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

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween.
How Can This Bloody Failure Be Regarded as a Good War?

by Seumas Milne for The Guardian

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Enthusiasts for the catastrophe that is the Iraq war may be hard to come by these days, but Afghanistan is another matter. The invasion and occupation that opened George Bush’s war on terror are still championed by powerful voices in the occupying states as - in the words of the New York Times this week - “the good war” that can still be won. While speculation intensifies about British withdrawal from Basra, there’s no such talk about a retreat from Kabul or Kandahar. On the contrary, the plan is to increase British troop numbers from the current 7,000, and ministers, commanders and officials have been hammering home the message all summer that Britain is in Afghanistan, as the foreign secretary, David Miliband, insisted, for the long haul.

“We should be thinking in terms of decades,” the British ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, declared; Brigadier John Lorimer, British commander in Helmand province, thought the military occupation might last more than Northern Ireland’s 38 years; and the defence secretary, Des Browne, last week confirmed that the government had made a “long-term commitment” to stay in Afghanistan to prevent it reverting to a terrorist training ground. Even allowing for the Brown government’s need for political cover if it is indeed to run down its forces in Iraq, that all amounts to a pretty clear policy of indefinite occupation - one on which it has not thought necessary to consult the British people, let alone the Afghans. All this follows the escalation of Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan last year, when Browne’s predecessor, John Reid, sent thousands of extra troops to the south to “help reconstruction”, hoping they would be a able to leave “without firing a single shot”. Two million rounds of ammunition later, what was supposed to be a peacekeeping mission is now an all-out war against a resurgent Taliban that has become an umbrella for Pashtun nationalists, jihadists and all those determined to fight foreign occupation. British casualties have risen sharply - seven have been killed in the past month - along with those of other western forces, while the public at home is increasingly fed a media diet of Kiplingesque deeds of derring-do by “our boys” on the front line. And in a telling echo of the claims that have punctuated each phase of the Iraq disaster, Browne last week said he detected a “turning point” in the British campaign to “bring stability” to Afghanistan. For Afghans, six years after they were supposed to have been liberated, life is getting worse. As the International Committee of the Red Cross reported two months ago, the humanitarian situation is deteriorating and civilians are suffering “horribly” from growing insecurity and violence in an increasingly dirty war. The fighting in the south has driven 80,000 from their homes, and the civilian casualty rate has doubled over the past year: more than 200 were killed by US and other Nato troops in June alone - far more than are estimated to have been killed in Taliban attacks. The savagery of indiscriminate US aerial bombardments provoked violent demonstrations and is widely seen as having increased support for the Taliban’s armed campaign.

Given the manifest failure of the occupation to bring either peace or development to Afghanistan, it’s not immediately obvious why it’s still considered by some to be a good war - though a majority of Britons, Canadians, Italians and Germans, it should be said, want their troops withdrawn. Partly it must be the fact that the original invasion was launched in response to the 9/11 attacks - which turned out to have been at least partly coordinated from al-Qaida’s Afghan camps - and had some measure of UN acquiescence (even if the relevant resolutions didn’t actually mention Afghanistan). Added to that is the oppressive and obscurantist record of the Taliban regime and the elite fear that military failure will fatally undermine the projection of western power in future. But by intervening on one side of an ethnically charged civil war to overthrow the Taliban - rather than, say, targeting special forces against al-Qaida - the US and its allies ended up exchanging warlords for theocrats and turning most of the country into a collection of lawless and brutal fiefdoms. Instead of al-Qaida terror networks being rooted out, they were allowed to migrate to the borderlands, Pakistan and Iraq; Osama bin Laden, whose capture was the first aim of the war, escaped; and the limited expansion of women’s and girls’ freedoms in Kabul and a few other urban areas was offset by an eruption of rape and violence against women. Western politicians like to describe the Afghan government as democratically elected, when in fact the elections were marked by large-scale fraud and intimidation in polls that gave regional warlords pride of place, while political parties were not allowed to take part. In real life, occupied Afghanistan is, as the UN warned last year, a failed state, which now produces 90% of the world’s opium and where corruption and insecurity have sunk reconstruction.

