustomed to think in thousands, and it is these that finance committees are mostly comprised.He then postulates what might be termed the "Law of Triviality". Briefly stated, it means that the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved. Thus he concludes, after a number of humorous but fitting examples, that there is a point of vanishing interest where the committee can no longer comment with authority. Astonishingly, the amount of time that is spent on $10 million and on $10 may well be the same. There is clearly a space of time which suffices equally for the largest and smallest sums.
So what does that have to do with Communism? Joseph Stalin infamously said "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic." Its clear that he understood the same thing Parkinson understood: there are few who can internalize numbers that high. Thus when discussing, say, American and Soviet misdeeds of the past century, an incident in which millions of deaths are directly caused by the Soviet actions are given the same time and credence (actually, often significantly less time and credence) as an instance in which thousands of deaths are directly caused by U.S. actions. Given the lack of focus on the larger tragedies of the world, and the magnifying lens that is usually applied to U.S. policy, is it any wonder that there are those who believe the U.S. to be the single worst source of pain and misery in the world? Its not, and unfortunately, I see no way to counteract this sort of thinking.
The only consolation is that the U.S. is only strengthened by such excessive criticism; at least, I would hope we are - we are certainly not saints, and while I do believe our system to be superior to Communism (which ain't saying much, I know), it is far from perfect (in our struggle against communism during the Cold War, we have sacrificed many of our finest values in order to maintain stability, for instance). We can only improve if we are criticized, and it is a testament to our system that there is so much criticism because it is assumed that such a criticism can actually make a difference...
Update 7.14.03 - Something doesn't quite sit right with me about this essay. I don't exactly know how to explain it, but its, well, its such a clinical view of the situation. I'm only talking about numbers here, but there is a whole lot more to it than just a number of deaths, and I don't mean to imply otherwise.
Posted by Mark on July 13, 2003 at 11:37 AM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 18, 2003
Dezinformatsiya (The Power of Disinformation)
The Lie That Linked CIA to the Kennedy Assassination by Max Holland : This makes for interesting reading as a follow up to Sunday's post about conspiracy theories and JFK in particular. It follows the theory from its origins in the infamous Italian newspaper, Paese Sera (a known Soviet propaganda outlet), and Jim Garrison's own investigation into JFK's assassination. Interestingly enough, the merits of both the story and the investigation were highly dubious, but they both appeared around the same time, and tended to feed upon each other lending a perceived credibility to both. Garrison's investigation was drawing massive criticism from the public, but when he leaked Paese Sera's story to a local newspaper, his troubles disappeared as fresh accusations of wrongdoing in the CIA spread throughout the world (which only served to blunt the criticism of Garrison's probe). "The impression left was that Garrison was being put under siege because he dared to tell the truth."
The CIA, though deeply concerned by these happenings, was more or less compelled to keep their mouth shut during the entire affair. Its debatable whether or not this was a wise thing to do, but, as CIA chief Ray Rocca noted, the "impact of such charges... will not depend principally upon their veracity or credibility but rather upon their timeliness and the extent of press coverage." By the time the case against Clay Shaw went to trial in January of 1969, the CIA's apprehension was palpable. In the end, the trial was a bit anti-climactic. The CIA wasn't even mentioned during the trial.
Garrison's pursuit of Shaw was now widely regarded as a legal farce and a fraud. The episode had even precipitated a bitter split among the many critics of the Warren Commission report on the assassination, nearly all of whom had flocked to Garrison's side in 1967. Now many of them considered the Orleans Parish DA to be the Joe McCarthy of their cause. Just as the Wisconsin senator disgraced anti-Communism by making reckless charges that ruined innocent peoples' lives, they believed that Garrison had irrevocably set back the case against the Warren Report by persecuting an innocent man.Which is sort of the point I was making on Sunday (Oliver Stone was attempting to convince us that we should not trust the government, but he chose such a flimsy example that he ultimately hurt his cause). You'd think the story would end there, but it didn't. Garrison never really gave up, and even after some further unsuccessful legal wrangling, actually saw some success:
An abject failure in courts of law, Garrison's probe achieved a latent triumph in the court of public opinion. The DA's message became part and parcel of what has been called "the enduring power of the 1960s in the national imagination."In 1988, Garrison was finally able to get his memoir published, and in it, he outlined his conspiracy theory, CIA connection and all. It found its way into the hands of Oliver Stone, and the rest is history. The film was very popular and created a public clamor for millions of pages of documents that had been "suppressed" as part of the government's alleged massive cover-up. In 1992, the President�John F. Kennedy Records Collection Act was passed, releasing a surprising amount of records relating to the assassination. Stone likes to claim that his film is solely responsible for that legislation, but its worth noting that the "coincidental end of the Cold War also played a critical role in the enactment and implementation of the 1992 law." Stone also likes to claim that the records prove that there was a cover up, but, as Holland concludes, that's really not the case:
Far from validating the film's hero, the new documents have finally lifted the lid on the disinformation that was at the core of Jim Garrison's unrelenting probe. The declassified CIA records document that everything in the Paese Sera story was a lie, and, simultaneously, reveal the genuine nature and duration of Clay Shaw's innocuous link to the CIA. These same records explain why the CIA never responded appropriately to the disinformation, as it had in Helms's 1961 Senate testimony and would later do in swift response to such schemes in the 1980s. Finally, the personal files turned over by Garrison's family underline the profound impact that one newspaper clipping had on a mendacious district attorney adept at manipulating the Zeitgeist of the late 1960s.The shame of it all is that the Warren Commission Report really isn't satisfactory, and the overzealous conspiracy theory forwarded by Garrison and Stone was far enough off course to discredit the case against the Warren Report.
