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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Continental Philosophy since 1750 – The Rise and Fall of the Self by Robert C Solomon

After reading a previous Short Introduction on Continental Philosophy I couldn’t resist delving into the subject again. Solomon’s proved to be an excellent historical study of the field whetting my appetite for even more for further reading. Starting with Rousseau & Kant the author moved gradually through the European highlights devoting a chapter to each pivotal moment. Holding it all together was his interpretation of a major theme of Continental philosophy regarding the Self and its place in the theories of people as diverse as Hegal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer – as well as more modern (particularly French) thinkers such as Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault and Derrida.

A lot of ground was covered in just over 200 pages but the major ideas and themes were put across in such a way that I often felt swept along in the narrative. Solomon writes really well, for an academic, and though I did struggle with a few of the philosophers outlined in this work I now understand a great deal more about many of them. This is a fantastic book for putting some of the greatest minds on the planet in context and giving the reader a fair flavour of their ideas. You will be hearing more from some of the authors mentioned above in the coming months – particularly Rousseau & Nietzsche both of whom I’m studying next year. Also over the past few weeks I’ve picked up a few books either on or by Heidegger, Sartre & Schopenhauer. So many books…. So little time. If only I had ‘discovered’ philosophy in my youth – though I probably wouldn’t have appreciated it. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Bush Diplomacy: Predator Planes Are Conducting Assassinations by Air

Part 3.

By Tom Engelhardt for Tomdispatch.com.

March 17, 2008

Remember back in the 1990s, when the glories of an economically borderless world were being limned? Just after September 11, 2001, the Bush administration proudly declared us to be in a far darker world without borders (except, of course, when it came to our own). In this new world, whether we knew it or not, whether we cared or not, we granted our highest officials -- specifically our military and intelligence services -- the full powers of prosecutor, defense counsel, judge, jury, and executioner, as well as the right to report on such events only to the extent, and as, they wished. This was the sort of power that monotheistic religions normally granted to an all-powerful god, that kingdoms generally left to absolute rulers, and that dictators have always tried to take for themselves (though just, of course, in the domains under their control). Our domain, it seems, is now much of the globe, when it comes to the bloody work of assassinating individuals via bombs or missiles that, however precise, surgical, and smart, are weapons meant to kill en masse and largely without discrimination.

There are still limits of sorts on such actions. These put bluntly -- though no one is likely to say this --- are the limits imposed, in part, by racism, by gradations, however unspoken, in the global value given to a human life. The Bush administration has, so far, only been willing to carry out "decapitation" strikes in countries where human life is, by implication, of less or little value. It has yet to carry one out in London or Hamburg or Tokyo or Moscow or the Chinese countryside, even though "terrorist suspects" abound everywhere, even (as with the Anthrax attacks of 2001) in our own country. On the other hand, given the impetus of this kind of globalization, who knows when such a strike might come. After all, the CIA has already carried out clearly illegal, sovereignty-violating "extraordinary rendition" operations (kidnappings of terror suspects) on the streets of European cities. In this country, we still theoretically venerate the sovereign self ("the individual") and that self's right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Despite George Bush's "Freedom Agenda," however, the sovereignty, not to say the life, liberty, and happiness of other peoples, individually or collectively, have not really been much on our minds these last years. Our freedom of action, our safety, has been the only freedom, the only "security," to which we have attached much global value. And don't for a second think that, when the "actionable intelligence" comes in to John McCain's, Hillary Clinton's, or Barack Obama's Oval Office, those Predators won't be soaring or those cruise missiles leaving subs lurking off some coast -- and that innocent civilians elsewhere won't continue to die.

In places like Somalia, we deliver death, and every now and then an American bomb or missile actually obliterates a terrorist suspect. Then we celebrate. The rest of time, it's hardly even news. When the deeper principle behind such global strikes is mentioned in our papers, in some passing paragraph, it's done -- as in a recent Washington Post article about a Predator strike, piloted from Nevada, that killed a suspected "senior al-Qaeda commander" in Pakistan -- in this polite way: "Independent actions by U.S. military forces on another country's sovereign territory are always controversial" (Imagine the language that the Washington Post would use, if that had been a Pakistani drone strike in Utah.) This version of globalization is already so much the norm of our world that few here even blink an eye when it's reported, or consider it even slightly strange. It's already an American right. In the meantime, other people, who obviously don't rise to the level of our humanity, regularly die.

