Monday, May 22, 2006

"If My Enemy Says It, It Must Be Wrong"

The internet is abuzz with the CEI's "pro-carbon-dioxide" advertising spots. The explicit message can be described as follows:
Because carbon dioxide exists in nature, it can't be bad, and indeed must be good because it is a necessary part of the life cycle. Liberal organizations want to label it a pollutant in a scare-tactic that lacks a scientific foundation, and seeks to enact a policy that is bad for business, society, and humanity for their own political gain.

The implicit message strays from the conventional corporate tagline seen above to the following suggestion:
Perhaps we should be burning more fossil fuels, because it's what plants breath in, and so it's good for nature. Additionally, anything that makes life easier in the short term is always better than a personal effort.

To me, the question has never been a political one. I don't understand (at a gut level) how some issues become political issues. Consider climate change. Let's assume, to keep things simple, that evidence exists to support the existence of global warming as a result of human action. Let's also assume that a powerful multinational industry has a vested interest in quashing that evidence to prevent hemoraging of their bottom line. Lobbyists for that industry exert their substantial financial muscle and social contacts on politicians, and win votes and support for their cause. So far, everything seems plausible. Where I lose the thread is the jump from the politician to the voter. How do millions of Americans establish a unified belief in a particular viewpoint (whether good or bad)?

Consider affirmative action, for example. I, though technically a fairly left-wing liberal, oppose it on the grounds that enforcing demographic regularity does not actually reduce (indeed, it seems to increase) race-relations problems. I'm not opposed to laws designed to puish racism, mind you. I favor legislation that makes explicit discrimination illegal. But my distaste for minority quotas in the workplace and in education has run me afoul with certain other liberals in the past, because I'm somehow "breaking rank" and failing to align my ideology with theirs.

There is a way of thinking, common from pole to pole the political spectrum, that the home team's ideas are necessarily right and the opposition is necessarily wrong. It's a mindless sort of existence, because it only requires vague attention to what the party line is rather than serious thought about each issue on its own terms. And this way of thinking is growing more common. The polarization of American politics has driven many voters to extreme positions.

There are certain advantages to this mindset:

1. You're Never Wrong.

2. Things That Go Wrong Are Never Your Fault.

But at the same time, I see some serious problems:

1. You Have The Mindset Of An 8-Year Old.

2. You're More Likely To Vote Than A Skeptic.

Global warming. The causes of cancer. The efficacy of military operations. The equality or inequality of minotiries. These are not moral questions. These are questions that a scientific approach can provide real answers to. The ideological fervor associated with topics like abortion, capital punishment, and torture in prisons is understandable, as those issues revolve around a conflict of moral values. Issues revolving around testable questions should draw their policies from the consensus view of the researchers in those fields. If it works, use it; if it doesn't, toss it.

That politicians ignore the evidence at the behest of lobbies that are all (by definition) trying to get an unfairly large slice of the pie is not surprising. That voters ignore the evidence at the behest of politicians baffles me.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Friendship Churn

In subscription-based games, the deadliest market factor is "churn," the inevitable loss of players over time. The reasons are myriad (boredom, the novelty of some alternative product, financial considerations), but the end result is the same: people leave. And interestingly, the number is remarkably consistent: 10 months (great article, BTW). If someone begins playing a massively multiplayer online game (such as World of Warcraft, Everquest, or even Puzzle Pirates), they will, on average, stop paying after 10 months. Games that fail to attract new players quickly atrophy, leaving only a small remnant of dedicated fans.

Is this how friendship progresses as well? Think about someone you've recently (say, in the last few months) increased your social activity with. Let's assume you enjoy this person's company. How long is it likely to be before you no longer interact with the person on a regular basis, even losing touch entirely? Upon reflection, I was disturbed to find that a similar sort of pattern (albeit on a somewhat longer-ranged scale, say 14 or 15 months) applies to me. The trick, you see, is that once a person drifts away from interaction, they can potentially be "rediscovered," refreshing the friendship. My own interactions show this pattern all the time, where I stop interacting with someone for extended periods, then we begin socializing again and wonder why we'd drifted so far apart.

Instead of subscription, think "time spent per week" with a given person. I'd wager that, given a stable lifestyle, that number naturally oscillates in and out of the near-zero range on a regular (if infrequent) basis. The hypothesis: people generally allocate social time according to a decaying curve, leading to the inevitable erosion of friendships. Thus, allocation of social time may resemble cost allocation in cases of diminishing returns. If this is true, does that mean that many people, in a natural and selfish but unconscious way, treat friends like video games?

