brainwagon "There is much pleasure in useless knowledge." — Bertrand Russell

26Jul/101

Wikileaks, and the Report on the Barnhouse Effect

My iPad blinked a CNN headline this weekend that Wikileaks had published a vast number of previously secret reports on the ongoing war in Afghanistan. While the furor over this doesn't seem to have reached the level of, say, Lindsay Lohan in prison might, it does nevertheless seem to have generated some significant chatter in the blogging universe.

As the father of a young man currently serving in the Armed Forces (thankfully not in Afghanistan) I am a bit concerned that this release of information may provide aid to enemy combatants. If that is your fear, then I understand it, and I won't try to argue against it. Our children are precious beyond reasonable measure, and keeping them safe is the first priority of any parent.

And yet, I'm not really outraged by the Wikileaks publication, and I guess I can thank Kurt Vonnegut for that.

In his short story Report on the Barnhouse Effect, Professor Arthur Barnhouse develops the ability to control physical objects through a power he calls "dynamo-psychism". It begins with him just being able to bust a crap game by controlling dice rolls, but as he practices, his power grows until he literally becomes a super weapon. At this point, he presents himself to the U.S. government, who is eager to test his powers and add them to their arsenal. After a successful test, the generals turn around to find that Barnhouse has disappeared, leaving a note that declares that he is the "first weapon with a conscience", and that he won't permit himself to be used by them. Barnhouse goes into hiding, and then begins The War of the Tattle Tales. Whenever a government tries to stockpile weapons, someone merely needs to leak its existence to the press, and Barnhouse would eradicate it.

Wikileaks is starting a similar war. I'm not going to argue whether our "War of Terror" has been worth the monetary or human costs: quite frankly, I'm not sure either way. But we certainly can't formulate an informed debate by simply hiding or ignoring the reality of the costs involved. Wikileaks is shaming us all by forcing us to abandon our plausible deniability and to address the real human costs of the war, and to balance them against the importance of our objectives. If this proves to be disruptive to our foreign policy, then I would submit that perhaps our foreign policy needed disruption.

Could the publication of this information be dangerous for American troops? Yes, quite possibly. I'm not sure I'd have the guts to publish this information, because I am not sure I could stand the responsibility. But let's be clear: our troops are already in danger. Our foreign policy decisions put them in danger. We should be arguing and debating about whether the risks that they have agreed to undertake on our behalf are truly worth the cost that they will pay.

It is said that nobody likes a tattle-tale. Certainly if you are the one being tattled on, you probably don't like it. But ultimately, the truth is the truth, and it is probably best not to hide it or deny it. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

In closing, I'd like to thank all the brave men and women of our armed forces: you are brave beyond anything I know, and it is my deepest hope that you all complete your duties and return to your friends and family who love you.

Addendum: On a lighter note, Dimension X produced a radio version of Report on the Barnhouse Effect, which you can find on archive.org (MP3). It's not quite as good as the real short story, but it's not terrible either.

Addendum: Elwood pointed out that Julian Assange gave a talk about Wikileaks at TED. For your consumption:


20Jan/091

From the Inaugural Address of William Howard Taft

I don't speak about politics on this blog very often. Frankly, I don't find politics itself to be very interesing: it is a sphere of human discourse that I find all too obsessed with appearance over substance, and expediency over justice. While this might form the basis of a faintly amusing reality TV show, it's not at all funny when you realize that your rights as an individual are subject to the whims of such forces.

But today is Inauguration Day. President Barack Obama has taken his oath, and is now our 44th President. I think that requires some brief acknowledgement, and this message might serve as a brief letter to my future self regarding what I was feeling on a day where perhaps, just perhaps the nation changed course (hopefully for better).

During the endless news coverage leading up the ceremony, one of the talking heads on the news mentioned that 100 years ago to the day, President Taft asserted during his speech that "Negroes were Americans", and that it was remarkable that 100 years ago, this was not so completely accepted that it required explicit mention. I found that intriguing, and dug out Taft's Inaugural from The Avalon Project:

.The Avalon Project : Inaugural Address of William Howard Taft

I'll quote the part having to do with racial relations, and place some emphasis that I'll explain below::

I look forward with hope to increasing the already good feeling between the South and the other sections of the country. My chief purpose is not to effect a change in the electoral vote of the Southern States. That is a secondary consideration. What I look forward to is an increase in the tolerance of political views of all kinds and their advocacy throughout the South, and the existence of a respectable political opposition in every State; even more than this, to an increased feeling on the part of all the people in the South that this Government is their Government, and that its officers in their states are their officers.

