Strange Loops - Blog Archive: June 2004
Strange Loops Journal Archive: June 2004

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June 27, 2004

Sticky summer night
And the company of bugs;
No humans around

I swat buzzing gnats
And hate where I am tonight -
Staring at a screen

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Anarchism as an Impediment to Anarchy
June 27, 2004
I'm continually impressed by Bob Black's writings on anarchy (I host a couple of his works on my site here and here, for those unfamiliar). He so clearly articulates many of the problems I have with anarchism while giving me faith that there is indeed something more to anarchy than the silliness of a rebellious subculture taking itself too seriously or the detached, academic analysis of armchair anarchist ideologues. For Black, anarchy is a way of living, of actually interacting and doing things.

D.P. Barron said: "Millions long for immortality who don't know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon." That thought could be analogously paraphrased to say many self-professed anarchists long for revolution who don't know how to live anarchically today. That is, a lot of anarchists are theoretically, ideologically aligned to anarchy, but are in reality so stuck in and addicted to life with hierarchy, coercion, authority (i.e. life under a state) that they only want anarchy in principle; if real anarchy landed on their doorsteps, they wouldn't know what to do with it.

In this article, hosted at the intriguing, Black describes this problem, and how anarchists (as ideologues) could actually get in the way of anarchy. I really want to excerpt a particularly salient point:

Anti-anarchists may well conclude that if there is to be hierachy and coercion, let it be out in the open, clearly labeled as such. Unlike these pundits (the right-wing "libertarians", the minarchists, for instance) I stubbornly persist in my opposition to the state. But not because, as anarchists so often thoughtlessly declaim, the state is not "necessary". Ordinary people dismiss this anarchist assertion as ludicrous, and so they should. Obviously, in an industrialized class society like ours, the state is necessary. The point is that the state has created the conditions in which it is indeed necessary, by stripping individuals and face-to-face voluntary associations of their powers. More fundamentally, the state's underpinnings (work, moralism, industrial technology, hierarchic organizations) are not necessary but rather antithetical to the satisfactions of real needs and desires. Unfortunately, most brands of anarchism endorse all these premises yet balk at their logical conclusion: the state. [italic emphasis added]

And that is the crux. What is anarchy? Statelessness, many will answer. No, Black says. Anarchy is life and living without these other, more basic things on which the state is built. Statelessness is an implication of anarchy, not a definition of it or sufficient condition for it. That is why I like Black's distinction (laid out in the first article I linked at the very top of this entry) between anarchists and anarchs: the former are the ideologues who argue for statelessness while wanting to keep the foundations of the state, while the latter are those who want to live life free of those foundations altogether - those who want not just removal of the state, but anarchy as a way of living freely in general.

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War Games
June 24, 2004
USAToday has an article on robotic battle vehicles being tested by the Air Force. The idea is to put the robot vehicles out there to take the hits so that our forces are less likely to be shot. Sounds like a no brainer, right?

A human always is in the loop because the military doesn't want to get into a "Robocop scenario" that gives machines complete discretion, Waltz said.

So far so good. We would want a buggy system out there shooting random civilians because it incorrectly diagnosed the lady running away with her baby clutched to her breast as a ruffian carrying a rocket launcher.

MDARS and Scout can be equipped with remotely fired weapons. An M-16 rifle and pepper sprayer are mounted on the Scout being tested here.

... The vehicles can be programmed to patrol specific areas on their own and then alert an operator by radio if they come across something suspicious. The machines then can be remotely operated from laptop computers to identify, detain or attack intruders.

Yes, these robotic vehicles will be not only armored but armed. What we have, then, is a remote-control death machine for city combat and the like. It not only will take the hits, but dish out punishment of its own.

What's the problem, then?

Jimenez said he has found the laptop controls easy to use. Technicians have accepted his suggestion to replace mouse controls with switches for some functions so they can be done quicker..."If somebody that uses Play Station or X-Box, that type of thing, it's right up their alley," Jimenez said.

There we have it, folks. Killing enemy soldiers has never been easier. Just sit down in this console over here (safely tucked away at base camp) and play this "training sim" for a while, Private Joebob. If you get high score for the most frags, we'll give you a medal.

Yeah, obviously the soldiers know it isn't a game. At the same time, taking the soldiers out of battle and letting them duke it out from the safety of a gaming console miles away has some disturbing implications.