Naturally, exceptions exist. A committed relationship, family, and "friends for life" are all part of my day-to-day experience (well, with the family, maybe more like week-to-week...). But among my "casual friends" the effect is pretty clear. Even among people I'd like to see more of, I often feel a growing gulf after a time, a sense of having "lost the spark" of the friendship.

Data collection to test this question would be terrible. It would involve constantly quantifying how much time you spend with various people and whether it's generic social time (e.g. a bunch of people hanging out) or more direct and personal (e.g. one-on-one conversation), which would make anyone paranoid. Perhaps using chat transcripts would be a way to test this, see if the effect manifests in that domain. In any case, there is a reversal that I find amusing: what if people treat games like friends? This is to say that instead of friendship being consumer entertainment to be micromanaged, what if games simply represent part of a broad set of mental activities we require a minimal level of but get tired of doing in redundant ways?

For my part, roleplaying has acted as a powerful social glue. Whether I'm close to people or drifting away, we gather once a week to continue the game. It provides a common activity everyone has a part to play in and everyone enjoys, and gives friendships a chance to cool off without actually losing contact with people. It's an intensely social form of play, but doesn't strictly require "getting personal."

Still, I'm starting to get a little paranoid about whether people are trying to cancel their subscription to me...

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A Letter About Net Neutrality

The following is a letter I composed to my Representative and my two Senators. I just felt it would be best stored in a public place, as it were.

The Importance of Network Neutrality

Earlier, when Network Neutrality was simply an addendum, I wrote to express my strongly-felt impression that network Neutrality, as described, was essential to safeguarding a basic resource that all of America has come to rely on. I am now writing to argue even more strenuously that you must support the Network Neutrality Act of 2006.

There are two kinds of reasons why your support is essential: because it's good policy, and because failing to support it will earn you enemies you cannot afford. Addressing the latter first: though perhaps not a ubiquitous issue among voters in general, those of us who make daily (even hourly) use of the internet are aware of this legislation. Sites that are normally apolitical have become highly active on this topic, and any Representative who opposes this act will be remembered as an enemy by those fighting to save it at the moment, even if the act passes. As a tool for political activity, the internet continues to grow in prominence and importance, and candidates who embrace the internet's ability to disseminate information cheaply and reach out to voters efficiently stand to gain a great deal in the coming years. If for no other reason, you should vote in favor of this act to affirm your integrity with a growing community of electronic activists.

But beyond merely selfish reasons, Network Neutrality is a good policy. It has become a fundamental part of the U.S. infrastructure. Consider taxes. Over half of all taxes were filed electronically this year and last, a process that relies on the transfer of huge reams of data nationwide. Now, imagine if each Internet provider began charging the IRS for the "privilege" of having the bandwidth to handle that kind of traffic. Or if my own provider (Comcast, the only broadband provider I *can* get where I currently live) demanded that I pay extra to access any government web sites, IRS included. The huge saving we, as Americans, enjoy by filing electronically disappear and the new markups go directly into the pockets of the service providers.

Now, in an ideal world, multiple service providers would be vying for a customer's attention and an unhappy consumer could simply switch companies. This isn't possible for most Americans, however. The ironclad regional monopolies of the various providers is very solid, such that, in most places where broadband is available, it is available from a single company that owns all the cable, so it can shut out other companies from competing for its "turf." Without the possibility for a competing service, there simply isn't a free market mechanism at work.

Network Neutrality isn't just about keeping the cost of governance down - it's about protecting a new and powerful sector for small business and entrepreneurship. We live in a country that prides itself on self-made fortunes, but very few venues still allow a newcomer to try something new without exorbitant cost. The internet is a frontier brimming with potential for individuals to distribute their goods and services, working from home and serving anyone nationwide through the internet's wide-ranging and fair connectivity. Turning your back on Net Neutrality opens the door to the worst kinds of abuse, an internet rules by 19th-century notions of racketeering and protection money as part of business, where ISPs can charge whatever they want to dole out reasonable connection speeds. A small business that has to pay at the gate *as well* as on the road is going to find its profit margins shaved to nothing.

The fact is that broadband connections are already fairly expensive for a lot of Americans. I pay about $70 a month for my connectivity. What are the odds that this price will go down if Net Neutrality fails? I assert: next to none. As corporate entities, it is the legally binding responsibility of management to maximize shareholder value. Those of us who have allowed the internet to become part of our daily lives, a resource depended upon for news, reference, and communication, are a captive audience. If prices go up, we're going to be forced to pony up the rate or fundamentally change ho we live. ISPs gain the ability, in a world without Net Neutrality, to extort any fee they think they can get away with, and as corporations they are legally required to value their shareholders over and above the value they assign their customers.

