Category Archives: World events

Delusion or persuasion?

I wonder exactly what President Bush is being told in the White House about events in Iraq, which are by all measures getting worse by the day, because he said this yesterday:

My attitude is, don’t do what you’re doing if it’s not working — change. Stay the course also means, don’t leave before the job is done. We’re going to get the job done in Iraq.

Let’s break that down because the (lack of) structure is a bit confusing:

My attitude is, don’t do what you’re doing if it’s not working — change. If what you’re doing doesn’t work, try something else.

Stay the course also means, don’t leave before the job is done. Don’t stop until you achieve your goals.

We’re going to get the job done in Iraq. Ah… Now here’s the tricky bit. What he’s doing in Iraq clearly isn’t working, but he’s against any change of tactics. This bit contradicts the first thing he said.

There’s a technique in hypnosis and persuasion techniques where you use deliberately confusing sentence structures to occupy the rational mind, and then give it a clear and easy direction immediately afterwards. The conscious mind latches onto the clear instruction and accepts it because it resolves the uncertainty that it was facing before, even if that instruction would usually be rejected. Could it be that this technique is being employed by Bush, either deliberately or subconsciously? Either he’s immensely deluded about the situation in Iraq or there is some very sneaky stuff going on in his language.

EDIT: Or he could simply be an idiot with no clue and a lucky linguistic quirk. I really shouldn’t jump to paranoid conclusions!

In other news: jumping off cliffs frequently results in injury…

Who would have thought it?

A stark assessment of terrorism trends by American intelligence agencies has found that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Yes indeed, invading Iraq, showing a militaristic and insensitive face of American politics, demonstrating a sense of global imperialism, cultural ignorance, denial of flaws, and absolute lack of self-questioning has made the threat of terrorism worse rather than better for the American public. That’s the conclusion of the largest survey of global terrorism by the American intelligence agencies since 11th September 2001.

For an example of the lack of self-questioning, let’s look at a nice quote from a recent White House report entitled ‘9/11 Five Years Later: Success and Challenges’:

We have done much to degrade Al Qaeda and its affiliates and to undercut the perceived legitimacy of terrorism.

The Bush administration continues to assert that they are winning ‘the war against terror’ while their own agencies are saying the exact opposite. We’ve all been saying the opposite for a long time now: attacking a country in the middle-east without provocation or legitimate evidence of planned attacks, and without a plan for how to improve the conditions for people in the country after the invasion (by direct order of Donald Rumsfeld) was always going to solidify and justify extremist arguments against America and its allies.

So, invading Iraq has made America and its allies more, rather than less, at risk from terrorism. In other news: jumping off cliffs frequently results in injury. Some might consider that to simply be logic, rather than a revelation, but it appears that sometimes it really is needed that the obvious has to be driven home with a hammer.


Our voting machines are perfect!*

*except if someone wants to misuse them.

an attacker who gets physical access to a machine or its removable memory card for as little as one minute could install malicious code; malicious code on a machine could steal votes undetectably, modifying all records, logs, and counters to be consistent with the fraudulent vote count it creates. An attacker could also create malicious code that spreads automatically and silently from machine to machine during normal election activities — a voting-machine virus.

Suddenly pencils and paper look even better, don’t they?

Yeehaw etc.

So, there was a US soldier in Iraq who was annoyed that Hewlett Packard’s customer support didn’t extend to telling him how to fix his scanner/printer (probably because it was beyond warranty, and most likely because it wasn’t designed to function in deserts).

What does a solider with time on his hands do while he’s busy ‘defending freedom’? He makes a video of himself complaining about the printer, then using some very heavy artillery to shoot it.

I’m not really interested in the HP printer side of this video, what makes me link to it is just how damn awful the guy’s aim is. He’s standing from around 5 metres away from the printer and doesn’t manage to hit it for the first twenty shots. Fortunately for him, one of the bullets hits the barrel that the printer is sitting on, knocking it over, which makes it look slightly more like he can shoot straight, but his pattern is clearly leaning to the right of the target. In the next shot he fires another 20-or-so rounds at the printer and it looks like he hits with one or two bullets.

If there was ever a video to give confidence to Iraqi insurgents then it’s this. Not only is the US army allowing their soldiers to use high-calibre weaponry in an enitrely pointless, and moderately dangerous way (no eye protection when firing into a non-organic target five metres away?), but the guy couldn’t hit the side of a barn from arm’s reach. He might as well be handing out pamphlets for all the good his use of military hardware is doing… Oh… Maybe that’s what the printer was for?