War, Thomas Carlyle once said, is a quarrel between two thieves too cowardly to fight their own battle; therefore they take boys from one village and another village, stick them into uniforms, equip them with guns, and let them loose like wild beasts against each other. Fortunately, most of those boys are normal human beings who - training aside - are as revolted by violence and killing as the rest of us. A soldier who has to watch his enemy bleed and suffer and cry out and writhe and die will not take the act of killing lightly. A soldier who has to feel the blood on his hands will not pull the trigger easily.

However, when you remove these soldiers from the actual experience and translate it into a virtual game sort of reality, when you remove the visceral experience from the whole episode, you remove the safety mechanism that is built into our psyches that stops us from killing lightly, even in war. So the danger becomes not a robot going wild and killing indiscriminately on its own, but an operator being willing to pull a trigger, push a button, toggle a switch a little more willingly than he would be if he had to be there doing the deed himself.

What's the problem with shooting up the bad guys easier and with less bad memories for the U.S. vets, some might ask. The problem is that it is not always clear-cut who the enemy is and whether or not lethal force is required. To take an example, a group of soldiers in an occupied country may face an angry crowd of protestors, a couple of whom decide to throw some rocks from afar. This sort of situation has happened in the past, and sometimes the situation was diffused peacefully while other times the well-armed, heavily-armored soldiers opened fire and killed some people from the crowd (this sort of thing seems to happen almost daily when the Israeli Defense Force tanks and armored vehicles take on some Palestinian boys throwing rocks).

When the soldiers are there in the midst of things, they may feel more threatened than if they were in a console back at base, but at the same time they will have to see the faces of the panicked crowd if they do decide to use lethal force and begin killing - and this is one of the best deterrents against lightly killing innocents (or those whose enmity or threat-level is indeterminate). Once the soldiers no longer have to deal with such details, they may be more likely than before to follow the order to open fire on a crowd. Allowing them to kill using these remote-control vehicles could be just asking for abuse of power.

Of course, these remote-controlled death machines are not a new idea, just an up-to-date implementation. We have been using remote-controlled death machines for decades now, in the form of bombs and missiles. War has evolved. At one point in time, small armies met on a field and went at it, with the soldiers running into each other one on one and seeing themselves extinguish another human life. There's a reason morale among peasant armies broke so easily - when fighting for a feudal lord who has corralled you from your farm and put you on a field to kill these other guys who were similarly corralled by their lord, it's hard to keep up the killing without a really good reason.

But with time new technology evolved and we have archers firing from afar, cannon ripping down lines of troops, and then bombs and missiles taking out enemies (and civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time), all while their users operated from relative safety, and more importantly, far away from the blood, guts and death that their actions inflicted.

Without a powerful negative feedback mechanism, we actually got to the point where modern armies were willing to firebomb and nuke cities, killing hundreds of thousands of total innocents in a single day, all from afar. Could any man possibly stand there and shoot down that many innocent people one by one - no matter how good the cause - if he had to watch the corpses pile up at his feet, their pained expressions staring into his soul, their cries for family, for children, their horror as they grope at missing limbs...could any soldier possibly have killed the way our modern armies have killed without the technology to do so from afar?

It doesn't matter whether it's the Germans bombing London or the Americans bombing Tokyo; these things have been allowed to happen because war technology has evolved to remove the soldier from the experience of bloody personal combat. And that is why I am inherently afraid of technology like these robotic vehicles, no matter how noble their purpose.

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Torture Is A-Okay
June 15, 2004
First off, here's a link to a hilarious clip from the Daily Show on Ashcroft's refusal to release the internal Department of Justice memo approving of torture. The part with Sen. Biden ripping Ashcroft a new hole right to his face is alone worth the download.

Then, after watching the clip and watching Ashcroft refuse to even come up with a reason for not releasing the memo, go read the torture memo and figure out for yourself why he wouldn't want to release it. Freaky stuff, if you can follow along the legalese and cross-references to other laws. There's a quick-and-dirty one-page summary at the very bottom (from the LA Times) if you don't have the patience to wade through the memo itself. Some highlights from the summary to pique interest:

On the eve of the war in Iraq, Bush administration lawyers spelled out a strikingly broad view of the president's power that freed the commander in chief and U.S. military from the federal law and international treaties that barred the use of torture.

...In those [previous historical] instances, however, the president acted with the approval of Congress. Rarely, if ever, have the president's advisors claimed an authority to ignore the law as written by Congress.