This is to say nothing of the abuse of information accessibility that becomes possible if Net Neutrality fails. If two companies (Comcast & Microsoft, Verizon & Walmart, etc.) enter into an agreement to play favorites, the ISP can simply switch shut the value on any site it deems unsuitable. Websites that offer free open-source alternatives to commercial software can be quashed, operating systems can be shown biased treatment, and there generally grows an ability for an ISP to, in exchange for money from a third party, cripple sites that they dislike. At that point, it isn't just about commerce anymore, it's about political freedoms. A person's ability to share legal but controversial information can be quashed.

I urge you to side with Network Neutrality, and to keep closed the doors of unethical business practice that threaten the efficiency of the state, the efficacy of small business and the freedoms of individuals to express themselves.

It's a rare day when I write Congress about anything. Fingers crossed...

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

America's Wars

There's a simple truth to face: America's military simply isn't capable of what we, in America, seem to collectively think it is. During Vietnam, LBJ famously said "America wins the wars she undertakes, make no mistakes about it." In retrospect, the generally-agreed-upon failure of America's Vietnam activities to "win" leaves a person wondering what LBJ was thinking. That he was trying to shore up support for an unpopular war is undeniable, but how could he genuinely believe that it was a war America could win?

The modern American military is, on a global scale, a police force. It excels at police actions, the surgical insertion and rapid destruction of specific targets. Its enormous technological advantage over all other military forces helps to ensure that it operates with maximal mobility, often destroying targets remotely. The rapidity of US actions during the Gulf War, Bosnia, and the initial siege of Baghdad in the current Iraq war all point to this refined ability, paid for with trillions of dollars over the decades, to roll right over opposition. Like the Blitzkrieg, America strikes with enormous speed and force at concentrated targets, making a robust defense nearly impossible.

What America is not able to do, however, is either conquer or colonize the rest of the world. During the American Revolutionary War, the uniformed "redcoats" of the British army could not tell friend from foe among Americans because we lacked uniforms. They marched in formation while snipers took potshots at them. Today, the situation is reversed, and American soldiers are highly visible sitting ducks in some of the most dangerous regions of the world. How America wages war is a vitally important aspect of foreign policy, and foreign perceptions of our tactics suggest that it is our actions abroad that are chiefly responsible for the level of aggression America's military faces.

Increasingly over the decades since WWII, America has dedicated its military to missions that, through the means it uses and the equipment it invests in, cannot be achieved. I do not wish to address the political aspects of warmaking (whether this or that war was justified, what slice of our taxes should go to the military, and so forth), but rather the basic policies and attitudes evidenced by our military. It is not only our responsibility to tell our politicians whether we wish America's military to be used - it is also our responsibility to demand that the way in which it is used (a) benefits America by conducting war ethically, (b) concentrates on American soldiers rather than on large-scale projects without clear functional use, and (c) demonstrates and understanding of the nature of the threats presented to our military.

Most US soldiers are moral, ethical people who have been told that they are doing their country a great service. Whatever our views on war, it does those soldiers a tremendous disservice to allow the continuance of policies that needlessly endanger their welfare and make them (and, by extension, us) the enemies of foreign powers and citizens.

Swords & Plowshares

When forced to stand still, American soldiers discover that bullets from an AK-47 remain lethally dangerous. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, AK-47s have flooded the arms market, costing as little as $6 per gun in some markets. When compared to the hundreds of dollars each M-16 used by American forces costs us, as taxpayers, one begins to get a sense that our enemies are more efficient than we are. The same is true of nearly every aspect of America's most dangerous combat commitments. Historically, military implements could be used for civilian purposed, the "beating of swords into plowshares." The durable and functional military hardware of today shows no such qualities, and there is an overwhelming supply to satisfy anyone who wishes to wage war. The world is literally awash in weaponry.

Everywhere in the world that America is currently engaged in heavy combat operations, the cost of US equipment is orders of magnitude higher than the price our enemies pay, despite remarkably comparable efficacy. The AK-47 is nearing its 60th birthday, but remains one of the most durable, easily maintained, and easily used rifles in the world. Even America's most effective personal body armor (assuming it even becomes available to soldiers) cannot fully protect soldiers from harm, particularly since a moderately skilled shooter can consistently hit reasonably small targets (such as the face or shoulder) at considerable distance. These problems are only made worse by our own eagerness to add more weapons to this abundance. A huge chunk of US foreign aid is in the form of military hardware or cash that is used for military purposes.

