Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Iraq, a mom, and a cold hard truth

{ Podcast @ 2.5 mins.) I'm not exactly big on publicity stunts as a means of social action, though I am aware that in American politics such techniques have been effective in the past.[1] Cindy Sheehan is an American activist whose son was killed during his service in the Iraq War. She reasoned that setting up personal peace camp outside President George W. Bush's Texas ranch would be an effective way to demonstrate against the administration's Iraq war policies. Recently, she has decided to end her public camping demonstration. However, she did so with an extraordinary synopsis of her position:
The U.S. troops in Iraq "have been abandoned there indefinitely by their cowardly leaders who move them around like pawns on a chessboard," she lamented, saying she would return to California to rebuild her life.

"I am going to take whatever I have left and go home. I am going to go home and be a mother to my surviving children and try to regain some of what I have lost."

She added: "I have been called every despicable name that small minds can think of and have had my life threatened many times.

"The most devastating conclusion that I reached this morning, however, was that Casey did indeed die for nothing.

"His precious lifeblood drained out in a country far away from his family who loves him, killed by his own country which is beholden to and run by a war machine that even controls what we think.

"I have tried ever since he died to make his sacrifice meaningful. Casey died for a country which cares more about who will be the next American Idol than how many people will be killed in the next few months while Democrats and Republicans play politics with human lives."[2]

I think this one of the coldest, most realist remarks I've heard about the American public consciousness concerning Iraq. In my opinion, the reason there is so little social action on the US cultural radar is due to the US fielding an all-volunteer force -- those people who join seeking the advantages of economics, adventure, or whatever. As long as the American people are not forced to send their sons and daughters to support this idiotic administration's favorite foreign policy hobby, the nasty dog of populism will slumber quietly.

Stipulating that her son is in evangelical heaven, and that Mrs. Sheehan will eventually arrive there too, I can only surmise her son would soon enough remark, "Mom, you were so right."


[1] "Opposition to the Vietnam War" Wikipedia (Accessed 5/29/07)

[2] "Dead U.S. soldier's mom calls it quits as antiwar symbol" CBC News (Accessed 5/29/07)


Labels: , , ,

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Legal ethics, so-called torture, and Guantanamo Bay

{ Podcast this essay @ 5min. } Two stories came across the BBC wire within the last few days which attracted my attention. One concerns, Majid Khan, who is a Pakistani-born US resident. He is currently detained at Guantanamo Bay. His claim is that he was "mentally tortured". Naturally, he proclaims his absolute innocence of all charges. He's been accused of planning to blow up US gas stations and fuel depots. I think, therefore, he is indeed a person who could be used to harm the US. Detaining him on those grounds is not completely without merit, as long as there is some evidence that uncommitted parties would find telling against allowing him unimpeded freedom of movement.

What I found intriguing about Mr. Khan's story concerns the exact nature of complaints he brings regarding his torture at Guantanamo Bay:
"I swear to God this place in some sense worst than CIA jails [sic]. I am being mentally torture here," he said. "There is extensive torture even for the smallest of infractions." Mr Khan complained about how US guards had taken away pictures of his daughter, given him new glasses with the wrong prescription, shaved his beard off, forcibly fed him when he went on hunger strike, and denied him the opportunity for recreation. This led him to attempt to chew through his artery twice, Mr. Khan said. Later, Mr Khan produced a list of further examples of psychological torture, which included the provision of "cheap, branded, unscented soap", the prison newsletter, noisy fans and half-inflated balls in the recreation room that "hardly bounce".[1]
Unquestionably, giving a man some cheap, branded, unscented soap will break him everytime. In fact, I well recall a stay at a Days Inn in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma where I had to use that kind of soap, and it drove me into such distress that I had to take a few moments to blow into a beach ball so as not to hyper-ventilate, and so as to work off my angst at the whole experience!

On a more serious note, I can appreciate the despair of sitting in a prison, lonely, scared, and unable to track any sort of schedule for due process of an alleged crime against me. Still, some people maintain such a petty undeveloped character, that they really cannot appreciate the difference between their own psychological trivialities, and actual dire circumstances. Mr. Kahn's whining strikes me as indicating this weakness of character. Compare him with someone like James Stockdale,[2] or other POW survivors, and the contrast becomes very clear.