...It said that as the commander in chief, he had a "constitutionally superior position" to Congress and an "inherent authority" to prosecute the war, even if it meant defying the will of Congress.

...In earlier memos, administration lawyers said the president could designate even American citizens arrested within the United States as "enemy combatants," and thus theoretically subject them to torture.

Seriously, this is creepy stuff. This is not prison abuse by grunts. This is not even abuse as directed from middle-level officers. This is all but official policy at the highest level of the executive, and not only does it attempt to provide legal justification for torture, but it attempts to usurp Congressional powers explicitly granted to the Legislative by the Constitution and claim as sort of supreme executive authority at odds with the legal opinion of Constitutional scholars everywhere.

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Sami Omar Al-Hussayen Innocent
June 12, 2004
Thank goodness a sane, rational jury still exists despite all the terrorism paranoia in the U.S. today. reports that Sami Omar Al-Hussayen was found innocent Thursday of the terrorism charges leveled against him. [More details and juror interviews here courtesy of the Spokesman Review]

I first blogged about Al-Hussayen over a year ago in February of 2003, and again in April and June of that year. The government was attempting to use the Patriot Act to prosecute Al-Hussayen for maintaining a news website which among countless other stories also ran op-ed pieces, some of which happened to be from radical Islamic figures who argued for suicide bombing as a tactic (the ethics of which is a somewhat common Middle-East debate, I've read, though the vast majority are on the side condemning it). Certainly, Al-Hussayen did not write any of these op-ed pieces, and their radical thrust was not the point of the website, but rather a rare few opinion editorials in a mainstream news site.

The government had alleged that the website was a tool for recruiting terrorists, which under the Patriot Act meant it would not classify as free speech. After six weeks of the prosecution presenting their 'evidence' (i.e. showing Al-Hussayen doing normal, innocent webmaster stuff), and a mere day of defense including just one witness (a long-time, high-level CIA Middle-East terrorism expert who testified that an innocent news site like this could not be used for or successful at recruiting terrorists), Al-Hussayen was cleared of the terrorism charges.

To convict him for his webmaster activities would have been like convicting the webmaster if they happened to run an op-ed piece from an radical Christian calling for the use of nuclear weapons against Islamic countries which supposedly harbor terrorists (something which I personally saw ran more than once in the wake of Sept., 2001). Both opinion pieces are deplorable in that they advocate the use of these horrendous tactics which knowingly target innocent civilians in order to terrorize a population or government. Yet no one would charge the webmaster for posting an opinion letter such as this from someone else, so why did Al-Hussayen have to spend over a year rotting in jail away from his family for doing the same thing? Simply because the site he worked on was Arabic, he was Middle-Eastern, and the Patriot Act allowed the government to bring such a ludicrous attack on free speech to trial in the first place.

Whether the more minor charges of VISA fraud (for not mentioning his charity work) will turn into convictions, I don't know. If he deliberately lied and it was about something he should not have lied about (i.e. he's guilty of an actual crime of some sort), then I say throw the book at him (though I wonder if perhaps the year he's spent in jail isn't enough punishment for a paperwork problem like this). But I am relieved that he was found innocent of the terrorism charges. It would have been a huge blow for free speech to have convicted someone not even for making questionable statements, but merely for being associated with a normal news website which on rare occasion ran such statements from other people as opinion pieces.

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June 12, 2004
"Human beings *do* metamorphose. They change their identity constantly. However, each new identity thrives on the delusion that it was always in possession of the body it has just conquered."
--Orson Scott Card (Xenocide)

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Playing Games With Your Mind
June 12, 2004
Washington University just released the results of a cool study involving human subjects controlling computer games hands-free by thought alone via an electronic grid placed on the patients' brains. Yeah, their technique may be extremely valuable for learning more about the brain, but I'm more interested in the applications of the technology in the near future.

For one thing, this could be great for people with disabilities who would save lots of time in using a computer (or other devices as the technology is generalized) compared to current interfaces. But I'm also stoked at the idea of playing competitive online games where the reactions are not limited to twitch responses on an imperfectly designed user interface involving keyboards and mice, but allow a user to control to their brain's full potential. Imagine a strategy game like Starcraft where orders can be given and units micro-managed with precision in real time in a way impossible given any current user interface - talk about taxing the multi-tasking part of the brain! I look forward to seeing how this technology further develops now that it has moved beyond monkeys to human tests.