Spending Alone Will Not Save Many Lives

In today's world, where our military is under attack by armies without governments whose operations are revolutionary insurgence or criminal cartels (or both), we cannot outspend our enemies. Their lethality will cost them a tiny fraction of what ours costs us, so the basic need for the military is to find ways to eliminate wasteful spending and concentrate on efficiency. America needs to push its policy makers to understand that allocating more money to the Department of Defense is not enough (and may simply make the problem worse) - the DoD must spend what it is already allocated more carefully. The DoD's bottomless checkbook leads to an attitude that flagrant spending will save us. It will not, and as such, that flagrant spending often represents a flagrant waste of the country's resources.

DIY Warfare

In the end, it is a problem of technology. In Spain's conquest of the New World or Britain's colonization of India, the invading Europeans had overwhelming technological superiority. The contrast between a firearm and a bow or a sword is spectacular. Today, that kind of gap no longer exists. Despite America's investment in "the next generation of combat equipment," basic physics maintains that rifles have a certain baseline level of lethality. This problem does not simply apply to small arms fire, however. Innovative new weapons are being developed on shoestring budgets, and America's soldiers must know what those threats are, how they work, and what can be done to deal with them.

Rocket-propelled grenades (or RPGs) remain entirely affordable around the world. Improvised explosive devices (or IEDs) remain Iraq's greatest hazard, and can be built by anyone with basic supplies, a little training, and a motive. The disposable items we have grown used to seeing glut our own markets, such as cell phones, personal computers, and cars can be easily weaponized by someone with the do-it-yourself skills that flourish in countries used to making do with hand-me-down technology from the West. These are skills that the American military is almost entirely lacking, however. Apart from elite forces like the Marines, rank-and file US soldiers are not able to survive without support behind enemy lines, arm themselves, or accomplish complex objectives in hostile territory. Most might learn the warning signs of what an IED might look like, but very few can build (much less disarm) them. As part of their training, US soldiers need to realize that all things can be weaponized, and become more versatile and less reliant on their own high-prices equipment.

Increase Training In Improvisational Warfare

Every US soldier should have the basic understanding of chemistry and engineering needed to hotwire cars, cook explosives, and build radios. They need to learn not only how to survive, but also how to stay alive and fight in the wilderness. They need to identify the warning signs of IEDs and carbombs. This should be part of their repertoire not only because it allows them to achieve results when things go wrong, but more importantly because the enemies America faces have all learned these skills already. Soldiers need to shed their locker-room arrogance about being "the world's finest fighting force" and realize just how dangerous someone with half a brain can be once they've taken shop class. Just as the Anarchist's Cookbook gave America's police a rude awakening in the early 1990s about how dangerous household products could be, soldiers must learn the many, many ways even mundane-seeming objects can present a threat. Respecting your enemy means learning how he fights, in order to defend against it.

The Loneliest Superpower

America is alone, on the world stage, as the only 800-pound gorilla. Since the end of the cold war, the notion of an "arms race" seems, at a basic level, silly. While certain major countries (China, India, etc.) do show basic technological ambition, the fact is that no one is trying to develop the next "superweapon." The major weapons America should worry about having deployed against it are basic nuclear and biological weapons. By basic, I mean "rudimentary." No country in the world that threatens us, for example, is aggressively spending money on developing next-generation fighter planes. No country can nullify the threat the US can present with ICBMs. No navy in the world is safe from our submarine fleet. Despite this, the Department of Defense spends mind-blowing amounts of money on R&D to continue racing with the ghost of the USSR, with ongoing chatter about missile defense systems, laser weapon systems, stealth combat vehicles, or bunker-buster nukes.

A common rejoinder is that this money drives innovation that later benefits the private sector. The phrase "space-age materials" has been bandied about since, well, the space race. The truth is that, as the American military becomes more and more secretive, the less we know about the specifics of what it spends its money on. Substantial economic evidence suggests that innovation is driven much more effectively by private enterprise for a variety of reasons. One is transparency - if a company spends $15 million on a new way to do something, it needs to put that technology out into the marketplace in order to make a profit. It must apply for a patent that, while protecting its intellectual property, makes public the workings of its innovation. Imitators can then take this into consideration when creating competing products. None of these stages apply to defense research, which remains strictly classified and often never sees the light of day.