Of course there was a time, in the 1970s and 1980s, when girls were encouraged to go to school and university in Afghanistan, women accounted for almost half the country’s teachers and civil servants and the government redistributed land to the rural poor. But the US spent billions of dollars to destroy it in a cold war coup de grace and laid the foundations for the jihadist Frankenstein of al-Qaida in the process. Gordon Brown now claims Afghanistan is “the frontline against terrorism”. In reality, the key to the al-Qaida threat lies in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and the dictatorial regimes the west sponsors there, while its support is fuelled by the occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. Britain is now fighting its fourth war in Afghanistan in 170 years, and might have learned by now that you cannot impose a government from outside against a people’s will. Earlier this summer the Afghan senate called for a date to be set for the withdrawal of foreign troops and negotiations with the Taliban, as did the Pakistani foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, this month. There will be no peace or stability in Afghanistan while foreign troops remain, and a wider settlement will surely have to include the Taliban and regional powers such as Iran and Pakistan. Unfortunately, politics dictates that a great deal more blood is likely to be shed on both sides before that comes to be accepted.

[Something suitably horrific for Halloween…. Two years on after this article and nothing has changed. Only another thirty years to go. Will anything have changed by then – apart from the casualty figures? I’m guessing not. What a complete waste of time, effort, money and blood Afghanistan is. If we haven’t learnt it by now – not only from our own experience but also from the Russian one – I suppose we never will.]

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Just Finished Reading: The White Plague by Frank Herbert

When John Roe O’Neill visited Ireland to attend a conference on Micro-biology he had no idea how it would change his life and the lives of billions of others around the world. His wife and two young children happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and are killed by an IRA car bomb. After the funeral John vows revenge – not only against the perpetrators of the attack but of the system that produced them and the world that allowed them to exist. Using his skill as a micro-biologist John develops a virus that specifically targets women. Any woman who encounters it dies within days and every man who comes into contact with it becomes a carrier. As the bomb deprived him of his wife so he intends to deprive everyone of their wives, mothers and daughters. So begins the end of the world and the collapse of human civilisation.

At 628 pages this book was at least 200 pages too long. The premise was an interesting one – that a single individual with enough knowledge and moderate resources could produce a very powerful weapon indeed. The White Plague goes far beyond the cheap mans nuclear weapon however by unravelling the very fabric of human existence. The examination of the political fallout and military response to the plague was by far the best part of the book and was, in my opinion, handled pretty much as I would expect a real outbreak to be handled – with harsh quarantines and the ruthless response to any outbreak. The realpolitik was very believable but the longest, dullest and most unrealistic part of the book centred on O’Neill’s return to Ireland to see for himself the results of his handy work. Not only were the Irish characters – to a man and woman – totally unrealistic in my mind but the whole feel of the place was dead wrong. It jarred so much that I really couldn’t get beyond it and simply enjoy the story. It was actually rather disappointing that someone who could write Dune could also write this. Sadly not recommended.

Monday, October 26, 2009

My Favourite Movies: The Thing from Another World

This classic 1951 movie is a delight to watch. It tells the story of a flying saucer – literally circular – that crashes in the Arctic near an American scientific base. When a team fly out to inspect the crash they accidently destroy the ship but manage to bring back a lone survivor frozen in the ice. When the alien is accidently thawed out it soon becomes clear that it did not come to Earth to engage in philosophical conversation. It quickly become obvious that it’s going to be a fight for survival between the plant-like alien and the warm blooded humans whom it regards as simple nourishment. As the scientists continue to investigate the creature it becomes apparent that it can reproduce by seeding any suitable ground. With that in mind the airmen at the base decide to kill it – if they can – to save mankind from an invasion from the stars.

It’s difficult to imagine after the subsequent 50 years of movie making just how awesome this movie must have been in 1951. Its semi-documentary style puts you right in the middle of the action. The characters are very realistic – especially the flight team – as they banter (I’m guessing a good deal of adlibbing was going on here) and talk across each other throughout the entire movie. It’s fascinating to watch. Either the script writer was particularly adept or the actors cooked up the dialogue between them. It just seemed real. Another delight to watch is the relationship between the air force captain Hendry (played by Kenneth Toby) as his new girlfriend Nikki (played by Margaret Sheridan). You really don’t hear/see that kind of high speed intelligent dialogue any more. Both parties were obviously having a lot of fun on screen and it really showed – despite the fact that they were apparently fighting for their lives at the time. The creature – played by James Arness of all people – was neither here nor there being merely big and menacing. The action was sporadic but suitably claustrophobic with some serious ‘jump’ moments that no doubt had dates painfully gripping their boyfriend’s arms. Taken in context and the time it was released this is a cracking little film that certainly deepened my love of the genre both in film and book format. Highly recommended as both classic SF and 1950’s nostalgia.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