And here's the thing: In our world, there is a chasm that can never be breached between, say, a Sunni extremist clothed in a suicide vest who walks into a market in Baghdad with the barbaric intent of killing as many Shiite civilians as possible, and an air or missile attack, done in the name of American "security" and aimed at a "known terrorist," that just happens to -- repeatedly --- kill innocent civilians. And yet, what if you know before you launch your attack, as American planners certainly must, that the odds are innocents (and probably no one else) will die? Not so long ago in the United States, presidentially sanctioned assassinations abroad were illegal. But that was then, this is so now. Nonetheless, it's a fact that the "right" to missile, bomb, shell, "decapitate," or assassinate those we declare to be our enemies, without regard to borders or sovereignty, is based on nothing more than the power to do it. This is simply the "right" of force (and of technology). If the tables were turned, any American would recognize such acts for the barbarism they represent.

And yet, late last week, like clockwork, the Associated Press brought us the latest notice: "In Afghanistan, a spokesman for the American-led coalition said troops had used 'precision-guided munitions' to strike a compound about a mile inside Pakistan…" This operation was, as they all are, said to be based on "reliable intelligence"; in this case, "senior" Taliban commanders were said to be in residence. As it happened, according to the Pakistani military and the AP reporter who made it to Tangrai, a village of about forty houses, the residence hit was that of "Noor Khan, a greengrocer who said the house was his family home." The AP reporter added that "only one of its four walls was standing amid a tangle of mud bricks, bedding and cooking pots." And Noor Khan, who was quoted saying, "We are innocent, we have nothing to do with such things," claimed that six of his relatives, four women and two boys, had been killed. (The Pakistani military, on investigating, reported that two women and two children had died.) This was but the latest minor decapitation strike, and -- we can be sure of this -- not the last. Philip K. Dick move over. We're already in your future.

[Indeed we are… This is the kind of thing I remember reading about – in SF novels – in the 80’s. Back then in was called Cyberpunk or maybe Combat SF. Today it’s called business as usual or the War on Terror. Yet again I have to ask whether this is the world we really want to live in – where those with the power and the technology kill those without either indiscriminately. Is it really any wonder when those without the weapons to retaliate do so however and wherever they can? When will politicians and military leaders learn that there are always consequences to actions like these and that no one is immune from the deadly effects known as blowback.]

Friday, April 18, 2008

Bush Diplomacy: Predator Planes Are Conducting Assassinations by Air

Part 2.

By Tom Engelhardt for Tomdispatch.com.

March 17, 2008

In a recent Pentagon briefing for reporters featuring Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen, who had just returned from a trip to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, 4,500 words of back-and-forth were interrupted by this question from a reporter:

"Secretary Gates, the strike on Somalia two days ago -- did the missiles that were fired -- did they strike their target? And was the target Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan? Do you have a report back from the field? And Admiral Mullen, what message did you give to President Musharraf, and why did you meet with him?"

Gates responded to the Somali part of the question in eight words: "You know we don't talk about military operations." He might have added: …unless they're successful. That was evidently all that the incident and its minor "collateral damage" deserved in such a global war. So Gates and Mullen moved on immediately. So many matters more important than a single "decapitation" strike that didn't succeed to consider.

Minor as that Somali mis-strike might seem, this is not, in fact, a small matter. Think of that strike and the many like it around the world over these last years as reflections of George Bush's post-9/11 update of globalization. After all, the most basic principle of his Global War on Terror has been the erasure of global boundaries and whatever international agreements about war-making might go with them. Across the Islamic world, in particular, boundaries simply no longer matter. In fact, in such regions no aspect of sovereignty can now constrain a U.S. president from acting as he pleases in pursuit of whatever he may personally define as American interests. "Assassinations by air" are, writes David Case in Mother Jones magazine, "a relatively new tactic in warfare." By the beginning of 2006, however, U.S. Predator drones "bearing Hellfire missiles -- the preferred weapon in decapitation [strikes] -- had already hit 'terrorist suspects overseas' at least 19 times since 9/11." Such strikes and other similar operations by air, land, and sea have been a crucial follow-on to the Bush administration's proclamations, immediately after 9/11, that there would be no "safe havens" for terrorists on the planet, nor safety for those countries which housed them, inadvertently or otherwise. Within days of the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, Bush administration officials were already identifying up to 60 countries-cum-targets.