More to the point, however, the simple fact is that we don't need these new weapons. Certain areas of research are clearly still viable (such as many of the military's recent applications of robotics and self-correcting anti-armor rockets), but America doesn't need new superweapons. It doesn't need bigger, scarier battleships. It certainly doesn't need new, bigger nukes (which America can never deploy unless it is willing to commit political suicide). What it needs are technologies that increase per-soldier efficiency, particularly in the areas where soldiers are currently lacking.

Much of the technology designed to enhance soldiers is also severely lacking. Though the military proudly displays its remarkable developments in the areas of body armor and multi-tools, it ignores feedback from the most qualified experts: soldiers themselves. Many soldier-enhancing technologies are delivered to our forces abroad but are never used because of their fragility, clumsiness, or lack of efficacy. The DoD has an unpleasant track record of pouring millions into every possible avenue of research, including areas clearly devoid of genuine tactical benefit. This research, from a military perspective, is a waste.

Concentrate DoD Research on Areas That Genuinely Enhance Soldiers

A fighter plane may never experience enemy fire - infantry in a combat zone certainly will. In this context, enhancement means more than just combat efficacy. America should increase training to help soldier communicate with foreign civilian populations, develop "small arms" that genuinely enhance soldier flexibility, and invest more heavily in body armor that soldiers will actually use (as opposed to recent developments that, due to their unwieldy designs, are basically being left by the wayside because they impair soldiers too heavily). Make technology a seasoned veteran will actually use, rather than some new widget that imposes limitations that exceed its benefits.

The Glass Jaw

This brings me to another policy problem: military supertech. America is (perhaps rightly) proud of its top-flight military technologies: the nuclear submarine, the aircraft carrier, the stealth bomber. These are icons of American engineering and innovation. They also cost millions of dollar per unit to build, and as such, are risky to deploy. Consider the Black Hawk helicopter. It is the pinnacle of military VTOL utility aircraft. It costs $6 million for the vanilla variety, $10 million nicely loaded with features. A Black Hawk can be taken down by a single RPG (at a cost of as little as $500 in many markets) fired by a competent user, provided it damages the central or tail rotors. To provide some context, at the time of this writing, over 40 Black Hawks have been lost in Iraq, adding at least $250 million dollars to the cost of the lives of its pilots and passengers.

The problem is made even more egregious by human error. As supertech grows in complexity, the training needed to use it also grows. The Air Force is proud of its ace pilots, who have spend years in preparation for the extraordinary task of flying these cashsinks. The line-item cost of supertech conceals the added cost of training, which over years can add millions to the price tag. Further, even with tremendous training, human error remains possible, making a moment of bad judgment cost the American taxpayer dearly. This is most true with fighter aircraft, but the theme extends to all areas in which military hardware literally costs more than its weight in gold.

Despite this trend, America continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year to build more supertech. Our submarine fleet grows by the year, even though we face no major naval threats in the modern world. We build fighter aircraft designed for dogfighting even though our modern use of air power is almost exclusively limited to bombing and reconnaissance (Afghanistan's air defense, for example, were almost instantly obliterated in the October 2001 invasion). They then remain grounded, unsuitable for any modern combat scenario, requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars in upkeep. The solution seems obvious:

Stop Developing And Building Technology Too Expensive To Risk On The Battlefield

Short of invaders from space, there isn't going to be a venue for these developments. The cost of an F16 fighter ($15 million) can be used to properly equip dozens of soldiers, to say nothing of the social good that can be accomplished with $15 million outside of the military. The very technology that makes the US military remarkably mobile (like the Black Hawk) should not also be overused in areas of prolonged combat. Build new equipment only when it is required, and concentrate instead of perfecting the equipment already in use.

My Gun Is My Skill List

If we think of America's social services (police, medicine, sanitation), we think of a system of loosely connected professions with a wide range of duties and skills. We would balk at the idea that the police could replace all social services. Imagine if the people who collect your trash are also police officers - the image is so strange as to be comical. But the fact is that, in using the American military as an occupying peacekeeping force whose strength is intended to drive the reconstruction of a country like Iraq is basically that form of military policy. Realistically, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the US military "keeps the peace" but does comparatively little to change the circumstances that propagate violence in the world: poverty, ignorance, and instability.