The consideration of this question can not, however, be complete and full without reference to the negro race, its progress and its present condition. The thirteenth amendment secured them freedom; the fourteenth amendment due process of law, protection of property, and the pursuit of happiness; and the fifteenth amendment attempted to secure the negro against any deprivation of the privilege to vote because he was a negro. The thirteenth and fourteenth amendments have been generally enforced and have secured the objects for which they are intended. While the fifteenth amendment has not been generally observed in the past, it ought to be observed, and the tendency of Southern legislation today is toward the enactment of electoral qualifications which shall square with that amendment. Of course, the mere adoption of a constitutional law is only one step in the right direction. It must be fairly and justly enforced as well. In time both will come. Hence it is clear to all that the domination of an ignorant, irresponsible element can be prevented by constitutional laws which shall exclude from voting both negroes and whites not having education or other qualifications thought to be necessary for a proper electorate. The danger of the control of an ignorant electorate has therefore passed. With this change, the interest which many of the Southern white citizens take in the welfare of the negroes has increased. The colored men must base their hope on the results of their own industry, self-restraint, thrift, and business success, as well as upon the aid and comfort and sympathy which they may receive from their white neighbors of the South.

There was a time when Northerners who sympathized with the negro in his necessary struggle for better conditions sought to give him the suffrage as a protection to enforce its exercise against the prevailing sentiment of the South. The movement proved to be a failure. What remains is the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution and the right to have statutes of States specifying qualifications for electors subjected to the test of compliance with that amendment. This is a great protection to the negro. It never will be repealed, and it never ought to be repealed. If it had not passed, it might be difficult now to adopt it; but with it in our fundamental law, the policy of Southern legislation must and will tend to obey it, and so long as the statutes of the States meet the test of this amendment and are not otherwise in conflict with the Constitution and laws of the United States, it is not the disposition or within the province of the Federal Government to interfere with the regulation by Southern States of their domestic affairs. There is in the South a stronger feeling than ever among the intelligent well-to-do, and influential element in favor of the industrial education of the negro and the encouragement of the race to make themselves useful members of the community. The progress which the negro has made in the last fifty years, from slavery, when its statistics are reviewed, is marvelous, and it furnishes every reason to hope that in the next twenty-five years a still greater improvement in his condition as a productive member of society, on the farm, and in the shop, and in other occupations may come.

The negroes are now Americans. Their ancestors came here years ago against their will, and this is their only country and their only flag. They have shown themselves anxious to live for it and to die for it. Encountering the race feeling against them, subjected at times to cruel injustice growing out of it, they may well have our profound sympathy and aid in the struggle they are making. We are charged with the sacred duty of making their path as smooth and easy as we can. Any recognition of their distinguished men, any appointment to office from among their number, is properly taken as an encouragement and an appreciation of their progress, and this just policy should be pursued when suitable occasion offers.

But it may well admit of doubt whether, in the case of any race, an appointment of one of their number to a local office in a community in which the race feeling is so widespread and acute as to interfere with the ease and facility with which the local government business can be done by the appointee is of sufficient benefit by way of encouragement to the race to outweigh the recurrence and increase of race feeling which such an appointment is likely to engender. Therefore the Executive, in recognizing the negro race by appointments, must exercise a careful discretion not thereby to do it more harm than good. On the other hand, we must be careful not to encourage the mere pretense of race feeling manufactured in the interest of individual political ambition.

Personally, I have not the slightest race prejudice or feeling, and recognition of its existence only awakens in my heart a deeper sympathy for those who have to bear it or suffer from it, and I question the wisdom of a policy which is likely to increase it. Meantime, if nothing is done to prevent it, a better feeling between the negroes and the whites in the South will continue to grow, and more and more of the white people will come to realize that the future of the South is to be much benefited by the industrial and intellectual progress of the negro. The exercise of political franchises by those of this race who are intelligent and well to do will be acquiesced in, and the right to vote will be withheld only from the ignorant and irresponsible of both races.

The thing that I found interesting was that even while Taft was asserting that Negroes were Americans, he was asserting the rights of states to create literacy tests (what we now refer to as Jim Crow laws) to keep the "uneducated and uninformed" from participating in elections. Such laws were passed in many states, and were routinely used to prevent blacks from registering to vote. It wasn't until the 1960s that these laws were struck down, by the Voting Rights act of 1965, and by decisions in the Supreme Court like Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, and South Carolina v. Katzenback. Yesterday, we celebrated Martin Luther King Day, and of course Dr. King was responsible for voter registration drives in Alabama, precisely because of this issue.

As I watched the news coverage, there is one thing that I realized, looking at the images of African-Americans waiting for the inauguration to begin. There is something in their faces that I can understand intellectually, but which I acknowledge I cannot feel, at least with anything approaching their intensity. I voted for Obama because I believe he is a thoughtful man, with good ideas and good ideals. But for many Americans, he's much more than that. He's a symbol of progress.