This aspect of the Bush Doctrine, of what the President likes to call staying "on the offensive," when mixed with a couple of decades of "advances" in air warfare, including the development of sophisticated, missile-armed drones, "smart bombs," "precision-guided munitions," and the like, has resulted in a lethal globalizing brew of assassination and destruction. It recognizes neither boundaries, nor sovereignty across much of the planet. With all its "actionable" possibilities, it will surely be with us long after George W. Bush has left office.

Of course, those few nameless dead or wounded Somali civilians -- swatted like so many flies and forgotten as quickly as flies would be -- don't faintly match up against the "dozens" of Iraqi civilian deaths that, according to Human Rights Watch, were caused by 50 decapitation strikes launched against the top officials of Saddam Hussein's regime back in March 2003. (Not a single official was harmed.) Nor do they quite make it into the company of the "Afghan elders" being taken to President Hamid Karzai's inauguration back in 2001, who were mistaken "for a Taliban group" and bombed, with 20 killed; nor the 30 or more guests at an Afghan wedding party back in 2002 blown away by 2,000-pound bombs after celebratory gunfire was evidently mistaken for an attack (no apologies offered); nor that wedding party in the Western desert of Iraq near the Syrian border wiped out in 2004 with 42 deaths, including 27 in one extended family, 14 children in all. They were, of course, taken for terrorists. (As U.S. Major General James Mathis put the matter in offering an explanation: "How many people go to the middle of the desert… to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?") And these are just a few prominent cases, not including the civilians killed in periodic Predator and other strikes in Pakistani border areas, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere whom no fuss is ever made about -- not here, anyway.

After all, there's always going to be "collateral damage" when you keep your eye -- and your 2,000-pound bomb or Hellfire missile -- focused on the prize.

[To be Continued….]

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Bush Diplomacy: Predator Planes Are Conducting Assassinations by Air

Part 1.

By Tom Engelhardt for Tomdispatch.com.

March 17, 2008

Imagine, for a moment, that you live in a small town somewhere near the Southern California coast. You're going about your daily life, trying to scrape by in hard times, when the missile hits. It might have come from the Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) -- its pilot at a base on the outskirts of Tehran -- that has had the village in its sights for the last six hours or from the Russian sub stationed just off the coast. In either case, it's devastating. In Moscow and Tehran, officials announce that, in a joint action, they have launched the missile as part of a carefully coordinated "surgical" operation to take out a "known terrorist," a long-term danger to their national security. A Kremlin spokesman offers the following statement:

"As we have repeatedly said, we will continue to pursue terrorist activities and their operations wherever we may find them. We share common goals with respect to fighting terrorism. We will continue to seek out, identify, capture and, if necessary, kill terrorists where they plan their activities, carry out their operations or seek safe harbor."

A family in a ramshackle house just down the street from you -- he's a carpenter; she works at the local Dairy Queen -- are killed along with their pets. Their son is seriously wounded, their home blown to smithereens. Neighbors passing by as the missile hits are also wounded. As it happens, there are no terrorists in the vicinity. Outraged, you organize your neighbors and march angrily in protest through the town, shouting anti-Russian, anti-Iranian slogans. But, of course, there is nothing you can really do. Iran and Russia are far away, their weaponry powerful, your arms nonexistent. The state of California is incapable of protecting you. This is, in fact, at least the fourth time in recent months that a "terrorist" has been declared "taken out" from the air or by a ship-based cruise missile, when only innocent Californians have died.