By AC Grayling for The Guardian

Saturday March 9, 2002

My hero is he who wins praise without bloodshed - Martial

March comes in like a lion, so the saying has it, and in respect of the peculiarly vicious escalation of violence in the Middle East, Afghanistan and India since the month began, the saying has a ghastly aptness - recalling the image in Shakespeare of a maddened lion with bloody mouth, tearing everything before it, an emblem of what issues from despair and hatred. The active participants in these conflicts are doubtless thought heroes by the constituencies of anger that they represent. They include the suicide bomber, the jihadi with his Kalashnikov in a mountain cave, the sectarian with his club and the firebrand intent on murder. In all cases they oppose professional, well-equipped soldiers, who in turn are thought heroic by those who see them as protectors of order.

Heroism is typically thought a warrior virtue, and it is true that, in the absence of enough fanaticism or rage to make it unnecessary, "it indeed takes courage to fight implacable enemies with guns and bombs, given that they answer in kind". In self-defence against malign aggression, or in the interests of principle, such courage would deserve the name of heroism. But all other fighting and killing, squabbling and destroying, never does. On the contrary, heroism is first and foremost the property of peace-makers. It takes infinitely greater courage to salvage a people or an epoch from conflict than to start or continue it. The outstanding figures of our time, among whom Nelson Mandela is the exemplar, are those who seek reconciliation, agreement, forgiveness - very milksop notions, no doubt, in the view of people who think it cleverer to let their guns do their thinking and talking.

Such folk would scarcely merit even our contempt if it were not that their way of solving problems does such fantastic harm, and if it were not that there is an organised means of supplying them the wherewithal. Those who oppose them not with returned gunfire but with offers of peace are as high above them morally as Everest is above a worm cast. Nathaniel Hawthorne remarked that "a hero cannot be a hero unless in an heroic world". This is profoundly untrue. It is when the world has become sullied and degraded by violent quarrels, when reason has yielded to frenzy, when all human feeling has been boiled into hatred, that true heroism might flourish, if it can be found. Part of the reason is that peacemakers usually have first to face the animosity of their own side, which regards them as traitors and weaklings. They will be in the uncomfortable position, at least for a time, of being better regarded by enemies than by friends. The people who could best thank them, if they were able to understand what was done for them, would be those not yet born - next year's children, or in the longer term, the beneficiaries of a generation which had the blessing of growing up in peace.

The medieval Muslim sage Sa'di wrote, "Even if you could tear the head off an elephant, if you are without humanity you are no hero." That is the key. There is a quiet but not so small heroism of the moral life which is crucial here. It is very much easier to be intolerant, angry, jealous and resentful than it is to be generous, patient, kind and considerate. Without question it takes far more thought, and far more work, to treat others from the standpoint of these virtues than from that of those vices, which is why the latter are so prevalent. Each of the world's current conflicts needs just two individuals, leaders on opposing sides, to stand up, meet, talk, keep clearly in view some image - a child blinded or limbless because of bombing, say; and to agree a fixed determination not to use large-scale murder as a way of managing differences. On that basis, real hope can enter the picture. This is of course an extremely hard thing to achieve; but it is why such individuals, if they were to appear, would be very great heroes indeed.

[Wise words indeed.]

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Just Finished Reading: The Dragons of Eden – Speculations on the Evolution of Intelligence by Carl Sagan

I’ve seen Carl Sagan many times on TV but have never read any of his books. This, I thought, was an ideal way to start. Sagan begins with a brief discussion of deep time comparing, the age of the Earth to a single day. We are, he states, a very new kid on the block. Over geological time he shows how brain size, both in absolute terms and in relation to body mass, has tended to increase and also how the brain has developed with the addition of layers on top of existing earlier brain types. This is very important in explaining why we do the things we do and behave in ways that we do. Earlier brains are not ditched by evolution and replaced by better ones. Evolution provides us with upgrades built upon existing older foundations. This, Sagan uses, to explain not only our emotions but also our dreams.

Sagan provides many examples, and quite a few entertaining diversions along the way, to explain how we arrived at our understanding of brain function. Of course this book was published in 1977 so some things have moved on quite a bit since then. Some of his speculations – from what happened to the dinosaurs to the future of computer technology have proven to be very wide of the mark. Such is the pleasure, at least for me, of reading old books about science and technology. As far as I can tell, not being a biologist, his knowledge of brain functions and brain evolution is sound. This is one of the few recent books I’ve read on the subject – having been rather neglectful of my science education of late. However, I will be addressing that deficit (in spades) over the coming year.