Of course you should know all of this is a lie, as the article I'm referencing is coming from the CIA itself, and they are, by default, lying. Right?
Posted by Mark on June 18, 2003 at 08:51 PM .: link :.
Sunday, May 18, 2003
Creeping Determinism & 9/11
Connecting the Dots by Malcolm Gladwell : A thoughtful counter-point to the arguments posited after 9/11 that the CIA and FBI failed to accurately assess all of the intelligence pointing towards a major terrorist attack. Gladwell argues that the clarity presented in these arguments, such as the one in the book The Cell or the passionate and detailed report made by Senator Richard Shelby in December, are an example of 20/20 hindsight, or what he calls "creeping determinism". A term coined thirty years ago by psychologist Baruch Fischhoff, creeping determinism refers to "the sense that grows on us, in retrospect, that what has happened was actually inevitable".
Its an obvious point, but it operates on several levels, and almost every major war provides us with an example. We look back on the Union's victory in the Civil War or the Allies victory in WWII with a sense of inevitability; that those victories were a foregone conclusion. But such was not the case. We all know the Allies won WWII, but such a conclusion was unthinkable in 1940 London, and the Union didn't exactly thrash the South in the early days of the war. Of course, the concept is much broader and includes other situations than war as well...
So was the "intelligence failure" of 9/11 really a case of ineffective intelligence analysis, or just another example of creeping determinism? Its easy, in retrospect, to look back on the evidence of a major terrorist attack and conclude that our intelligence agencies failed to "connect the dots", but what we are seeing is really a distortion caused by the clarity of all that evidence. What we are seeing is what is called in information theory, signal, and what we are not seeing is noise. Sure, there was lots of evidence pointing towards a major terrorist attack, but what we "don't hear about is all the other people whom American intelligence had under surveillance, how many other warnings they received, and how many other tips came in that seemed promising at the time but led nowhere." When you get threats of bombings and attacks all the time, how do you distinguish between the signal and the noise? Which attack is the one that will actually happen? These aren't limitations of our intelligence community, these are limitations on intelligence itself. "In the real world, intelligence is invariably ambiguous."
As such, there is no such thing as a perfect intelligence community. Every choice you make involves tradeoffs, and its not exactly clear which choices are the right ones. For instance, Shelby talks about the relationship between the CIA and FBI disapprovingly, noting their failure to share information promptly and efficiently between (and within) organizations. But Gladwell points out that it is just as easy to make a case for the old system, where organizations competed with one another. " Isn't it an advantage that the F.B.I. doesn't think like the C.I.A.?"
As you can see, going over the evidence and the arguments can be frustrating. On the one hand, when you can look back on events knowing the outcome, the evidence seems obvious, but was it so obvious at the time? And why aren't we fixing it now?
Today, the F.B.I. gives us color-coded warnings and speaks of "increased chatter" among terrorist operatives, and the information is infuriating to us because it is so vague. What does "increased chatter" mean? We want a prediction. We want to believe that the intentions of our enemies are a puzzle that intelligence services can piece together, so that a clear story emerges. But there rarely is a clear story--at least, not until afterward, when some enterprising journalist or investigative committee decides to write one.There's no way to fix the limitations of intelligence itself. We can make changes to our intelligence systems, but that doesn't necessarily mean we'll be making progress. We're not so much solving a problem as we're trading one set of disadvantages for another. The trick is figuring out which situation is beter than the other, which isn't as easy as it sounds...