See the video here.

Burning Man on Google Earth

Those of you with the marvellously fun Google Earth software might want to check out the map of the site this year.

Click this link to download and open a Google Earth link to the site. It’s actually slightly to the north-east of where that link lands you. People will be adding on the shapes of their camps over the next week-or-so, making for a 3D virtual version of the Burning Man ‘Black Rock City’. Aren’t computers cool?

(You’ll need the Google Earth software to make that link work. If you don’t already have it then you can download it for free here.)

Burning Man TV

So, if you’re still here and reading this then the chances are that you won’t be going to the Burning Man this year. I’m really missing it, it’s been four years since I last went and I was hoping to keep to a ‘every three years’ pattern. Nonetheless, the joys of broadband, the miracle of decent streaming video (brought to us by the superb new suite of video tools in Macromedia’s Flash 8) mean that we can see updates from the Burning Man all through the next week.

The videos will be going online here over at TV Free Burning Man. I can’t wait to see what people are getting up to, but it’ll be will a little sadness that I’m going to be sitting around in offices and working when I could be out in the glorious desert.

Do you know what the Burning Man is? If not, there’s also a nice little 5 minute documentary on that site about the event… Although, with over 35k citizens of Black Rock City every year, you will tend to find that there are 35k different answers to just what the Burning Man is, and what the Man means.

I really miss it.

Offset your carbon with Coolingman!

The people over at Coolingman have calculated that the Burning Man festival generates around 100 tons of carbon waste, so in the spirit of ‘leave no trace’ they have set up a trust to counteract this impact. They are people after my own hearts, because their target is not only to ‘leave not trace’ but to ‘leave things better’: they are aiming to offset 110 tons of carbon.

There are three ways to do this: planting a tree (cool), donating your business’ offsets (good, but not practical for individuals), and donating to fund the offsets of environmentally friendly carbon projects (the easiest). I’ve gone for the latter, and since I’ve been to the burn twice, flying from the UK each time, I decided to donate $20, which should counter my environmental impact not only for the burn but also for a fair bit of my entire year! If you want to donate through PayPal or via credit card then there are instructions here.

Carbon neutral living is tough in the Western world, so funding groups who are counteracting it is a great way forward. We all have to take responsibility for this.

Borges and the NSA

It’s been a big scandal that the NSA is illegally taping the conversations of several million Americans. It’s been denied that the project was so out of control, but it seems like every time the story is returned to that the numbers go up.

There is a writer called Borges who came up with some brilliant ideas in his stories, but the one that returns to me as being the most relevant on an everyday basis is about a king who wanted an accurate map. I heard this several years ago, so this is probably my spin on it, but it went something like this:

There once was a king that, when he was done with war and had conquered all he desired, wanted a map so he could see everything that he ruled over. His closest entourage are sent to make a map of his land. They bring it back to him and spread it over his table. He looks at the map, and sees that it is good, but it does not show all the streets of his city, so he asks for a better map.

More people are sent out to make a better map. Much time is spent on making an accurate map of the city and the land. When it is done they return to the king and spread it out over the floor, because it is now much bigger than the table. The king looks at the map and sees that it is good, but it does not show every building.

A huge amount of people are sent out to make a map of the land so accurate that it shows every building, every field, every stable, and every shed. After many years the map is done. They spread it out over the city, because the map is so large that it cannot fit inside the castle. The king sees that this is a very good map, but it does not show the rooms.

The whole country begins to make a map that is accurate to the last detail. Everything, every room, every table, every tree, is included. The country begins to crumble and the map expands until it covers the whole land. The country is engulfed in the map, and in places the map and the countryside cannot be told from each-other. The map is finally completely accurate, but the land has been destroyed.

The NSA seeks to build a map of the people, but they are getting so much information that it becomes meaningless. The detail with which they are now capable of looking at people means that they can no longer distinguish any patterns or purpose. Meanwhile, the land itself is changing and being destroyed by the processes that are needed to collect all the data.

You can elect anyone you want, as long as…

it’s not him again.

The American ambassador has told Shiite officials that President Bush does not want the Iraqi prime minister to remain the country’s leader in the next government, senior Shiite politicians said Tuesday.

In another resounding blow for democracy, the Bush administration has been trying to tell the Iraqis who they are allowed to choose as their leader. If it wasn’t for the simple fact that hundreds of people are dying in Iraq almost every day due to American-led coalition action over the past few years then this would be funny. The American government has said that they believe that Iraq needs ‘a government of national unity with strong leadership that can unify all Iraqis.’ In other words, they need a charismatic dictator that the Americans approve of.