Overall I found this book an easy read and a fairly gentle re-introduction to the subject. For anyone approaching evolution for the first time or after a long break this is a good book to ease yourself into things. But you should always be aware that this is only one slice of the cake and a rather out of date one at that. Use it as a springboard to other works that will both deepen and broaden your knowledge. I know that I’m going to do just that. Recommended.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Unspeak – Words are Weapons by Steven Poole

I’ve been dipping into this book for a while and thought that it was about time I actually finished it. Unspeak is a timely reminder that the words people use, abuse and often choose very carefully indeed are usually nothing like what they appear to be on first hearing. Phrases such as ‘sound science’, ethnic cleansing’ and (my particular favourite) ‘collateral damage’ pepper not only the sound-bites of politicians but drip off the tongues of journalists and, all too easily, become part of everyday speech without giving them the consideration they deserve. Steven Poole gives them that consideration and then some. He analyses with great aplomb and not a little humour the words and phrases we hear everyday on the news and read in our newspapers. After reading this timely volume you’ll never quite listen to ‘buzzwords’ in the same way. But be warned though – this book will (probably) increase your scepticism and cynicism whenever you hear that ‘enemy combatants’ are planning ‘outrages’ against ‘coalition forces’ or when ‘repetitive administration’ is used on ‘terrorist suspects’ after they have been successfully ‘rendered’.

This book is definitely one for those who would like to read between the lines and behind the banner headlines. It will make you pause, consider and think before you accept the words being used – often with deliberate intelligence – to make you react in certain ways and to believe certain things without seeming to do so. When words are accepted at face value it is difficult if not impossible to wonder what they really mean and to consider why one word or phrase was used instead of another. Especially when speech writers produce the sound-bites we know and hate we must realise that such things are crafted artificial ways of getting words inside our heads hopefully bypassing our critical faculties. This book will help everyone to build up those faculties and reduce the chance of us being manipulated by those who want our votes or our money. Highly recommended. Read it today.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

My Favourite Movies: Gorky Park

This was one of my favourite movies of the 1980’s probably because of William Hurt who plays the lead character Arkady Renko. Renko is a Soviet State police investigator called in on a case of three mutilated corpses found under the snow in Moscow’s Gorky Park. Suspecting KGB involvement he wants to ditch the case as soon as possible but needs just enough evidence to warrant it being passed over to State Security. Despite finding links to American businessman Jack Osborne (played by Lee Marvin who sleepwalks through his role) his political bosses tell him to keep investigating. Realising that he is being used as a pawn in a high level power game in the Kremlin, Renko can apparently do little except keep himself alive as he tries to uncover what is really going on. Along the way he discovers the love of his life Irina (played by the newcomer Joanna Pacula) a social misfit desperate to defect to the West and freedom. In the final analysis he must choose between his own safety and Irina’s dreams.

I can’t remember if I read the Martin Cruz Smith book first or saw the film first. Either way I was impressed by the attention to detail and the ‘feel’ of both the book and the film. I’ve recently read the third book in the Renko series (Red Square) which is equally as good as his first novel. The thing that stood out for me more than anything else is the way Hurt played Renko. In an almost bumbling style – not too dissimilar to one of my all-time favourite TV detectives Columbo - he slowly puts the pieces together to crack the case wide open. Meanwhile his opponents, both criminal and political, fail to see that the plodding policeman exterior hides a mind like a steel trap. Once Renko is on the case he will never let go and never give up. His relentlessness and his understanding of the human condition – to say nothing of his native intelligence – actually puts him head and shoulders above everyone else. With a typically 80’s feel to it this is a well scripted, well acted and well shot thriller. Renko is a superb character that no doubt will be giving me pleasure for years to come – so long as his creator produces new novels for him to live in. Inevitably whenever I read his novels post Gorky Park I always ‘see’ Hurt as Renko in my minds eye. But this is no bad thing as, as far as I’m concerned, Hurt is Renko. Watch and be impressed.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Just Finished Reading: The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud

Like most other people I’ve obviously heard of Freud but have never actually read anything by him. This book – consisting of two of Freud’s essays The Future of an Illusion (originally publish in 1927) and Mourning and Melancholia (originally published in 1917) – is part of the Penguin Great ideas series I’m slowly working my way through. I’m feeling the need to read original works that have shaped our culture and this series is one part of that attempt.