Posted by Mark on May 18, 2003 at 11:41 AM .: link :.
Sunday, April 27, 2003
Stability, America's Enemy by Ralph Peters : Perceptive and knowledgeable, Peters never ceases to amaze me. This essay is one of his classics, and in it he makes a compelling argument that a blind commitment to stability as and ends unto itself is not necessarily the best idea.
America's finest values are sacrificed to keep bad governments in place, dysfunctional borders intact, and oppressed human beings well-behaved. In one of the greatest acts of self-betrayal in history, the nation that long was the catalyst of global change and which remains the beneficiary of international upheaval has made stability its diplomatic god.As I noted below, the US has a tendency to hold stability sacred, and it has proved to be a mistake as we've strived to maintain a bad status quo. We need to lock Peters and Wass de Czege in room together and see what they come up with.
Peters, by the way, is the most intelligent commentator I've seen during this war. He has been writing editorials (such as this one) for the NY Post at a feverish pace, and though the pieces are less... polished than the above Parameters piece, they are no less perceptive. Its difficult to find previous pieces on the NY Post website, though. Perhaps I'll try and collect some of his better ones, as they don't seem to be inacessible...
Posted by Mark on April 27, 2003 at 11:00 PM .: link :.
Tuesday, October 22, 2002
Dr. Seuss Goes to War
Dr. Seuss Went to War: A Catalog of Political Cartoons by Dr. Seuss : Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel, 1904-1991) is known best for his many brilliant children's books, and he is not known as a political cartoonist, yet for two years (1941-1943) he was the chief editorial cartoonist for the New York newspaper PM, and he drew over 400 editorial cartoons. The cartoons range from the critical and cynical to the outright supportive, and, I must say, its a bit disturbing to recognize his unique style being put to use in such a way...
Posted by Mark on October 22, 2002 at 08:13 PM .: link :.
Monday, October 07, 2002
If you are not criticized, you may not be doing much.
Rumsfeld's Rules by Donald Rumsfeld [PDF version]: 14 pages of bulleted wisdom that have kept Mr. Rumsfeld alive and well in the White House and on the Hill for three decades. He compiled it during his first stint as Secretary of Defence in the late 1970s. It gives some insight into the man, his actions, and the actions of others in similar positions (as well as some points about business, politics and life in general), though I'm sure there are plenty of people who'll claim that the man isn't following his own rules (to them I'd like to point out the last rule). It also highlights some of the broader attitudes of our governmental system and how it differs from other systems... Some examples:
Posted by Mark on October 07, 2002 at 08:36 PM .: link :.
Thursday, April 04, 2002
Tales of Woe
The Complete Newgate Calendar : An 18th/19th century English compendium of true-crime stories. The New Gate of the City of London was built during the reign of Henry I, and was used as a prison from at least 1188. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times, but always acted as a prison. It was finally destroyed in 1902, part of the site becoming occupied by the Central Criminal Court. The Newgate Calendar was originally published in five volumes in 1760 and narrated notorious crimes from 1700 till then. There were many later editions. Some of the stories are fascinating. Read about timeless con games, greedy counterfeiters, ghost stories, reprieved executions (this one is particularly interesting; the criminal actually hung nearly fifteen minutes before being cut down) and much, much more.
Posted by Mark on April 04, 2002 at 02:41 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, March 13, 2002
Spotting the Losers
Seven Signs of Non-Competitive States by Ralph Peters : A fascinating and somewhat prophetic essay that, in pointing out how other countries fail, actually highlights the successes of US culture. Success is eccentric, but failure is predictible. Peters has selected some excellent "signs" of non-competitive behaviour; I find that there is little to add. It very clearly defines some of the differences between us and our enemies in the "war". There are lots of keen observations to go along with his signs, like this one:
Information is more essential to economic progress than an assured flow of oil. In fact, unearned, "found" wealth is socially and economically cancerous, impeding the development of healthy, enduring socioeconomic structures and values. If you want to guarantee an underdeveloped country's continued inability to perform competitively, grant it rich natural resources. The sink-or-swim poverty of northwestern Europe and Japan may have been their greatest natural advantage during their developmental phases. As the Shah learned and Saudi Arabia is proving, you can buy only the products, not the productiveness, of another civilization.Interesting stuff, and so true. Saudi Arabia's future, in particular, is very uncertain because of their reliance on the oil industry (and their reluctance to create any other national industry). I believe that even they recognize this problem, and are trying to fix it, but I think it may be too late. I found the article at USS Clueless a while back, and Steven Den Beste rightly recognizes that there are those in America, on both the far right and the far left, that seek to (re)impose several of the signs of failure on our nation. Indeed, some of them haven't been abolished here very long, and a return to these destructive ways would be disasterous...