As news of the "collateral damage" from the botched operation dribbles out, the Russian and Iranian media pay next to no attention. There are no outraged editorials. Official spokesmen see no need to comment further. No one is held responsible and no promises are made in either Tehran or Moscow that similar assassination strikes won't be launched in the near future, based on "actionable intelligence," possibly even on the same town. In fact, the next day, seeing UAVs once again soaring overhead, you load your pick-up and prepare to flee.

Philip K. Dick meet George W. Bush. When it comes to such a thing happening in the United States, we are, of course, at the wildest frontiers of science fiction. The U.S. is a sovereign nation. We guard our air space and coastal waters jealously. Any country violating them for purposes of aggressive action, no less by launching a missile against an American town, would be committing an act of war and would certainly be treated accordingly. If, somehow, such an event did occur, it would be denounced in Washington and on editorial pages across the country as a shocking contravention of international legal conventions and a crime of war unless, of course, we did it in a country where sovereignty has been declared meaningless.

In fact, an almost exact replica of the above fictional incident -- at least the fourth of its kind in recent months -- did indeed take place at the beginning of March in the embattled failed state of Somalia. (For that country's most recent abysmal collapse, the Bush administration, via an invasion by Ethiopian proxy forces, can take significant credit.) One or two houses in Dobley, a Somali town, were hit, possibly by two submarine-launched Tomahawk Cruise missiles in what a U.S. official termed "a deliberate strike against a suspected bed-down of known terrorists." The missiles were evidently meant for Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an al-Qaedan suspect in the bloody bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. He was, however, not in Dobley, despite the "actionable intelligence" on hand. Accounts of the dead and wounded in the town vary. One report claimed only wounded Somalis (and two dead cows); most spoke of anywhere from four to ten dead civilians. Local district Commissioner Ali Nur Ali Dherre told CNN that three women and three children had been killed and another 20 people wounded. While a "U.S. military official said the United States is still collecting post-strike information and is not yet able to confirm any casualties. He described [the] strike as 'very deliberate' and said forces tried to use caution to avoid hitting civilians."

For the dead Somalis, not suprisingly, we have no names. In stories like this, the dead are regularly nobodies and, though the townspeople of Dobley did indeed march angrily in protest yelling anti-American slogans, just about no one noticed. In our world, only the normal smattering of small news reports dealt with this modest sidebar in the President's Global War on Terror (GWOT). On the GWOT scorecard -- if you remember, for a long time George Bush kept "his own personal scorecard" of top terror suspects in a desk drawer in the Oval Office, crossing off al-Qaedan figures as U.S. forces took them down -- this operation hardly registered. One terrorist missed, and not for the first time, possibly a few dead peasants in some god-forsaken land. Please, move on.

[To be Continued….]

Monday, April 14, 2008

Partial Ingredients for DNA and Protein Found Around Star

From JPL, Pasadena, California

Dec 20, 2005

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has discovered some of life’s most basic ingredients in the dust swirling around a young star. The ingredients – gaseous precursors to DNA and protein – were detected in the star’s terrestrial planet zone, a region where rocky planets such as Earth are thought to be born. The findings represent the first time that these gases, called acetylene and hydrogen cyanide, have been found in a terrestrial planet zone outside of our own.

"This infant system might look a lot like ours did billions of years ago, before life arose on Earth," said Fred Lahuis of Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands and the Dutch space research institute called SRON. Lahuis is lead author of a paper to be published in the Jan. 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Lahuis and his colleagues spotted the organic, or carbon-containing, gases around a star called IRS 46. The star is in the Ophiuchus (pronounced OFF-ee-YOO-kuss), or "snake carrier," constellation about 375 light-years from Earth. This constellation harbors a huge cloud of gas and dust in the process of a major stellar baby boom. Like most of the young stars here and elsewhere, IRS 46 is circled by a flat disk of spinning gas and dust that might ultimately clump together to form planets.

When the astronomers probed this star's disk with Spitzer's powerful infrared spectrometer instrument, they were surprised to find the molecular "barcodes" of large amounts of acetylene and hydrogen cyanide gases, as well as carbon dioxide gas. The team observed 100 similar young stars, but only one, IRS 46, showed unambiguous signs of the organic mix. "The star's disk was oriented in just the right way to allow us to peer into it," said Lahuis. The Spitzer data also revealed that the organic gases are hot. So hot, in fact, that they are most likely located near the star, about the same distance away as Earth is from our sun.