Yes, Saddam Hussein is a loony, yes, he needed to have his wings clipped, but the history of the area suggests that it needs an authoritarian regieme to prevent civil war. Iraq was made through the decision of Europeans to unite opposing areas into one country eighty-ish years ago, and now it’s ripping itself apart again because the only glue remaining was a despot.

To say that I find all this a bit frustrating is an understatement.


Sensible Muslims

Some Muslims have got together to produce a sensible response to the recent cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that have sparked demonstartions and occasionally riots around the world:

We affirm our belief in freedom of expression and people’s right to express whatever opinions they hold. However, at the same time there is a need to realize that freedom of expression is a responsibility that should not be used to gratuitously insult people’s beliefs.

When confronted with such a situation, we deplore the use of violence in all its forms, as well as threats of violence and derogatory and racist remarks being thrown in the opposite direction. We condemn the shameful actions carried out by a few Arabs and Muslims around the world that have tarnished our image, and presented us as intolerant and close-minded bigots.

Beehead the infidels!

There was an Islamic cleric called Muawiya back around the 7th century who wrote ‘I never apply a sword when a lash suffices, nor the lash when my tongue is enough. If there is even one thread binding me to my fellow man I do not let it break. If he pulls, I loosen, if he loosens, I pull.’ I’m not a great scholar of Islam by any means, but the principle there I think is very sound: you only use the minimum of force in any given situation to get the results needed, and sometimes you need to give ground as much as take it. The fuss about the cartoons strikes me as a situation where some flexibility is needed to preserve the ‘one thread’ binding multicultural societies together.

More about Google in China

In follow up to yesterday’s Gmao post about Google’s compromised search results for the Chinese government, here’s a little scary comparison of historical denial:

In Tiananmen Square in 1989 there was a spontaneous student protest against the oppressive government. The protest itself was then violently disbanded by armed troops, including the use of tanks, with an unknown number of resulting deaths (between 400 and 7000, depending on your source). This is considered to be one of the worst atrocities committed by the People’s Republic of China, although it is possible that it is instead just the most public one. I’d like to think that things have improved since then, with increased relations with the rest of the world leading to a society with a more flexible structure, but there are still serious and significant problems there. Clearly it would be desirable then for the people of China to have wider access to information, which is why there is such an issue over Google trimming its search results to government-ideologically approved websites.

So, here’s a scary example of what this produces:

The most famous symbol of the Tiananmen protest is ‘tank man’, otherwise known as ‘the unknown rebel’.

There he is, many, many times. Let’s have a look on the Chinese version of Google:

Just as the real man has vanished (some say executed in the following months, some say he’s in hiding in central China), so has all trace of his landmark protest. He was voted by Time magazine as being one of the 100 most important people in the 20th century, but in China he just doesn’t exist. In politics as with people, denial is never a healthy thing.

Pointed out here.

Google have gone too far!

House International Relations Subcommittee, subcommittee chairman Chris Smith recently said that Google ‘would enable evil by cooperating with China’s censorship policies just to make a buck’. ‘Enable evil’? It makes it sound like an option in your operating system… You go to your start menu, open the control panel, then in the I.O. menu (Ideological Orientation) click ‘evil’. Yes, China does have some very, very serious human rights issues, and I agree with Smith’s general view, but does he have to sound like a George W. Bush clone? He is a Republican, but, just because his leader is incapable of thinking in anything other than a Manichean good/evil binary, that’s no reason that he should do this too.


Blair on torture: ‘La la la, I’m not listening’

Tony Blair has made a statement about British complicity with the US policy of ‘extraordinary rendition’ (which basically means sending people off to countries that can torture people to gain ‘evidence’). In this he states:

I, I have absolutely no evidence to suggest that anything illegal has been happening here at all, and I’m not going to start ordering inquires into this, that and the next thing when I’ve got no evidence to show whether this is right or not – and I honestly, and you know, it’s like all this stuff about camps in Europe or something – I don’t know, I’ve never heard of such a thing.
I can’t tell you whether such a thing exists – because, er – I don’t know.

Well, that’s convincing. I feel that my concerns have been addressed, don’t you? More here.