Here's hoping that he'll be more than symbol, that he'll be an agent of real change.

Good luck, Mr. President.

Filed under: Politics 1 Comment
4Jan/064

“I have a feeling that about 60% of what you say is crap.”

I suspect that David Letterman was channeling Jon Stewart.

Filed under: Politics 4 Comments
7Dec/051

Remember Girls!

If you're givin' it up, you're going steady with HitlerThe Free Information Society has links to a bunch of WWII era propaganda posters, including this rather amusing one linking promiscuity with dating Hitler. Holy crap. You can't make stuff like this up.

15Jul/053

Treason, Okay, Violence, Okay, but Sex?

I've been tracking Wil Wheaton's amusing anecdotes about competing in the 2005 WSOP, but today the poker muse must have temporarily vacated him only to be replaced by the political muse. Today he's writing a brief letter to Senator Hillary Clinton, indicating that her valuable time might be better spent chasing after Karl Rove rather than Carl Johnson, creator of Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto, San Andreas.

For those of you not immersed in the world of video games, Grand Theft Auto is a popular series of video games where the principal activities required are essentially all violent crimes. The gamer is expected to steal cars, drive around, shoot police officers, rough up prostitutes, and generally just cause all sorts of mayhem.

These games have been controversial since they were first released, but they are also insanely popular, due no doubt in some small measure to the controversy itself. The game is rated M, indicating strong violence and sexual themes, so it is not like parents are not warned.

But the controversy has been kicked up a notch in the last couple of months by a modification which is going around the Internet called "Hot Coffee". Apparently one of the subplots for the game involves trying to get your girlfriend to invite you back to her place for coffee. This particular mod changes an innocent coffee break into, well, sex. No, I'm not going to give you screendumps, I don't have any, don't ask. Search around for yourself if you want to see what it's all about.

So, here we have a game which consists of

  1. Stealing cars
  2. Drive by shootings
  3. Killing police
  4. Smashing hookers with tire irons

and yet the thing which requires a congressional investigation is the notion that someone has managed to create a modification to the game which allows you to see a bunch of flesh colored triangles do the horizontal mambo. Are there a whole bunch of parents somewhere who felt like GTASA was appropriate for their children until they learned of this mod, and are now irate?

I'm confused. I respect the idea that it's a vile video game without any redeeming value and is completely inappropriate for children, but presumably you knew that before, didn't you? If you are a resident of New York, do you think that it's a worthwhile use of your representatives time to tell you what you and everyone else knows?

Filed under: Politics 3 Comments
1Jul/050

O’Connor to Retire From Supreme Court

Well, it is O'Connor who is going to be the first to vacate a position on the Supreme Court, not Chief Justice Rehnquist.

O'Connor to Retire From Supreme Court

If you thought that the nominations for other judges were ugly, stay tuned for this wild ride.

Filed under: Politics No Comments
23Jun/050

House passes flag protection amendment for 6th time

The House of Representatives has (again) passed a proposed amendment to the Constitution banning desecration of the flag, It reads (in full):

The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.

It's a piece of cloth. Like most symbols, it has no intrinsic value to itself. If it serves to inspire, it must do so because the nation for which it stands stands for something valuable. Something like Freedom of Speech. Freedom of Assembly. Freedom to Petition the Government.

Some people don't get it.

Proponents, who say the amendment has overwhelming public support, say burning or otherwise defiling the flag goes beyond the bounds of free speech. "To burn a flag is to disrespect America and disrespect democracy,'' said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga. "Desecration of the American flag is not a form of free speech. It is a challenge to the institutions that defend liberty. Our flag deserves to be protected and respected.''

When someone burns a flag, it isn't the flag they are protesting against. It is burned as a symbol of someone's displeasure with the actions and policies of the government for which it stands. Stifling the expression of that displeasure is contrary to the First Amendment.

Someone who does get it:

"If the flag needs protection at all, it needs protection from members of Congress who value it more as a symbol than for the freedom it represents,'' said Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y.

Filed under: Politics No Comments
21Jun/050

Young Trekkie Persecuted

For those of you with a sense of humor, try reading this account of a young man who was suspended for reciting his own pledge of allegiance to the Federation of Planets.

On a more serious note, I wonder why exactly schools choose to force participation in these silly patriotic enterprises. It's like when you toss Christmas parties at work: it doesn't really inspire any new fondness for your coworkers. If you had any fondness for them, you probably welcome the chance to hang out with them. If you didn't, the promise of a free dinner and booze is hardly likely to make any lasting change in your opinions.

If you'd like your children to have feelings of genuine patriotism for your country, here's an idea: work to make sure your country is actually deserving of your respect. No country which promises freedom should require loyalty pledges.