Allowing corporations to staff the "civilian" roles of reconstruction has three major consequences. The first is that the scope of the jobs they are able to do safely is extremely limited, because (in a time where Americans in war-torn areas are especially at risk) they cannot safely work on jobs in urban areas. The second is that the corporations, whose sole responsibility is to the stockholder, has every incentive to charge the US government as much as possible. The third is widespread corruption and graft - we are now seeing the beginning of a long list of court decisions regarding embezzlement in Iraq. The alternative is to expand the role of the US military's constructive wing. Imagine is the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) expanded into the international sphere. Only about 2% of the USACE's 35,000 members are active military - the rest are civilians. They have proven their mettle, skill, and flexibility in a host of domestic activities. Instead of entrusting all aspects of reconstruction to a corporation focused solely on profit, making use of a government-employed civilian task force with basic training in the combat-zone survival would cost America far less. Attracting talented new blood in this field is easy enough: offering technical training and college tuition to America's youth is all well and good, but many avoid the military because of its necessarily violent aspects. An international corps of engineers would provide an alternative form of civil service that doesn't require learning dealing death.

The same can be said of America's inability to communicate with the cultures it occupies. If the US wants to reach the hearts and minds of populations, it must lead by example. It must have a wider and stronger foundation of communication with the populace, and more means of speaking directly to and with the citizens of those populations. Most soldiers are woefully ignorant of the cultures they encounter, and that ignorance leads to embarrassing ignorance and revolting arrogance. The armed forces should educate its soldiers better, force them to learn local languages and customs, and develop a stronger "military diplomacy" in the form of US representatives who can attempt to interact with occupied cultures more heavily. Nay-sayers have been predicting a civil war in Iraq for years, but few Americans (civilian or military) seemed to understand how this could come to pass. Now, many seem surprised by the sectarian violence, by Iraq's widespread rejection of America's presence, and by the rise in terrorism of all kinds worldwide. The situation would surely have been less dire if a more multifaceted approach to reconstruction in Iraq had been implemented. Which leads to my next point:

Expand The Military's Ability To Build And Communicate, Rather Than Simply Occupy

America's surgical invasions routinely attack infrastructure in order to weaken and scatter the enemy, but these are often resources also used by civilians. Also, dismantling a country's police, military, and civil services is a recipe for disaster unless (a) an effective stopgap can be provided and (b) new systems can be put in place. If a trained military force with the ability to make constructive change leads by example, it can become the model for the existing population. Countries do not magically metamorphose into small-town America when dictators are dethroned (especially if quality of life is necessarily reduced by the invasion itself)- the democratic process must be nurtured, but so must the civil society that tolerates a democratic government. The election of a parliament is a hollow success if the withdrawal of US troops simply means the lights will go back off, the water will stop running, unemployment will remain the rule, and violence will remain the easy alternative.

I Broke It, You'll Pay For It

What continues to amaze me is the lack of accountability US soldiers have for their actions. This happens at two levels. On the one hand, soldiers acting on their own basically have the right to kill with the slightest provocation, and face severe reprimand only in cases of friendly fire, psychotic behavior, or media accusation. In an era where anyone (even a child) might be an enemy, "reasonable doubt" becomes a blanket term to justify bad judgment. This leads to trigger-happy soldiers who alienate and frighten native populations, which is unlikely to reduce resentment against America on the whole.

On the other hand, there exists a systemic problem involving the chain of command. A soldier acting on orders is blameless (as they were doing their duty), with the responsibility falling on the shoulders of the officers responsible for issuing the orders in question. Unfortunately, the rank-intensive mentality of the military essentially insulates high-ranking officers from the possibility of prosecution for war crimes.

There is no question that America has committed war crimes. Robert McNamara admits as much of activities he facilitated during World War II (specifically, the firebombing of Tokyo, responsible for the deaths of 100,000 Japanese civilians). It was a tactically effective attack that indiscriminately destroyed factory facilities and military installations, along with the killing of women and children. More recent use of white phosphorous ammunition (or "Willy Pete") in Iraq has the same earmarks: a chemical incendiary that carmelizes flesh right through clothing and armor. Its remarkable defense-penetrating qualities make it a remarkable siege weapon, but when used in a civilian-rich combat zone like Fallujah, it kills anyone in its path, combatant or not.

We, in America, concentrate on the number of Coalition deaths in Iraq (2620 at the time of this writing). We ignore the (largely speculative) death toll for Iraqis. Figures vary wildly, but common estimates place the number of civilian (i.e. non-combatant) casualties in the ballpark of 30,000+, with statistical extrapolations suggesting numbers as high as 98,000. In other words, at least one Iraqi civilian in 870 has died. That may seem insignificant, but it's the equivalent of somewhere between 330,000 and 1,278,000 Americans dying (given our population size). Many of these casualties are the result of the "anything goes" attitude of the military, because (in a coalition dominated by the US administration) no US soldiers/officers expect to be held accountable for their actions or the orders they give. This has not endeared us to Iraq's remaining population.