"The gases are very warm, close to or somewhat above the boiling point of water on Earth," said Dr. Adwin Boogert of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. "These high temperatures helped to pinpoint the location of the gases in the disk."

Organic gases such as those found around IRS 46 are found in our own solar system, in the atmospheres of the giant planets and Saturn's moon Titan, and on the icy surfaces of comets. They have also been seen around massive stars by the European Space Agency's Infrared Space Observatory, though these stars are thought to be less likely than sun-like stars to form life-bearing planets. Here on Earth, the molecules are believed to have arrived billions of years ago, possibly via comets or comet dust that rained down from the sky. Acetylene and hydrogen cyanide link up together in the presence of water to form some of the chemical units of life's most essential compounds, DNA and protein. These chemical units are several of the 20 amino acids that make up protein and one of the four chemical bases that make up DNA.

"If you add hydrogen cyanide, acetylene and water together in a test tube and give them an appropriate surface on which to be concentrated and react, you'll get a slew of organic compounds including amino acids and a DNA purine base called adenine," said Dr. Geoffrey Blake of Caltech, a co-author of the paper. "And now, we can detect these same molecules in the planet zone of a star hundreds of light-years away."

Follow-up observations with the W.M. Keck Telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii confirmed the Spitzer findings and suggested the presence of a wind emerging from the inner region of IRS 46’s disk. This wind will blow away debris in the disk, clearing the way for the possible formation of Earth-like planets.

[Fascinating. It would seem that the basic building blocks of life as we know it could be abundant throughout the Galaxy. Maybe this is how DNA got its first boost 4 Billion years ago on Earth. Maybe this points to DNA based life being fairly common (given the right environment). It opens up so many possibilities……]

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Just Finished Reading: American Empire – The Victorious Opposition by Harry Turtledove.

In an Alternate World where the South won the Civil War Jake Featherston has achieved his ambition by becoming President of the Confederate States. Driven by his need for revenge against the United States for its defeat of the Confederacy in the Great War, Featherston eliminates all opposition to his political power and begins the long process of rearming. Meanwhile the USA stumbles from government to government gripped by a seemingly endless recession. Fighting insurrection in Utah and revolt in Occupied Canada its resources are stretched to the limit. Much too late the US realises that there is a tiger outside their door just waiting to leap. The waiting is almost over and war banners are beginning to fly on both sides of the Ohio River.

This was the 7th book in a very long running series of large (this book being 675 pages) volumes based in a detailed Alternate 20th Century. Though not without the usual Turtledove irritations – including constantly repeating who the characters are by their histories, associations or habits – this was still a fairly entertaining work. Taking place from the mid 1930’s until the July of 1941 several of the main characters inevitably died in this book of everything from heart attack to terrorist bomb. Also – again rather inevitably – things got darker as the book progressed and not just because the characters begin to realise that another bloody war is on its way. Turtledove is basically re-writing European history on the Continental United States which means that one side in the conflict gets to ‘play’ Nazi Germany in his drama. That player is the Confederate States. But in this reality it’s not the Jews that suffer the ‘final solution’ but the Black population who are systematically oppressed and then exterminated. It certainly doesn’t make for pleasant or entertaining reading but does provide the novel with some of its most harrowing and disturbing moments.

The only thing left now is to read his continuing epic series as it moves into the Second World War – told in another 4 large volumes. I think I shall save that pleasure for a little later in the year. Turtledove is not exactly a great author – or arguably even a very good one – but he does manage to write books that are entertaining enough for me at least to read thousands of pages of his work. I guess that I have at least three thousand more to go. I guess that I need to know what happens to all of those people I have watched struggle through the last 50 years in a world both very different from and hauntingly similar to our own.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Thinking About: Ambition

Some years ago at work I was offered some staff to be responsible for. I declined. My boss at the time informed me that my decision could be seen as career limiting because experience with the management of staff is often taken into account when it comes to promotion. I told him that was OK and not to worry about it. A few days later I was called into his bosses’ office to explain myself. Again the career limiting argument was put forward and I remember saying something like this: "I don’t think I have a career with this organisation and to be honest with you I don’t want one". It was the only time that I’d seen Adrian totally lost for words.

