The most sickening part of the Iraq war

December 5, 2006

War profiteering:

There are about 100,000 government contractors operating in Iraq, not counting subcontractors, a total that is approaching the size of the U.S. military force there, according to the military’s first census of the growing population of civilians operating in the battlefield.

[…]

It is also 10 times the estimated number of contractors that deployed during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, reflecting the Pentagon’s growing post-Cold War reliance on contractors for such jobs as providing security, interrogating prisoners, cooking meals, fixing equipment and constructing bases that were once reserved for soldiers.

[…]

In addition to about 140,000 U.S. troops, Iraq is now filled with a hodgepodge of contractors. DynCorp International has about 1,500 employees in Iraq, including about 700 helping train the police force. Blackwater USA has more than 1,000 employees in the country, most of them providing private security. Kellogg, Brown and Root, one of the largest contractors in Iraq, said it does not delineate its workforce by country but that it has more than 50,000 employees and subcontractors working in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. MPRI, a unit of L-3 Communications, has about 500 employees working on 12 contracts, including providing mentors to the Iraqi Defense Ministry for strategic planning, budgeting and establishing its public affairs office. Titan, another L-3 division, has 6,500 linguists in the country.

Translation – there are now over 100,000 individuals representing dozens of corporations in Iraq, there for no other purpose than to make money for themselves and their shareholders. Seriously, that just makes me sick to my gut.

Solution: initiate a draft, and start with military contractors. Not only would it mean the extra 100,000+ troops we’ve needed since before the war began, but think of the bundle we’d save paying these people soldier’s salaries instead of contractor salaries!

The Corporation released free on Bittorrent

November 24, 2006

If there’s any of you out there who haven’t seen this film already, now you have no excuse.

It’s time to reboot Star Trek

November 20, 2006

I had the good fortune to see an episode of the original Battlestar Galactica recently. I’d always heard it was pretty bad and wasn’t expecting much – but I was still struck by just how terrible it was. The Battlestar Galactica currently in its third season bares little resemblence to that poor scifi of decades past. The new one is brilliant more often than not – the writing is tight and socially relevant, the actors bring the characters alive, and the drama is gripping. The old one was just cheesy.

This contrast made me think about the original Star Trek, although this was a case where the reverse is true. The original series, while having no shortage of cheese, still managed to be charming. It’s the follow-ups that have progressively gotten worse, to the point that the franchise is now effectively dead. It’s been run into the ground by mishandling, poor writing, and cheese. It long ago abandoned the elements that made the original so charming, and instead lost itself in technobabble and incoherent plotlines. Especially after Voyager and Enterprise (not to mention the last few movies), salvaging any part of the morass that is Star Trek seems impossible even for the most skilled of writers. Perhaps more depressingly, it doesn’t even seem worth the effort.

Unless we were to give it a Battlestar Galactica style makeover.

So let’s reboot it. Go back to a clean slate. Re-imagine Roddenberry’s vision from the ground up and start over from the beginning. Let’s take that part of Star Trek that fans have loved for over forty years and make

Re-cast Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, etc. Maybe even shake up the bridge crew with a different character or two. Fans will bitch, but if it serves the story, then so be it. Make sure every one of those characters a thorough backstory. In the original Star Trek, they were memorable for their personalities, but all the characters were pretty much flat and one dimensional. Let’s see how they got to be where they are, or at least tell a story that’s self-consistent. Let’s have characters that evolve over time and are changed by their experiences.

Re-think the universe. Star Trek aliens always suffered from a monoculture, where entire races would have one personality shared between them. Let’s get away from that and flesh out some of these civilizations – or minimally, that of the Klingons and Vulcans. Both of them should have a culture and history at least as diverse as Earth’s. Their politics, and the politics of the Federation, should be at least as complex as ours. And while the show doesn’t have to embody hard sf, it should at least have internally consistent physics – it should decide on how warp drives, transporters, and replicators work and stick to that.

I could continue, but I’m sure you get the idea. Battlestar Galactica shows what can be done when a concept is given the treatment is deserves. Don’t you think it’s about time Star Trek got the same?

Who Killed Desktop Publishing?

November 16, 2006

Think about what you were doing with your PC in the mid-90’s, and what programs you used on it. There was MS Word and Excel (or perhaps WordPerfect and Lotus), which haven’t changed all that much over the years. You probably had a few games installed – Sim City, Carmen Sandiego, and Doom, to name a few. And if you’re like almost everyone I knew, you probably had Print Shop Deluxe (or MS Publisher, which came a little later).