Even more horrifying is what is emerging America's military prisons: images and testimonials of torture (in some cases to death) of captives who are held in defiance of our own country's and the world's standards for . If this is how we treat our enemies, no one will lay down arms against us. Allowing torture, whether the result of a few sadistic bad apples or an amoral chain of command, demonized Americans (especially American soldiers). We appear to be (or are) hypocrite, liars, and war criminals in the eyes of the world, which justifies the worst kinds of attacks against us.

The flat refusal of America to endorse the International Criminal Court or similar bodies is motivated by the strange notion that America answers to no one. Its aggressive stance against tyrants and the abuse of civil rights dissolves when applied to its own forces. Thus:

Wage War in Accordance with America's Ethical Compass, And Accept The Consequences When Those Standards Are Violated

Both internally (at the level of the military courts) and systemically (at the level of international policy), America has very little ground to stand on in policing other states if its own forces cannot be held to an ethical standard of conduct. The notion that "the enemy won't play fair," while true, does not justify fighting dirty. America's moral credibility in the rest of the world is at an all-time low, and this impacts soldiers directly by increasing the number of people willing to take arms against them. It comes as no surprise to me that American soldiers killing Muslims in a mosque sparks anti-American violence. It comes as no surprise that revelations that torture now rages out of control in US detention centers radicalized our enemies. A nation that demands of its soldiers and its leaders an ethical standard in warfare will find fewer willing to take arms against it.

Closing Thoughts

The military is viewed, by the American people, as a system divorced from the world of civilians, a hermetically sealed society that (for better or worse) operates by its own rules, often in contradiction to those expected of civilians. It is precisely for these reasons that the civilian oversight of the military is so important: without elected and appointed oversight and control, the military goes entirely off the grid and functions without checks on its power or conduct. While we, as civilians are not authorized to know the details of how the military carries out its day to day activities, we do elect the people who appoint the people who do.

Recent criticism of Donald Rumsfeld by retired generals represents not only popular civilian distaste for our civilian leaders, but also a growing dissatisfaction by the military with those whose job is to ensure that the country's clandestine abilities nevertheless conform to our social standards. Murmurs have been on the rise, in the American military, that civilian control is a recipe for disaster, keeping the armed forces from "doing their job" properly. To have a military force chafing under civilian leadership is a troubling sign.

What does on in the Department of Defense is something voters cannot directly control, and this makes appointment a critically important aspect of the political equation. We, as a country, have been trained to think in terms of issues: civil liberties, the war on terror, abortion, gay marriage. We ignore the subtle but pervasive effect that our leaders' stances on defense can have. If America dislikes not only why and when but how war is waged by this country, a global rejection of military power is a losing strategy. Instead, we must demand of our leaders a rational and functional strategy towards the military if we are ever to be seen as a "force for good" by the rest of the world. We must speak not only about hot-topic issues, like torture, but more generally about the attitudes and techniques of the military. In the words of former secretary of defense Robert McNamara, "I think people need to think more about killing, about conflict. Is that what we want, in this 21st century?"

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Obliviate Your Life

So I've been silent (in this medium) for weeks. The reason? Oblivion, the fourth of the Elder Scrolls games. It has literally devoured my free time. To understand the reasons why require a description of the game.

Simply put, imagine taking 16 square miles of hilly land and turning it into a sort of free form theme park. As is typically the case in games, locations are closer together than they would be in real life, but also "time" passes more quickly, with the sun and moon crawling visibly across the sky. It's like a movie - we mentally "fill in" travel time without having experience it. So our theme park (thanks to its accelerated time frame) can be given the illusion of much larger size. Time in Oblivion passes at 30 times the regular rate (with a "24 hour" period passing in 48 minutes), so we can imagine, cinematically, that the world is 30 times as large in all directions, expanding its apparent size to an astonishing 14400 square miles. And every one of those miles has Stuff in it, ranging from small touches like plants I may be able to harvet alchemical ingredients from to dozens of ruins, caves, forts, and bandit encampments. I have been exploring this world.