From Thoreau's CIvil Disobedience:

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus,(5) etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.

16Jun/050

I can appreciate sarcasm…

If you can as well, try checking out this Open Letter to the Kansas school board who is struggling with the idea of teaching so-called "Intelligent Design Theory" in their science classes.

I am writing you with much concern after I read of your hearing to decide whether the alternative theory of Intelligent Design to be taught along with the theory of Evolution. I think we can all agree that it is important for students to hear multiple viewpoints so they can choose for themselves the theory that makes the most sense to them. I am concerned, however, that students will only hear one theory of Intelligent Design..

Let us remember that there are multiple theories of Intelligent Design. I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was He who created all that we see and all that we feel. We feel strongly that the overwhelming scientific evidence pointing towards evolutionary processes is nothing but a coincidence, put in place by Him.

Heh.

15Jun/050

More Scoble Mush

Some things just make you blink.

A Day in the Life is reporting that MSN is only blocking the words democracy and freedom in the name of a blog, the post title, and the URL, but NOT in the body copy.

Hmmm. So much for the censorship charge if this is true.

Robert, did you really think about this before you said it?

14Jun/050

A Minute with Dan: Don’t Mention Democracy | Bayosphere

Dan Gilmor had a short .mp3 response to the news that Microsoft was cooperating with the Chinese government to censor weblogs on MSN. I ranted about this a couple of days ago, it seems that Dan is of like mind.

A Minute with Dan: Don't Mention Democracy | Bayosphere

"It's easy enough to understand why our craven corporate giants are doing the dictators' bidding. But Microsoft and Google, like so many others, rose to enormous wealth and influence by leveraging the freedom they enjoy in the United States. They may be serving their shareholders' interests. But what they're doing is not honorable. Why does money trump honor? Is this really the American way?"

Amen, Dan.

Filed under: Blogging, Politics No Comments
9Jun/050

Senate panel votes to expand Patriot Act

Oh good gravy.

Senate panel votes to expand Patriot Act. The revised act would grant the FBI the power to write its own secret subpeonas, not subject to judicial review, whose very existance would be a secret punishable by jail time if revealed.

My favorite quote:

In testimony in April, FBI director Robert Mueller said: "The administrative subpoena power would be a valuable complement to (existing) tools and provide added efficiency to the FBI's ability to investigate and disrupt terrorism operations and our intelligence gathering efforts."

Golly, I bet their job would be easier still if we dealt away with other pesky loopholes, like rights to a jury trial, requirements to show probable cause, rights to due process and other commie-pinko ideals.

Filed under: Politics No Comments
1Jun/050

Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries

With only brief commentary on my part, I submit Human Events, The National Conservative Weekly's list of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

The Kinsey Report? Number Four?

Dewey's Democracy and Education? Admittedly, two topics not generally favored by conservatives...

I also liked their synopsys of Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money:

Keynes was a member of the British elite--educated at Eton and Cambridge--who as a liberal Cambridge economics professor wrote General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in the midst of the Great Depression. The book is a recipe for ever-expanding government. When the business cycle threatens a contraction of industry, and thus of jobs, he argued, the government should run up deficits, borrowing and spending money to spur economic activity. FDR adopted the idea as U.S. policy, and the U.S. government now has a $2.6-trillion annual budget and an $8-trillion dollar debt.

Oh, is that what caused the deficit and the debt?

Notable Honorable mentions include Darwin's Origin of the Species [sic] and Descent of Man, Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed and Freud's Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Books which hilighted environmental problems and feminism also seemed to be high on their list.

Filed under: Politics No Comments
27May/050

The Problem With Government in a Nutshell

Governor digs fixing potholes / San Jose crews destroy part of road for staged event

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger traveled to a quiet San Jose neighborhood Thursday, and -- dogged by protesters -- filled a pothole dug by city crews just a few hours before, as part of an attempt to dramatize his efforts to increase money for transportation projects.

It's not exactly a surprise when a politician fixes a problem and creates a news event out of it. It's not even a surprise when it turns out that the politicians themselves created the problem. But seldom are both clearly identified as occurring on the same day.

Filed under: Politics No Comments
23Apr/05Off

Steve Ballmer’s email about anti-discrimination bill

Cowardice.

It saddens Scoble.

Is it really surprising that a company as large, predatory, and self-centered as Microsoft might not be a good guardian of individual rights? Let's face it: companies aren't good guardians of individual rights. The best you can hope is that they just stay out of the way. But it's hopelessly naive to assume that your employer will act in your best interest. It sometimes happens, and those companies should be treasured, but it surprises me every time it happens. You can't expect companies to behave ethically or with conscience.