The Future of an Illusion is Freud’s musings on religion – specifically Western Christianity. I was somewhat surprised, though I guess I shouldn’t have been, that not only did I agree with many of the larger themes of this essay but I actually agreed with nearly every word he wrote. Indeed I regretted not reading this sooner as it would have been a useful additional source for my recent dissertation. Freud analyses the origins of religion – from the psychoanalytical view point of God being a representation and projection of the child’s version of their father as well as a natural defence mechanism to the uncertainty, fear and unpredictability of life for early humans. I pretty much agreed with him totally here – even with the whole father thing, though I am far from a believer in psychoanalysis! Freud basically puts forward the idea that religion is essentially a childish response, on a cultural level, to life in a harsh, unforgiving and indifferent universe. The idea of God is comforting and basically helps to take the rough edges off reality. Freud believes that the whole of humanity is neurotic in its response to the harsh realities of life which is why religion is so pervasive. It is the result of the general difficulty in coming to terms with things as they really are and the subsequent flight into illusion. Where I disagreed with him was in his optimism that we could, on a cultural level, outgrow our attachment to religion by basically having a more adult relationship with reality. He thought that, in time, we would simply grow out of God. Well, I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon! As an essay in cultural analysis this was a very interesting document and despite his reputation for being more that a little ‘out there’ was a very readable piece.

Mourning and Melancholia was a short essay – about 25 pages long – discussing the link between mourning for the loss of a loved one and normal depression. I only managed to get half way through this before I gave it up as unreadable psychoanalytical nonsense. I skim read the last ten or so pages to see if it got any better – it didn’t. Despite that I am looking forward to another piece of Freud’s cultural analysis in the series and hope that it’s every bit as interesting as The Future of an Illusion.

Monday, October 12, 2009

War and Peace Prizes

by Howard Zinn for The Guardian

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I was dismayed when I heard Barack Obama was given the Nobel peace prize. A shock, really, to think that a president carrying on two wars would be given a peace prize. Until I recalled that Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Henry Kissinger had all received Nobel peace prizes. The Nobel committee is famous for its superficial estimates, won over by rhetoric and by empty gestures, and ignoring blatant violations of world peace.

Yes, Wilson gets credit for the League of Nations – that ineffectual body which did nothing to prevent war. But he had bombarded the Mexican coast, sent troops to occupy Haiti and the Dominican Republic and brought the US into the slaughterhouse of Europe in the first World War, surely among stupid and deadly wars at the top of the list. Sure, Theodore Roosevelt brokered a peace between Japan and Russia. But he was a lover of war, who participated in the US conquest of Cuba, pretending to liberate it from Spain while fastening US chains on that tiny island. And as president he presided over the bloody war to subjugate the Filipinos, even congratulating a US general who had just massacred 600 helpless villagers in the Phillipines. The Committee did not give the Nobel prize to Mark Twain, who denounced Roosevelt and criticised the war, nor to William James, leader of the anti-imperialist league.

Oh yes, the committee saw fit to give a peace prize to Henry Kissinger, because he signed the final peace agreement ending the war in Vietnam, of which he had been one of the architects. Kissinger, who obsequiously went along with Nixon's expansion of the war, with the bombing of peasant villages in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Kissinger, who matches the definition of a war criminal very accurately, is given a peace prize!

People should be given a peace prize not on the basis of promises they have made – as with Obama, an eloquent maker of promises – but on the basis of actual accomplishments towards ending war, and Obama has continued deadly, inhuman military action in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Nobel peace committee should retire, and turn over its huge funds to some international peace organization which is not awed by stardom and rhetoric, and which has some understanding of history.

[Initially I thought it was a joke. President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize. As much as I like the guy – OK was blown away by his public speaking – I hardly think that his rhetoric or his actions to date warrant such an award. I mean he’s the Commander in Chief of armed forces involved in two wars one of which (at least) is of questionable legality. He presides over a military force based throughout the world and one which is financed in excess of the next 10-15 countries combined. So what exactly has he done (or even promised to do) to earn this prize? I am, as they say, officially confused.]

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Plan to teach military robots the rules of war

by Tom Simonite for New Scientist

18 June 2009

Technology has always distanced the soldiers who use weapons from the people who get hit. But robotics engineer Ron Arkin at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, is working to imagine wars in which weapons make their own decisions about wielding lethal force. He is particularly interested in how such machines might be programmed to act ethically, obeying the rules of engagement. Arkin has developed an "ethical governor", which aims to ensure that robot attack aircraft behave ethically in combat, and is demonstrating the system in simulations based on recent campaigns by US troops, using real maps from the Middle East.