Another game I've played (Halo) has a silly line, where the 'voice in your head' character points out a cave and declares, "Someone built it, so it must lead somewhere." At the time, it was a blatant request on the part of the game to follow the breadcrumbs. But it goes a long way to explaining my attitude toward the minutia in games. I want to explore the world I've been handed and discover its secrets precisely because someone went to the trouble of building it. It's a sculpture the size of Maryland that someone's invited me to explore. And respecting worldbuilding such as I do, I feel compelled to squeeze every last ounce of gameplay from it.

I'm starting to run out of things to do, so presumably my real life will resume soon. Unless, of course, I decide to use the tools Bethesda employed to build the game (which ship with every copy) to begin making a sculpture of my own.

That would be... time consuming.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Creative Delirium

A friend of mine recently held a very successful "creativity party." The reasoning that, as a group of intelligent and creative people, his wide group of friends had a wide range of creative skills (drawing, painting, music, writing, origami, etc.), but few opportunities to really apply them. The objective, then, was to get a large group together and provide a social context for creating things. It was a "raw materials potluck," with people bringing things suitable to the tasks they knew well, and everyone (under the not-so-subtle peer pressure to "keep being creative" for the duration of the evening) was quite productive, with a substantial degree of cross-pollination (I, for example, did some of my first dabbling in electronic music in years). We plan to do it again soon, in large part because of how much fun it was the first time.

The problem, though, is that my desire to be creative is almost directly tied to how late in the day it is. In the morning, I exist in worker/dataminer mode, scanning digital headlines before diving into several hours of professional programming. By late afternoon, social impulses are often dominant. Actual creative urges don't seem to occur to me until quite late (midnight or later), during which time I'm usually already a little groggy. Last night, the muse kept whispering in my ear until around 5:20 AM, and now I'm seriously drunk on exhaustion. I haven't had the chance to go back and see how what I did really turned out, but I have this nagging fear (made dull and vague by the sleep deprivation headache I have) that it's actually crap. If so, it's like a pre-emptively wasted day today, as I'm clearly too tired to be overly productive. My objective is to make it to the end of my work day and then probably crash (which will make sleeping when I should be sleeping difficult). Dammit.

Stupid muse.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Ministry of Weird Stuff

In Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, a character named Eberhard Föhr is dubbed the "guy who does weird stuff" in the protagonist's risky tech venture. He proceeds to engage in several instances of strange technowizardry that seem to defy conventional thinking about what is and isn't possible.

As all good folk know, those who can't do teach. And, being part of a circle of friends who are bright but by no means badasses, we tend to be divided along the lines of what we know about, not what we know ourselves. One friend (named Malgas in much the way I am named Autochon) was dubbed the "Ministry of Weird Stuff" in honor of Dr. Föhr's apparently random skillset. Malgas was always the guy who knew the latest weird news (like the successful lab testing of short range lightning guns, or the latest oddball neer-heard-before musical group, or whatever).

If he's still the minister, though, I think he's become a sort of shadow minister, operating in the shadows, while I act as the Ministry's faceman. My own scouring of the Internet for fascinating tidbits covers most of the same ground as his, though he invariably find things I manage to gloss right over. But somehow, in the last few months, I've been getting the credit for being "the guy who knows something about everything, or at least knows where to find something about anything." It's a little unfair to him, but he's never been super-outgoing. And I hardly steal his thunder - I try to make it clear when I'm relaying one of his discoveries.

Neverthless, my friends are starting to eye me ascance when I get that "Hey, did you hear about..." look in my eye, because the answer is almost inevitably an exhasperated "No." Not that they aren't amused by my discoveries. But I feel that I alone should not be deserving the credit for these things. So here's the start of a list of the sources I use, daily, to keep on top of things:

Boing Boing: A so-called "directly of wonderful things," it's actually a reverse chronological tagboard of amusing things. But who's counting?
DailyKOS: Insightful leftist screed to keep those crafty conservatives at bay. I'm not nearly as far left as some of the people who post there, but I am certainly to the left of much of the country.
Digg: A recently referenced site that tracks "tech news," and uses an interesting community editting process to boost good stories and bury bad ones.
Google News: Need I say more?
Memepool: Memepool was once what Boing Boing is now. Today, it's a pale shadow of its former self, a crotchety old man with a very few tricks left up its sleeves.
ShortNews: A community news site with a similar approach to Digg, but focusing on news stories, often strange ones.
Slashdot: The largest nerd news organization the internet has to offer, Slashdot is the place to go to find out what technologies are being used against you, what games are pushing the paradigms, what exists on the edge of the galaxy, and what some "expert" thinks of some obscure programming language. It's sweet.

There! See, not so hard. Now go read some news!