On another side of the Guantanamo issue is the account of Lt Cdr Matthew Diaz, a US Navy lawyer who faces six months in prison and dismissal from service for sending a human rights organization the names of 550 Guantanamo Bay detainees. As he was completing is final days of a tour of service at Guantanamo Bay in 2006, he sent an unmarked Valentine's Day card to a lawyer associated with The Center for Constitutional Rights. That organization had won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that terrorism suspects had the right to challenge their detention, yet the Pentagon was refusing to identify the men, hampering the group's effort to represent them.[4]

What is interesting about the Diaz case is how he had "observed the stonewalling, the obstacles we continued to place in the way of the attorneys." He continued, "I knew my time was limited. ... I had to do something."[4] Diaz also explained how he was moved to act because prisoners' rights under the Geneva Convention had been violated: "No matter how the conflict was identified, we were to treat them in accordance with Geneva, and it just wasn't being done."[3] On my view, his actions are morally praiseworthy, though I think the execution of the plan was not well done. Later, Diaz claims he was acting "irrationally"[3] and even claiming "it was 'cowardly' to release the names and other identifying information in that manner."[4]

I am certainly not in agreement with Diaz that it was cowardly to do what he did, and I suspect he's saying this to lesson the consequences that are being levied on him for his otherwise praiseworthy actions. (Also, his light sentence of 6mos., as opposed to 14 years, leads me to believe others, likewise, think he was motivated by ethical reasons.) However, I do agree that he was somewhat irrational in what he did, for there were probably much more subtle ways for him to reveal the names of Guantanamo prisoners without him being the one who becomes the scapegoat for an on-going oppressive political policy carried out at the Pentagon. (Fortunately we still have a free press and a separate court system which eventually counteracts oppresive policies by US agencies.)

Guantanomo Bay is a very instructive study about the inconsistencies and tensions in the broader US legal process and in the treatment of internationals who are not straightforwardly protected by political commitments embedded in the documents and heritage of US traditions.


[1]"US detainee 'mentally tortured'" BBC News (Accessed 5/19/07)

[2] "James Stockdale Biography - Congressional Medal of Honor" Academy of Achievement See also "James Stockdale Dies; Won Medal of Honor, Ran for Vice President" The Washington Post

[3]"Guantanamo lawyer faces jail term" BBC News (Accessed 5/19/07)

[4] "Jury: 6 Months in Prison for Navy Lawyer" The Washington Post


Labels: , , ,

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Transhumanism, Clothes, and Fashion Monstrosities

{ Podcast @ 3min } I have several axioms about technology. But one of them is: "Clever people will purposely do weird things with new technology." But the weirdness of it all becomes a bit too apparent when one casually peruses the troubled minds of artists during their wandering moments, even days of boredom.

Transhumanists study the possibilities and consequences of developing and using human enhancement techniques and other emerging technologies for the purposes of enhancing human mental and physical abilities. But what counts as "enhancement" and what counts as a mere stylistic experiment in self-expression will never be sorted out on objective grounds. Humans, it turns out, are not objective creatures at all, as is well attested by the life of the greatest logician of all, Kurt Godel; or by the more mundane examples of people who acquire enhancement of self-expression via tattoos.[1]

Technology will eventually follow the basic movements of clothing fashion, and since people wear clothing for both functional and social reasons, one can see the immediate allure of tossing a bit of technology into the mix. The main issue is how easy it is to acquire and remove the technology at hand. If having radical amputations so as to attach robotic arms were no more difficult than obtaining an ear piercing, and likewise no more trouble to re-correct, then the mere whims of pop culture will produce all the fashion monstrosities that we see in the world of cloth.

Amputation and robo-grafting will come quickly, but not with the shock value that it has today when we encounter such in art. This is because the natural trends of communication technology and convenient computational clothing will make the leap to transhumanist fashion just one more avaunt guard generational marker for the young. But what seems extreme in clothing now is merely passe tomorrow:
In the last few decades, there has been a consistent trend towards the mainstreaming of formerly extreme fashion, in which "over-the-top" becomes ordinary and loses any shock value it might once have had.[2]
Moreover, the engine of differentiation will require participants to wander further and further from the human form, even if not the human essence. Wandering from the human essence has been the main worry about transhumanism, but already there exists strange outward signs in popular culture.