Of course with ‘an attitude like that’ I’m unlikely to ‘get anywhere’. If I had a Pound (or even a Dollar) for every time I heard that one I’d be fairly well off. This is because I really struggle to understand the idea of ambition. I’ve seen people literally make themselves sick with their attempts to climb the corporate ladder. Why….? In order to ‘get on’ or some such nonsense (apparently). When I see those who are above me in the corporate machine I see often worried, harassed and overly stressed people who spend most of their time rushing between meetings whist making numerous calls on their mobiles often from early morning until late in the evenings. Do I really want to ‘get on’ to such an extent that I finally arrive at their giddy heights? I think not. What are the benefits of such an exalted position? Money – I certainly have enough for my modest needs. Power – hardly! Prestige – don’t make me laugh. Responsibility – and I should seek this because? Personally I can’t see a single reason to advance much higher that I am now (which isn’t very high).

Thinking about it further I must admit that I have few (if any) ambitions even outside the work environment. I’d like to live a long life and I have a fairly vague ambition to start my Doctorate before I’m 50 but apart from that……. I think I’d struggle to think of anything else. I’m not driven to succeed the way some people obviously are. I don’t feel like just another rat in the race of life. I have chosen to opt out of the race and just drift along catching rays and eating cheese. Why should I choose to be otherwise and have to deal with ulcers, heart attacks and missing my (hypothetical) children grow up? As far as I am concerned it’s simply not worth the apparently meagre rewards on offer. I’m more that happy ‘getting nowhere’ at my own pace and in my own way.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Computers to merge with humans

From the BBC

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

By 2020 the terms "interface" and "user" will be obsolete as computers merge ever closer with humans. It is one prediction in a Microsoft-backed report drawn from the discussions of 45 academics from the fields of computing, science, sociology and psychology. It predicts fundamental changes in the field of so-called Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). By 2020 humans will increasingly interrogate machines, the report said. In turn computers will be able to anticipate what we want from them, which will require new rules about our relationship with machines.

The report, entitled Being Human: Human-Computer Interaction in the year 2020, looks at how the development of technologies over the next decade can better reflect human values. "It is about how we anticipate the uses of technology rather than being reactive. Currently the human is not considered part of the process," said Bill Buxton, from Microsoft Research. At the launch of the report some of the authors showed off the types of technologies that could bring the human back into the equation. At Goldsmiths College, Professor Bill Gaver and his team have developed a Drift table, a piece of furniture which allows people to view aerial photography of their local neighbourhood and beyond. "It isn't really designed for anything," explained Prof Gaver. "People can use it for entertainment or learning. One of the people that was given the table used to check out houses in Southampton following a piece on the news about house prices going up in the area. "Someone else used it to look at the towns they lived in as a child or to visit towns where friends lived," he said. The table has no buttons and the small display in the middle moves as a result of pressure being put on the table. "From central London it would take a day to navigate the table to the coast," said Prof Gaver.

Other prototype technologies aimed at putting human needs at the centre of the equation include the Whereabouts Clock. The interface - designed at Microsoft's research labs in Cambridge - allows people to see where other members of their family are at any given time. The categories of "home", "work" and "school" are deliberately vague in order to maintain privacy, explained Abigail Sellen, from Microsoft Research. Other communication devices for the home that Microsoft is working on include Epigraph, an interface that allows family members to "post" pictures and messages to each other via their mobile phones. The keyboard, mouse and monitor will increasingly be replaced by more intuitive forms of interaction and display, including tablet computers, speech recognition systems and fingertip-operated surfaces.