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Quick Political Links
June 12, 2004
  • First, an article from Capitol Hill Blue about how DARPA's continuing work on their controversial and creepy Total Information Awareness program after Congress cut off funding for its development. Also, here is another article from the same source on TIA.

  • Next, an update on Jose Padilla. The Supremes are currently deciding whether the federal government can ditch an American citizen's Constitutional protections at its discretion and hold them incommunicado without lawyer, trial or any charges ever being filed. What do you know, the administration tries to sway the decision by releasing a short summary of its information on Padilla and why they grabbed him.

    What is missing, I assume, is their justification for not prosecuting him, sending him to trial to be convicted and sentenced. Apparently they think that if they can convince public opinion that Padilla is guilty, then they can avoid the hassle of actually giving him a trial. Next thing you know, they'll want to get rid of trials altogether and go back to the old absolute monarchy system where the executive branch dishes out whatever punishment it wishes to whoever it thinks or claims is guilty. Who needs an actual legal system to punish offenders, after all?

    Let me put it this way. Padilla may be as bad as the administration makes him out to be, but if the Supreme court lets this stand, the administration could end up with carte blanche ability to indefinitely detain countless other American citizens incommunicado contrary to their Constitutional guarantees, and nothing insures that this power will not be abused.

  • SecurityFocus has an article on an ACLU lawsuit challenging the FBI's power to use a certain type of secret 'national security letter' which forces ISPs to secretly turn over confidential personal information (including the email address of a client's associates) while making it illegal for the ISP to let anyone know that this has taken place. The power to do so was expanded with the Patriot Act to be used in cases even where there is no connection to terrorism or espionage (yet another example of how this alleged anti-terrorism law is rarely used to fight terrorism but increasingly used for normal domestic law enforcement - not an intended use of the extended powers which were granted without oversight in the hectic and frightening days following Sept. 11, 2001).

  • Finally, some important stories regarding torture practices as supported by the executive branch. Here's one from the Washington Post [requires free, unverified registration with a fake email] on the Pentagon's now-classified torture practices. The International Herald Tribune has an article on memos from Ashcroft and co. at the Dept. of Justice trying to provide or invent legal justification for torture. More on the same here from Reuters. Another article from the Wallstreet Journal is hosted here by Infoshop. Lastly, a recent NYTimes article on the torture story.

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  • Bilderberg 2004
    June 12, 2004
    This year's list of Bilderberg Conference participants has been published. Bilderberg is an annual get-together of the Western power elite - including government high-ups, the biggest international bankers and investors, etc. - held in secret out of the spotlight where members can speak freely without worrying about media coverage.

    Exactly what goes on there is, of course, unknown to the public at large, but considering the list of attendees past and present, as well as the secretive and expensive nature of the meetings, it is obvious that it is more than just light chat over coffee. Things happen there; strategies, deals and friendships are forged; global decisions are quietly made by the people who have the power to influence global events when they go back to work the next week. It may not be the grand conspiracy some make it out to be, but it is certainly a significant event, all the more significant because what goes on in the meeting is not shared with the world at large.

    Aside from those representing world governments (like British Parliament members), uber-rich players like the Rothschilds and Rockefellers, and some major bank, oil and corporate CEOs, a number of attendees come from the U.S., including:

  • U.S. Senators (e.g., presidential candidate John Edwards) and ambassadors
  • Douglas Feith (the neo-conservative who's third in rank at the Pentagon)
  • Henry Kissinger (the one and only, borderline war-criminal though he may be)
  • Richard Perle (the warmonger known in Washington as 'the prince of darkness')
  • Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations
  • President of the Federal Reserve Bank
  • President of the World Bank
  • Melinda Gates, wife of Bill Gates, and Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief technical officer

    Interestingly, Bush himself was touring Europe during this year's conference (much like Clinton being in the right place at the right time in 2000) and may have dropped by during his stop in Italy.

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  • Slow Blog Pace
    June 12, 2004
    As is probably obvious from the spare updates in the last couple months, I've taken on a slower blogging pace. I'm trying to learn some programming (C to start with), I've started an exercise program that takes a 2+ hour bite out of my day five or more days a week, and I'm hoping to get some more pleasure reading done than I managed in the last year. I'll continue posting stuff here like usual, but if a couple weeks go by without posts, it doesn't mean the blog has died, just check back in another week or two. Updates will probably come in spurts. Thanks for understanding.

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