It has sometimes been claimed that "clothes make the man." But soon enough, a new proverb will be necessary: "Fashion fashions the transman."


[image] Brian Walker

[1] "Tattoo Blog" http://www.tattooblog.org/ (12 May 2007)

[2] "Clothing." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (12 May 2007. )


Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Professional Soldier (mash-up comics)

Click the above image for full size.
The purpose and character of the use of comix herein is for nonprofit, educational purposes, as subject to limitations found in sections 107 through 118 of the Copyright Act (title 17, U. S. Code). Character likenesses adapted from http://cobb.typepad.com


Labels: , , , ,

Monday, May 07, 2007

Three Republican Stooges vs. Science: who *not* to vote for

{ Audio this essay @ .5MB @ 3Min. } Last Thursday night when the Republican party’s 10 candidates for president were trying to introduce themselves to the American consciousness, they were asked whether they believed in Evolution. Three of these — Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas; Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas; and Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado — indicated they did not believe in Evolution.

Such a position by any politician is a deal-breaker for obtaining my vote. It shows one (or perhaps both) of two things: (1) that such a politician is inadequately educated in the sciences so as to be unworthy to lead at a national level; or, (2) that s/he is the kind of politician willing to lie about his or her personal beliefs in order to appease a scientifically illiterate constituency, so as to stay in, or gain, political power.

On flaw one, such a pseudo-leader could not make informed policy decisions about stem-cells or other biology-based technology advances. Thus, the economy and scientific literacy of a nation is threatened, which is not in the best interests of the American voter.

On flaw two, instead of trying to inform and educate the constituency, such a pseudo-leader chooses to lie in order to remain (or gain) power; thus, these types of flawed politicians greatly increase the likelihood of implementing dangerously inadequate policies which make the uninformed and/or voluntarily ignorant the standard for policy evaluation. (Note: although there are indeed times that a politician should publicly lie in the best interests of a nation, lies about long- and well- established scientific issues are never in that best interest.)

In light of just these simple concerns, a scientifically informed and responsible conservative should not vote for these three stooges:

Sam Brownback, Senator - Kansas
Mike Huckabee, ex-governor - Arkansas
Tom Tancredo,. Representative - Colorado


Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Freewill, Google, and Targeted Marketing

{ Audio this essay @ 8.5min @ 1.8MB } Recently it was revealed that Google has acquired (or is seeking to acquire) DoubleClick, a leading company in what is called behavioral targeted marketing. Here is a provocative quote from a recent article:
Google could potentially have access to not only the majority of the world’s search history but its browsing and e-commerce history as well. The company could know more about web surfers than they know about themselves.[1]
Naturally, the more one knows about a person, the easier it is to maneuver them to behave as you want. Google will now have unprecedented knowledge about about Internet usage habits; thus, Google will have unprecedented ease in maneuvering Internet users, which is to say virtually everyone in America if not elsewhere too. According to the latest figures of The Pew Internet & American Life Project, almost three-quarters of American adults go online:
"Our latest survey, fielded February 15 – April 6, 2006 shows that fully 73% of respondents (about 147 million adults) are Internet users, up from 66% (about 133 million adults) in our January 2005 survey"[2]
Naturally, if one could manipulate the spending habits of 73% of Americans, putting ethical considerations aside, then this would be a substantial profit windfall. However, this assumes that humans are strictly controlled by behavioral conditioning. Fortunately for you, and unfortunately for advertisers, this appears false, for it turns out that our minds are not just ways of talking about our behaviors as functions of environmental and genetic influences -- that would be pure and too simple Behaviorism:
Behaviorism, the doctrine, is committed in its fullest and most complete sense to the truth of the following three sets of claims.