Boundaries between humans and computers will become blurred over the next decade as devices are embedded in objects, our clothing or, in the case of medical monitoring, in our bodies. Although paper will still be a reality in 2020, digital paper will also flourish allowing us to create, for example, social network magazines that update in real time. Digital storage of even more aspects of our lives, from mobile phone calls to CCTV footage, could be a reality by 2020 and, in combination with an omnipresent network will mean privacy will be a key focus of the HCI community. Our "digital footprint" - the sharing of more and more aspects of our lives through digital photography, podcasting , blogging and video - is set to get bigger and this will raise key questions about how much information we should store about ourselves. The ever-present network will channel mass market information directly to us while disseminating our own intimate information. The report dubs this the era of so-called hyper-connectivity and predicts it will mean a growth in "techno-dependency". This ever more intimate relationship between humans and computers will be a double-edged sword, it suggests.

The report compares the widespread introduction of the calculator - widely blamed for a fall in the standard of mental arithmetic - with what may happen as computers become more intelligent and take on new responsibilities. "Without proper consideration and control it is possible that we - both individually and collectively - may no longer be in control of ourselves or the world around us," the report warns. As well as the need for language to reflect the newly expanded human/computer environment so too the concept of teaching computer science will need to be adapted. "Not just teaching children about how computers and applications work, but about their wider impact," reads the report. Among its recommendations for the future direction of HCI, the report suggests there needs to be greater engagement with government and policy makers. There also needs to be consideration for how technological developments will go forward in the developing world. One of the report authors, Gary Marsden from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, showed off a prototype digital noticeboard. Dubbed Big Board, the display, which is free to use, allows users to download information to their mobile phones about a range of topics including politics, health and even university lectures. Mobile use in Africa is the fastest growing of anywhere in the world.

[It seems that we won’t have to wait for First Contact with the Borg in some distant part of our Galaxy. Maybe the love of technology inevitably produces Borg like creatures on any planet where technological creatures exist….. Do we want to resist such a future? Can we resist it? I do wonder where it will all end… Or am I just reading & watching too much Sci-Fi?]

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Navigating The Golden Compass – Religion, Science & Daemonology in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Edited by Glenn Yeffeth.

This was a ‘completely unauthorised’ selection of articles from fans and foes alike of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials Trilogy. As a huge fan of those books myself it’s always nice to see how other people interpreted them. As you might expect from such a collection its mostly positive stuff – with a few notable exceptions. The gushing fan pieces did get a bit annoying after a while but there were a few interesting articles especially from other fantasy authors giving their analysis of why exactly the Trilogy worked so well. The only one I actually skimmed (and then largely skipped) was a mock letter to a newspaper extolling the virtues of Mrs Coulter – go figure. The final article was a rather bile filled attack on some of the very essence of the books asking over and over why didn’t Pullman write a much better book with a stronger pro-Christian message!

All in all this was not a bad volume. It managed to bring out some interesting aspects of Pullman’s work but could, I thought, have been much better (if maybe a bit heavier) with a bit less praise and a bit more thoughtful examination. It did make me want to read all three books again though….

Friday, April 04, 2008

Thursday, April 03, 2008

US/Iraq: Rules of Engagement ‘Thrown out the Window’

by Dahr Jamail for Inter Press Service

Saturday, March 15, 2008

SILVER SPRING, Maryland - Garret Reppenhagen received integral training about the Geneva Conventions and the Rules of Engagement during his deployment in Kosovo. But in Iraq, “Much of this was thrown out the window,” he says. “The men I served with are professionals,” Reppenhagen told the audience at a panel of U.S. veterans speaking of their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, “They went to Iraq to defend the U.S. But we found rapidly we were killing Iraqis in horrible ways. But we had to in order to remain safe ourselves. The war is the atrocity.” The event, which has drawn international media attention, was organised by Iraq Veterans Against the War. It aims to show that their stories of wrongdoing in both countries were not isolated incidents limited to a few “bad apples”, as the Pentagon claims, but were everyday occurrences.

The panel on the “Rules of Engagement” (ROE) during the first full day of the gathering, named “Winter Soldier” to honour a similar gathering 30 years ago of veterans of the Vietnam War, was held in front of a visibly moved audience of several hundred, including veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam. Winter soldiers, according to U.S. founding father Thomas Paine, are the people who stand up for the soul of their country, even in its darkest hours Reppenhagen served in Iraq from February 2004-2005 in the city of Baquba, 40 kms northeast of Baghdad. He said his first experience in Iraq was being on a patrol that killed two Iraqi farmers as they worked in their field at night. “I was told they were out in the fields farming because their pumps only operated with electricity, which meant they had to go out in the dark when there was electricity,” he explained, “I asked the sergeant, if he knew this, why did he fire on the men. He told me because the men were out after curfew. I was never given another ROE during my time in Iraq.”