I can’t remember a birthday party in the 90’s that wasn’t accompanied by that four foot banner that read “HAPPY BIRTHDAY X” in colorful letters, with low resolution confetti, cake, and party-hat clipart around the border. Sometimes it was printed on a paper-feed printer, other times it was taped together 8.5″ x 11″ sheets, but it was always there as part of the decorations. Then there were the cards, which were almost always 4.25″ x 5.5″ folded sheets of paper,with a stock greetings and a customized border. Occasionally, it would have a graphic chosen from massive clip art galleries that came on the CD-ROM.

What’s more, we thought that stuff was cool. Making it was a big deal to us, and everyone spent a lot of time doing it. Then it just sort of vanished; hardly anyone does it anymore.

The software is still there – Microsoft still makes Publisher and it comes with some versions of the MS Office suite. I’m sure there’s still some version of Print Shop Deluxe out there as well. And I still see flyers made with that software hanging on billboards and the such. But I don’t see the banners anymore, and I never receive those two-fold cards either.

So my question: Why’d it stop? I suppose it’s possible I just don’t go to the right birthday parties anymore, but I don’t think that’s the answer though. Somewhere along the line, our love affair with cheesy clipart and taped-together banners simply ended, and desktop publishing has become a lost art.

Not that I’m lamenting it’s loss, mind you. But it’s pretty curious how it just sort of faded into oblivion, and makes you wonder about what kind of stuff today might suffer a similar fate.

Wireless power

November 16, 2006

Somehow I missed this yesterday from the BBC:

US researchers have outlined a relatively simple system that could deliver power to devices such as laptop computers or MP3 players without wires.

If the technology can really be built, it has the potential to launch a small revolution. Think of the world before and after wi-fi, and what was possible before and after. Unbundling our devices from the tyranny of power cords stands to have similar applications, although I’d question how ubiquitous this could become and how quickly.

In general, it seems we’re on the cusp of something big as far as power goes. Not just with potential wireless technology, but everything related to energy: power management, battery technology, and energy efficiency are all due for a major overhaul. I think there’s finally some real market pressure to find ways to reduce the energy costs of computing, as power turns out to be a lot more critical when it comes to large datacenters than processor speeds. Similarly, the seemingly endless battery recalls of the past year illustrates how we’ve basically hit the wall as that technology goes, even as demand for better performance continues to increase.

NASA considering manned mission to asteroid

November 16, 2006

Space.com:

NASA is appraising a human mission to a near-Earth asteroid—gauging the scientific merit of the endeavor while testing out spacecraft gear, as well as mastering techniques that could prove useful if a space rock ever took aim for our planet.

It’s official: NASA takes their cues from bad Bruce Willis movies.

I guess we should look on the bright side though, maybe next they’ll start to work on that gun from The Fifth Element.

Midterms 2006: Wisdom of the crowds, or something else?

November 9, 2006

The Democrats did it. Those crazy sons of bitches actually did it. Right now, the Democrats look to have gained control of the Senate in addition to their victory in the House. Wow. I really can’t get over just how stunning a victory it is – this seemed beyond impossible not all that long ago.

Like many others, I’m thrilled about it – not because I’m a great fan of the Democrats (I’m not), but because I hope it will bring back some semblance of balance and accountability to the federal government.

The results are almost enough to restore my faith in this country and democracy itself. Almost. Because while it’s easy to look at this and say “democracy finally worked”, I look at these results and wonder if that’s really what happened.

Just take a look at the Senate races in Virginia and Montana – the Democrats barely squeaked by in both (and a recount may yet happen in Virginia). They won by less than a third of a percent in both states – in absolute terms, that’s just a few thousand votes.

What would it have taken to sway either of those elections? It’s not difficult to imagine that bad weather in a heavily Democratic district that would have suppressed turnout (or conversely, there’s no way of knowing that that didn’t happen to a Republican district). Or any combination of other factors that could have led to a difference of 8,000 votes that have nothing to do with politics – heavy traffic, e-voting glitches, variations in either voter suppression tactics or get out the vote efforts.

In other words, it seems to me that chance had as much to do with the final result as anything else. It was a coin flip.

I’m usually a big proponent of using network effects and the wisdom of the crowds to discern signal from noise, but I don’t think that our electoral process has precision down to a fraction of a percent. The crowds didn’t speak clearly at all this past election, certainly not in Virginia.

On the other hand, it’s notable that almost every close race broke for the Democrats, which does point to something more than chance going on, so maybe I’m completely off base here.

But then again, if the crowds were really wise they’d have booted both these parties out, in their entirety, a long long time ago.

Thoughts on the election results

November 8, 2006

This is perhaps the most significant story to come out of yesterday’s election, although it’s one that will likely get overlooked amongst the other more obvious implications of yesterday’s results.

Young voter turnout in a set of targeted precincts increased by an average of 50% over the 2002 election, and by as much as 111% in some precincts, according to an Election Night analysis by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), continuing a national trend of growing young voter participation that began in the 2004 election.