Posted by Mark on March 13, 2002 at 03:45 PM .: link :.
Monday, September 24, 2001
Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections on Recent Events
Well, I suppose I've been avoiding this long enough. I'm having a really hard time articulating how the recent tragedies have affected me, and I really don't have much to say. Its not because I don't care, or that I haven't thought about it; its that I don't know about it - and you know what? No one really knows about it. I guess what I'm trying to say is that you should keep in mind that just about everything you hear is pure speculation, including what you are reading right now. The world is a delicate place, and bad things are going to happen. That much seems clear. A military strike is unavoidable, and it looks like it will be happening soon. I'm glad to see that we're not rushing into this; that there seems to be some strategy involved. But I can't help but feeling that we may be counter-productive in the long term. Still, I feel some sort of display of force is necessary, and I'll support anything short of nuclear war (which is just insane). I like the way Bush is handling things as well. I'm curious to see how he will be percieved 20 years from now (which, of course, depends on the pending "war on terrorism"), because right now, he doesn't seem like the inspirational type (though his speech the other night was quite good). Some other random thoughts:
Posted by Mark on September 24, 2001 at 11:52 PM .: link :.
Thursday, August 09, 2001
If U.S. education was a horse, it would be taken out back and shot
A total recall on schools by Arianna Huffington : "If it were a product, it would have been recalled. If it were a politician, it would have been impeached. If it were a horse, it would have been taken behind the barn and shot." She cites a few examples, including the story of Nancy Goldberg and Curt Mortenson, who are being punished for making their high school's AP English program too successful. This isn't very comforting, though I don't think the majority of schools are in trouble. It comes down to the poor, inner-city schools that are really in trouble. Some reform is definitely needed, but perhaps a recall is a bit harsh... [via wood s lot]
Posted by Mark on August 09, 2001 at 11:59 AM .: link :.
Monday, May 07, 2001
One of George Orwell's most interesting essays is Politics and the English Language. His insight into the use and abuse of language is astounding, especially in his argument that the abuse of language is a necessary part of oppressive politics. Furthermore, Orwell does not just equip us to detect this corruption of language, he actually suggests how writers can fight back (giving simple rules for honest and effective political writing). Who knows, maybe the business perversions of the english language and dot-com communism actually did have a lot to do with the internet's collapse....
Posted by Mark on May 07, 2001 at 01:38 PM .: link :.
Friday, November 24, 2000
Math Against Tyranny
This interesting article shows how the electoral college vote empowers voters more than a raw popular vote. Why do people have such a hard time understanding that the Electoral College is a good thing? An interesting analogy is made: "the same logic that governs our electoral system...also applies to many sports" For instance, in baseball's World Series, the team that scores the most runs overall is like a candidate who gets the most votes. But in order to win the series, that team must also win 4 games. In the 1960 World Series, the Yankees scored almost twice as many runs as the Pirates, and yet lost the series. "Runs must be grouped in a way that wins games, just as popular votes must be grouped in a way that wins states." Wery interesting. [via kottke]
Posted by Mark on November 24, 2000 at 10:54 AM .: link :.
Thursday, October 26, 2000
A Fucked Company
How'd you like to work with these people? No? Too bad, you already are.
Posted by Mark on October 26, 2000 at 08:58 PM .: link :.
Back in Black
In trying to sift through the issues of the upcoming presidential election, I've found that both candidates are truly obnoxious. What criteria should I base my decision on, especially when they are no doubt lying their butts off? This year, I think I'll give my vote to the candidate with the hottest daughters. Sadly, this criteria could actually be used with a clear conscience.
Posted by Mark on October 26, 2000 at 08:55 PM .: link :.
Sunday, July 16, 2000
Philadelphia, July 14: Thomas Jones, 30, is accused of leading police on a chase in a stolen patrol car Wednesday after firing at them. One officer was wounded in the hand, although it was not clear whether by Jones or another police officer. Jones was dragged from the police car and kicked and beaten by police for about 30 seconds while a news helicopter hovered overhead. It is being compared to the Rodney King beatings, but the investigation shows that there wasn't a racial motivation - Jones was resisting arrest and had fired on Police.
Posted by Mark on July 16, 2000 at 02:47 PM .: link :.
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