In one scenario, modelled on a situation encountered by US forces in Afganistan in 2006, the drone identifies a group of Taliban soldiers inside a defined "kill zone". But the drone doesn't fire. Its maps indicate that the group is inside a cemetery, so opening fire would breach international law. In another scenario, the drone identifies an enemy vehicle convoy close to a hospital. Here the ethical governor only allows fire that will damage the vehicles without harming the hospital. Arkin has also built in a "guilt" system which, if a serious error is made, forces a drone to start behaving more cautiously. You can see videos of these simulations on Arkin's website. In developing the software, he drew on studies of military ethics, as well as discussions with military personnel, and says his aim is to reduce non-combatant casualties. One Vietnam veteran told him of soldiers shooting at anything that moved in some situations. "I can easily make a robot do that today, but instead we should be thinking about how to make them perform better than that," Arkin says.

Simulations are a powerful way to imagine one possible version of the future of combat, says Illah Nourbakhsh, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, US. But they gloss over the complexities of getting robots to understand the world well enough to make such judgements, he says; something unlikely to be possible for decades. Arkin stresses that his research, funded by the US army, is not designed to develop prototypes for future battlefield use. "The most important outcome of my research is not the architecture, but the discussion that it stimulates." However, he maintains that the development of machines that decide how to use lethal force is inevitable, making it important that when such robots do arrive they can be trusted. "These ideas will not be used tomorrow, but in the war after next, and in very constrained situations."

Roboticist Noel Sharkey at Sheffield University, UK, campaigns for greater public discussion about the use of automating in war. "I agree with Ron that autonomous robot fighting machine look like an inevitability in the near future," he told New Scientist. Arkin's work shows the inadequacy of our existing technology at dealing with the complex moral environment of a battlefield, says Sharkey. "Robots don't get angry or seek revenge but they don't have sympathy or empathy either," he says. "Strict rules require an absolutist view of ethics, rather than a human understanding of different circumstances and their consequences." Yet in some circumstances, a strict rule-based approach is valuable. The Georgia Tech group has also made a system that advises a soldier of the ethical constraints on a mission as they program it into an autonomous drone. That kind of tool could see practical use much sooner, says Nourbakhsh: "Similar systems exist to help doctors understand the medical ethics of treatments." Arkin will discuss his latest results at the AUVSI Unmanned Systems conference in Washington, DC, in August.

[I don’t know if I’m thinking RoboCop here or maybe Ed-209. Clearly teaching machines ethics is decades away – at least – and may not be possible at all. I suppose that the military could programme machines with the Rules of Engagement, which is what some of the example above relate too rather than ethics per se, but teaching machines to fight ethically has the underwritten assumption that the particular war, or war in general, is an ethical undertaking in the first place. Would killer robots who accidently kill civilians simply shut down or blow an ethical fuse? How would a machine decide between limited ‘collateral damage’ and saving the lives of its fellow human soldiers? Do we have sophisticated enough programming languages to even code this kind of thing? It’s not exactly my area of expertise but I have serious doubts about it. What I think is a more fundamental question, however, is this: Do we want machines making life and death decisions for us? Are we ready to accept the implications of semi-autonomous machines the sole purpose of which is to kill people? Is that a future we really want our children to live in?]

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Just Finished Reading: The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby

I impulse bought this a few weeks ago whilst browsing through the 3 for 2 section in Waterstone’s bookstore. I’ve wondered for a while why the US was unique in its disbelief in Evolution for example. I hoped that this book could enlighten me on the subject. In some ways it did – at least partially.

Susan Jacoby attempts to answer this question: What is it about American Society that makes so many people anti-intellectual? Ultimately after a smidge over 300 pages I think she actually fails to answer that question – though she does provide some interesting hints and ideas along the way. The final destination might have been disappointing but the journey was generally worth it. Rather predictably, and somewhat inevitably, Jacoby points one of her fingers at the dumbing effects of television. To an extent I can agree with her. It is not unusual for me to cycle through every channel – however many there are – and discover that there is simply nothing worth watching and even less that is in any way challenging, mind expanding or remotely educational. Such things are, however, not particular to either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Her other major hobby horses are the decline in book readership and a similar decline in good conversation (sapped by the fact that everyone is watching the boob tube). Again I can agree with her up to a point. We seem to talk a lot these days – on mobile phones and on-line – but we don’t seem to be saying very much. I enjoy chatting as much as the next person but find that most conversations are ephemeral at best. The Art of Conversation is, I’m afraid, pretty much extinct. Regarding books and reading, I know several people who proudly boast that they have never read a book since school and wear such a declaration as a badge of honour. The average person – I read somewhere – reads on average three books a year. But I also see people reading books everywhere and I nearly always have to stand in line at bookshops. I can’t say for certain what it’s like in the US but books are far from dead over here.