1. Psychology is the science of behavior. Psychology is not the science of mind.
2. Behavior can be described and explained without making reference to mental events or to internal psychological processes.
3. The sources of behavior are external (in the environment), not internal (in the mind). In the course of theory development in psychology, if, somehow, mental terms or concepts are deployed in describing or explaining behavior, then either (a) these terms or concepts should be eliminated and replaced by behavioral terms or (b) they can and should be translated or paraphrased into behavioral concepts.[3]
It would take us too far afield to tease out the interrelationships of a full-blooded account of behaviorism, but one can see why advertisers so desperately wish it were true. Otherwise, if behaviorism is false, marketing agencies could not count on getting income for their manipulating skills, since there would be an inner explanatory cause for our behavior which is not lawfully describable or predictable. Put differently, marketing agencies must disdain the whole idea of consumers having a freewill; because, if there is such an inner generator of human action, then even in principle they could not count on marketing stimuli to yield the proper response.

Actually, I've overstated the case. The only thing completely unpredictable would be a truly random chain of events. Human action, as initiated by freewill, is not just random events. But human action, as initiated just by environmental and genetic influences, would be determinism. Thus, freewill is not random, nor is it determined.[4] So what is it? The truth is, I'm not sure.

Admittedly, at least some things about humans are predictable and follow lawful regularities. The whole discipline of sociology notes how people behave in patterned ways, and thus can predict such patterns under some circumstances:
The field [of sociology] offers a range of research techniques that can be applied to virtually any aspect of social life: street crime and delinquency, corporate downsizing, how people express emotions, welfare or education reform, how families differ and flourish, or problems of peace and war. Because sociology addresses the most challenging issues of our time, it is a rapidly expanding field whose potential is increasingly tapped by those who craft policies and create programs. Sociologists understand social inequality, patterns of behavior, forces for social change and resistance, and how social systems work.[5]
As luck (or design) would have it, humans have second order desires that compete with first order desires, thus things are not as dire as one might think. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt is famous for his analysis of first and second order desires. (And even more so for his analysis of bullshit.) What are these kinds of desires? Here's a quick summary:
First Order Desire: desires directed at an object. So, if I desire a soda, this is a first order desire. Second Order Desire: desires direct at desires. So if I desire not to fulfill my desire for a soda, this is a second order desire, since it is directed at another desire. Second Order Volition: a second order desire to act on a first order desire. With this vocabulary in mind, Frankfurt says that Freewill is acting on second-order volitions that the agent has "decisively identified with." In other words, if I have 2nd order volitions that I find to be truly representative of "who I am" then acting freely will require that I actually act upon those 2nd order volitions.
One can see the question gets pushed back to whether my second-order desires are controlled by genetics and environment. Sales and marketing teams for business also must attempt to influence second order desires. I might discover that I don't want a product, say an IPhone. But maybe I do want to be popular with my friends, or with members of the opposite sex, or with the upper-eschelon financial class of my city. Sales and marketing teams know that "style" often reflects social class, and if they can produce an item that attracts me on the the pure basis of design style, I might purchase on that attribute alone. I get the feeling that the various marketers showcased (for example) in Wired Magazine leverage second-order desires in their short consumer reviews of items.

A big worry is that Google might be able to statistically correlate my Internet browsing habits with my psychological profile in a way such that Google merchants don't just know my desires to buy product X, but introduce new desires altogether into my buying habits. Marketers have not mastered this, but enough information gathered over enough time by automated weighting algorithms seemingly could bridge the first- to second- order consumer choice barrier.

Perhaps even now there's already such an algorithm in operation. If it were me, I'd call it Project Pavlov.


[1] Rich Tehrani "Google Achieves Behavioral Targeting Nirvana" TMC.net (Accessed 4/16/2007)

[2] "Internet Penetration and Impact" Pew Internet and American Life Project (Accessed 4/16/2007)

[3] "Behaviorism" Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Accessed 4/16/2007)

[4] Obviously, I'm not a compatibilist, but a libertarian when it comes to freewill. See "Compatibilism" and also "Incompatibilism" Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Accessed 4/17/2007)

[5] "What is Sociology?" American Sociological Association (Accessed 4/17/2007)

[6]"Compatibilism" [unnamed site] (Accessed 5/03/07)


Labels: , , , , ,

On Teaching Others (mash-up comics)

Click the above image for full size.
The purpose and character of the use of comix herein is for nonprofit, educational purposes, as subject to limitations found in sections 107 through 118 of the Copyright Act (title 17, U. S. Code). Character likenesses adapted from http://cobb.typepad.com


Labels: , , , ,