I’m waiting a little bit to see what the final analysis yields, but my gut says that this is the first wave of the internet generation. This turnout was driven by unprecedented ease of political engagement and access to information. And I’ll wager that for this generation, it all came from MySpace, Facebook, the blogosphere, YouTube and Google. I’ll also wager none watch CNN or listen to AM radio.

At the risk of overstatement: Politics just returned to the people.

Lost moon tapes found

November 1, 2006

You really have to wonder about a group of people who can put a man on the moon, but can’t keep track of anything here on Earth.

A bunch of tapes containing the only long term data of the moon’s surface conditions seems to have turned up in an Australian lecture hall, where they’ve evidently been for the better part of the last three decades. Sadly though, there’s still no word on the missing video footage from the moon landing.

Sports cause crime; porn and violent movies don’t

October 31, 2006

From the Freakonomics blog:

That is the argument of Sebastien Roche, a French political scientist. In writing about the French riots last year, Roche has challenged the conventional wisdom that sports provide a good outlet for young men and perhaps keeps them out of trouble. To the contrary, Roche contends, “the practice of sport never reduces the number of crimes” and, furthermore, sports can even “give the opportunity to develop physical abilities useful for street crime: running, how to use impulsive behaviour, how to master the use of force.”

This strikes me as a fascinating subject, and an interesting argument, although the proof offered by Roche and his like-minded colleagues seems very thin. Their research is based on interviews with young men and shows that the more time a young man spends playing sports, the more likely he is to have committed a serious crime. But does this mean that sports are the culprit? Couldn’t it just as easily mean that the kind of young man who’s criminally inclined a) doesn’t have a job; and b) therefore has a lot of free time; which c) he spends playing sports? The argument that sports and violence go hand and hand is a powerful one (though hardly new: Robert Lipsyte, for one, has written convincingly on the subject in the past); but I don’t find Roche’s arguments very persuasive.

(The full post contains the article with all the arguments and counterarguments)

And from Slate:

The bottom line on these experiments is, “More Net access, less rape.” A 10 percent increase in Net access yields about a 7.3 percent decrease in reported rapes. States that adopted the Internet quickly saw the biggest declines. And, according to Clemson professor Todd Kendall, the effects remain even after you control for all of the obvious confounding variables, such as alcohol consumption, police presence, poverty and unemployment rates, population density, and so forth.

OK, so we can at least tentatively conclude that Net access reduces rape. But that’s a far cry from proving that porn access reduces rape. Maybe rape is down because the rapists are all indoors reading Slate or vandalizing Wikipedia. But professor Kendall points out that there is no similar effect of Internet access on homicide. It’s hard to see how Wikipedia can deter rape without deterring other violent crimes at the same time. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine how porn might serve as a substitute for rape.

If not Wikipedia, then what? Maybe rape is down because former rapists have found their true loves on Match.com. But professor Kendall points out that the effects are strongest among 15-year-old to 19-year-old perpetrators—the group least likely to use such dating services.

[…]

Next, violence. What happens when a particularly violent movie is released? Answer: Violent crime rates fall. Instantly. Here again, we have a lot of natural experiments: The number of violent movie releases changes a lot from week to week. One weekend, 12 million people watch Hannibal, and another weekend, 12 million watch Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

University of California professors Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna compared what happens on those weekends. The bottom line: More violence on the screen means less violence in the streets. Probably that’s because violent criminals prefer violent movies, and as long as they’re at the movies, they’re not out causing mischief. They’d rather see Hannibal than rob you, but they’d rather rob you than sit through Wallace & Gromit.

I’ve often wondered about the conventional wisdom in these areas, as it never made any sense to me. I’ve never ever understood (or gotten a good answer on) what it is exactly that we’re “protecting children” from when it comes to porn, nudity, and sex. As violence goes, the last two decades have seen pretty clear declines in crime across the board, despite the ever-increasing prevalence of violent video games, movies, and television. While I see more cause for concern when it comes to violent media, I don’t see anything to justify the kind of moral panic that arises from the likes of Doom, Mortal Kombat, Grand Theft Auto, or the latest summer blockbuster.

Meanwhile, sports *are* unquestionably violent. They do cause injury. They lend themselves to a jock culture. They interfere with academics. They put undue pressure on participants. Millions of high school students bank their futures on getting into the NFL/NBA/MLB. They teach hypercompetitiveness. Etc. Etc. The list of negatives gets to be pretty long. Yet our culture views sports as “wholesome”, and reveres athletes as demi-Gods (or at least, reveres them enough to justify 7 and 8 digit paychecks)

The dissonance in our culture with regards to these topics is pretty astounding.