Another veteran of the occupation of Iraq on the panel was Vincent Emmanuel. He served in the Marines near the northern Iraqi city of Al-Qaim during 2004-2005. Emmanuel explained that “taking potshots at cars that drove by” happened all the time and “these were not isolated incidents”. Emmanuel continued: “We took fire while trying to blow up a bridge. Many of the attackers were part of the general population. This led to our squad shooting at everything and anything in order to push through the town. I remember myself emptying magazines into the town, never identifying a target.” As other panelists nodded in agreement, Emmanuel spoke of abusing prisoners who he knew were innocent, adding, “We took it upon ourselves to harass them, and took them to the desert to throw them out of our Humvees, while kicking and punching them when we threw them out.”

Two other soldiers testified about planting weapons or shovels on civilians they had accidentally shot, to justify the killings by implying the dead were fighters or people attempting to plant roadside bombs. Jason Washburn was a corporal in the marines, and served three tours in Iraq, his last in Haditha from 2005-2006. “We were encouraged to bring ‘drop weapons’ or shovels, in case we accidentally shot a civilian, we could drop the weapon on the body and pretend they were an insurgent,” he said, “By the third tour, if they were carrying a shovel or bag, we could shoot them. So we carried these tools and weapons in our vehicles, so we could toss them on civilians when we shot them. This was commonly encouraged.” Washburn explained that his ROE changed “a lot”. “The higher the threat level, the more viciously we were told to respond. We had towns that were deemed ‘free fire zones’. One time there was a mayor of a town near Haditha that got shot up. We were shown this as an example because there was a nice tight shot group on the windshield, and told that was a good job, that was what Marines were supposed to do. And that was the mayor of the town.” Jason Wayne Lemue is a Marine who served three tours in Iraq. “My commander told me, ‘Kill those who need to be killed, and save those who need to be saved’, that was our mission on our first tour,” he said of his first deployment during the invasion nearly five years ago.

Lemue continued, “After that the ROE changed, and carrying a shovel, or standing on a rooftop talking on a cell phone, or being out after curfew [meant the people] were to be killed. I can’t tell you how many people died because of this. By my third tour, we were told to just shoot people, and the officers would take care of us.” John Michael Turner served two tours in the Marines as a machine gunner in Iraq. Visibly upset, he told the audience, “I was taught as a Marine to eat the apple to the core.” Turner then pulled his military metals off his shirt and threw them on the ground. “Apr. 18, 2006 was the date of my first confirmed kill,” he said sombrely. “He was innocent, I called him the fat man. He was walking back to his house and I killed him in front of his father and friend. My first shot made him scream and look into my eyes, so I looked at my friend and said, ‘Well, I can’t let that happen’, and shot him again. After my first kill I was congratulated.”

Turner explained one reason why establishment media reporting about the occupation in the U.S. has been largely sanitised. “Anytime we had embedded reporters, our actions changed drastically,” he explained. “We did everything by the books, and were very low key.” To conclude, an emotional Turner said, “I want to say I’m sorry for the hate and destruction that I and others have inflicted on innocent people. It is not okay, and this is happening, and until people hear what is going on this is going to continue. I am no longer the monster that I once was.”

[If this is true – which I suspect it is – what does that say about the war in Iraq and the larger so-called War on Terror? How can a supposedly Just war be fought with patently unjust methods. Because ‘we’ are the Good Guys in this does that mean anything goes if it ‘gets the job done’? How many people will hate everything we stand for for generations because of actions taken in Iraq and Afganistan today? Is the inevitable ‘blow-back’ worth it? What on earth are we doing to people ‘over there’ – both to the Iraqi people and our own soldiers? Is it really worth the cost in blood and anguish? I think not.]