Throughout her book Jacoby does point out some unique features of American society – as contrasted with European examples – that might point to the reason (she contends) that Americans are much more likely to be anti-intellectual (and by implication dumb) than other Western style countries. She mentions a lack of national educational standards and national agreed upon curricula. She, interestingly I thought, puts forward the idea that the lack of a State religion allows people who dissent to simply form one more to their liking rather than rebel against something thereby forcing themselves to think outside the box. She points to the Right’s ability to label the Left as Intellectuals and elitists who cannot be trusted because of the previous association with Communism. She lays a fair amount of blame at the door of the 60’s Counter-Culture and the Right-wing backlash both of which damaged the application of reasoned discourse. She blames the decline of serious magazines and the widespread dumbing down of culture to what people can absorb during the average visit to the toilet and, of course, she lays a great deal of blame at the feet of fundamentalists and the apparent growing number of people who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, an idea which is anathema to the very concept of critical thinking.

Despite all of this I don’t think she makes a strong enough case for American exceptionalism. Many of the things she points to happened in Europe too – though maybe not to the same extent. Yet intellectuals are still held up as heroes especially in Continental Europe and even here in the UK. I suppose that the obvious difference between both cultures is that of religion. Europe appears to be divesting itself of its love affair with ancient myths whist the US is unique in the West by not only retaining its religious beliefs but seemingly strengthening them. This in itself is very odd and needs to be explained. However, I don’t think that this phenomenon in itself can explain American unreason. So, although the book was interesting, informative and well argued I think that Susan Jacoby failed to make her case. Despite this I think that she gave it a good run for its money and made some very good points. I certainly know much more about the reasons behind American culture than I did before reading this book and I’m glad that I did so. Jacoby’s book is well written and will give readers much to think about. Recommended.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Socrates – A Very Short Introduction by C C W Taylor

For those who are familiar with the philosophy of Socrates there is one huge problem – the fact that he either never wrote anything down, or at least nothing of his writings have survived. This makes any analysis of his work rather difficult as we must interpret his thoughts through other writers – in particular Plato. This problem is covered in a fair amount of detail in the first half of the book – which wasn’t too bad as its only 106 pages long. It did get a bit tedious though.

The second half of the book examined Socrates’ thought as expressed in the writings of Plato and analysed some of his more famous dialogues. Interestingly Taylor seemed less than impressed with his inability to actually reach any meaningful conclusions rather than merely ask particularly awkward questions. Lastly Taylor discussed the effect Socrates had on other/later philosophers as varied as the Stoics, the Cynics and, naturally, the Medieval Christian philosophers who all claimed him as one of their own. It seems that Socrates is all things to all men.

Although this is an interesting work I found it rather slow going and too focused on a particular type of navel gazing. The second part was far more interesting when it managed to move away from the admittedly important question of ‘which Socrates’. I think this is one for someone already familiar with Ancient Philosophy and who is looking to deepen their knowledge of a particular area. Reasonable rather than openly recommended I think.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

People Can Handle the Truth About War

by Helen Thomas for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Friday, May 9, 2008

Some readers resented The Washington Post for publishing an Associated Press photograph of a critically wounded Iraqi child being lifted from the rubble of his home in Baghdad’s Sadr City “after a U.S. airstrike.” Two-year-old Ali Hussein later died in a hospital. As the saying goes, the picture was worth a thousand words because it showed the true horrors of this war. Neither side is immune from killing Iraqi civilians. But Americans should be aware of their own responsibility for inflicting death and pain on the innocent. The Post’s ombudsman, Deborah Howell, said about 20 readers complained about the photo, while a few readers praised The Post for publishing the stark picture on Page 1.

Some mothers said they were offended that their children might see the picture, though one wonders whether their youngsters watch television and play with violent videos in a pretend world. From the start of the unprovoked U.S. “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the government tried to bar the news media from photographing flag-draped coffins of American soldiers returning from Iraq. A Freedom of Information lawsuit forced the government to release pictures of returning coffins. Howell said some readers felt the photo of the Iraqi boy was “an anti-war statement; some thought it was in poor taste.” Well, so is war. Howell said her boss, Executive Editor Len Downie, “is cautious about such photos.” “We have seldom been able to show the human impact of the fighting on Iraqis,” Downie was quoted as saying. “We decided this was a rare instance in which we had a powerful image with which to do so.” It’s unclear to me why this was deemed to be “rare.” After five years of war, there is finally one photo that is supposed to say it all? Howell said she checked hundreds of U.S. front pages on the Internet but saw the AP photo nowhere else.

That makes me wonder why the media have shied away from telling the story about Iraqi civilian casualties. News people and editors were more courageous during the Vietnam War. What are they afraid of now? Who can forget the shocking picture of the little Vietnamese girl running down a road, aflame from a napalm attack? And who can forget the picture of South Vietnamese Police Chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan putting a gun to the temple of a young member of the Viet Cong and executing him on a Saigon street? I don’t remember any American outcry against the media for showing the horror of war when those photographs were published. Were we braver then? Or maybe more conscience stricken? Of course, the Pentagon did not enjoy such images coming out of Saigon in that era. Most Americans found them appalling, as further evidence of our misbegotten venture in Vietnam. Americans rallied to the streets in protest and eventually persuaded President Lyndon Johnson to give up his dreams of re-election in 1968. Some Americans believe the media were to blame for the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. Nonsense.

Johnson knew the war was unwinnable, especially after the 1968 Tet offensive and the request by Army Gen. William Westmoreland for 200,000 more troops, in addition to the 500,000 already in Vietnam. The Pentagon made a command decision after the Vietnam War to get better control of the dissemination of information in future wars. That led then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to create an office of disinformation at the start of the Iraqi war. It was later disbanded after howls from the media. More recently, we have seen the Pentagon’s propaganda efforts take the form of carefully coaching retired generals about how to spin the Iraq war when they appear on television as alleged military experts. The New York Times’ revelations about those pet generals have cast a pall over their reputations. Too often in this war, the news media seem to have tried to shield the public from the suffering this war has brought to Americans and Iraqis. It’s not the job of the media to protect the nation from the reality of war. Rather, it is up to the media to tell the people the truth. They can handle it.

[It’s important that we know what war is really like. Because when we know what we are sending our men and women into we are more likely to pause and think about why we are fighting. It seems sometimes that we see bodies coming back from Afghanistan on a daily basis on the nightly news. Although not a daily event – thankfully – it most certainly seems that way. I always think, when I hear that yet another soldier has died, just what the hell we’re doing there in the first place. It seems to me at least that we are wasting the lives of our young men and women for – what exactly? I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer to that question from anyone – military or civilian. If we saw the horror and futility of war on our news screens night after night we would have far fewer wars because we would know and be sickened by the consequences of going to war in far away places for……..what? ]

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Just Finished Reading: White Jazz by James Ellroy

LA. 1958. The FBI have begun gathering information on sports gambling in the south of the city. When a prime witness commits suicide under suspicious circumstances whilst in protective custody suspicion naturally falls on the LAPD. When evidence is lost and witnesses are killed in apparent gang-related hits it becomes increasingly clear that a wide ranging turf war is being fought. The only surprising thing is that both sides in the conflict are the police. Right in the middle of things is Lieutenant Dave Klein, police officer, lawyer, slum landlord and hired mob gunman. Caught between the two opposing forces and manipulated by both he needs to understand what is happening around him just to stay breathing. In an effort to save his own life and that of his sister he must play both sides off against each other knowing that the consequences of failure are deadly – to everyone around him.

I struggled with the first 50 pages of this book. I generally find Ellroy a tough read but this was tougher that I expected. The problem was the writing style – not only the liberal use of late 50’s slang but the staccato sentences used, I imagine, to represent the main characters thought processes. Once I got the hang of the style I settled into a fairly easy, and occasionally fast, read. However, I cannot honestly say that I enjoyed this book. As my regular readers know only too well I do like characterisation almost above plot itself and although the characters in this novel are well drawn with fully formed internal lives, hopes and fears I could not find a single one of them I liked in the least. I failed to indentify with a single characteristic of a single character. That in itself is a rare event and one which I do not like. The plot was interesting enough and convoluted enough to be of more than passing interest but, I had no real investment in the characters who moved though it. My enjoyment of the book was, therefore, minimal. I must also warn those of a nervous or delicate disposition that this novel is heavily laden with homophobic, misogynistic and racist imagery. If you are in the least bit offended by such things I strongly advise you to avoid it. If you are made of sterner stuff then you might derive some pleasure from this work. I however derived very little.