Craig Murray, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan who I’ve quoted from before, is also causing the UK government more grief by publishing openly what were previously confidential letters that prove that the UK government has been complicit with using information gained through torture. Here’s editted ‘highlights’:

Jack Straw: “Not to the best of my knowledge… let me make this clear… the British government does not support torture in any circumstances. Full stop. We do not support the obtaining of intelligence by torture, or its use.” – Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, election hustings, Blackburn, April 2005

In March 2003 I was summoned back to London from Tashkent specifically for a meeting at which I was told to stop protesting. I was told specifically that it was perfectly legal for us to obtain and to use intelligence from the Uzbek torture chambers. – Craig Murray

I was stunned to hear that the US had pressured the EU to withdraw a motion on Human Rights in Uzbekistan which the EU was tabling at the UN Commission for Human Rights in Geneva. I was most unhappy to find that we are helping the US in what I can only call this cover-up. I am saddened when the US constantly quote fake improvements in human rights in Uzbekistan, such as the abolition of censorship and Internet freedom, which quite simply have not happened.

1. We receive intelligence obtained under torture from the Uzbek intelligence services, via the US. We should stop. It is bad information anyway. Tortured dupes are forced to sign up to confessions showing what the Uzbek government wants the US and UK to believe, that they and we are fighting the same war against terror.

2. I gather a recent London interdepartmental meeting considered the question and decided to continue to receive the material. This is morally, legally and practically wrong. It exposes as hypocritical our post Abu Ghraib pronouncements and fatally undermines our moral standing. It obviates my efforts to get the Uzbek government to stop torture they are fully aware our intelligence community laps up the results.

3. We should cease all co-operation with the Uzbek Security Services they are beyond the pale. We indeed need to establish an SIS presence here, but not as in a friendly state.

As seen from Tashkent, US policy is not much focussed on democracy or freedom. It is about oil, gas and hegemony. In Uzbekistan the US pursues those ends through supporting a ruthless dictatorship. We must not close our eyes to uncomfortable truth.

Even a hardened cynic such as myself has trouble believing that these are not real documents, and if they really are accurate recordings of what has been told to the UK government then it is clear evidence that we are being lied to. Full details here.

Judge rules that Intelligent Design is not science

It’s nice to know that some logic exists. If you’re paying any attention to science news on the web then you will have seen the small tidal wave of writers all expressing what can be summarised as ‘yay!’ over the past hour.

The Dover Federal Court judge, hearing the case arguing that Intelligent Design should not be taught as a viable alternative to the theory of evolution, has been scathing in his response:

this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

The judge also gives a sound and logical reason why ID should not be taught as science:

After a searching review of the record and applicable case law, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980’s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community.

This is the logic that the vast majority of the science community have applied to ID and it’s pleasing to see it confirmed by a court decision. I would have been astonished to see any other result, but that I even had any doubt at all suggests that my faith in the objective abilities of the US governmental system is very low at the moment. I’m very happy to see that a Republican judge has made a ruling that conflicts with the stated opinion of his Republican president.

In an additional point of amusement, the school board that first put ID into the school-room was voted out recently to be replaced with anti-ID members, showing that the people of the state were also behind the judge’s decision even before it was made.

Excerpts from the ruling here. NYT coverage here. The Register coverage here. Campaign for the adoption of the Flying Spaghetti Monster theory of creation here.

The Commies Are Coming! Again!

I bet you thought that the Communist threat to America was over, but apparently not. It turns out that Communists are actually terrorists! I know, who’d have thought it, eh?

If you fancy writing a paper about Communism a quick tip is to make sure that you don’t try and get access to the proper source materials:

A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung’s tome on Communism called “The Little Red Book.”

The version that the student had requested was a full translation of the Chinese original and not the abridged version that is more commonly available. The combination of this and the student’s time abroad in the past led to him getting the book personally delivered by two NSA agents. Apparently it’s on a watch list of books, although I really do wonder why, Al Qaeda’s main claim to fame was being instrumental in defeating armies from the USSR when they invaded Afghanistan back in the 1980s so I can’t imagine that there is any lingering love there, so maybe the Bush administration believes that Communism is still a threat to them? Well, I suppose that if you’re going to have a ‘War On Terrorism’ you might as well try and find a good opponent. Yep, Afghanistan was a pushover*, Iraq is a warm-up**, next stop China! Yee-haw! Ride ’em cowboys! We’re gonna shoot us sum Commies!

And this is why things like a book watch-list is counter-productive when used in such a scatter-gun manner. If such things were done in a transparent way that could be examined by the public then department resources could be saved, but the current system breeds intimidation and paranoia, both of which cause fear in the general population (which appears to be the objective of such measures) and makes the truly militant few more careful and less likely to be found. I could understand the justification for agents visiting a person who has specifically requested obscure middle-eastern religious texts and bomb-making instructions, but what terrorist would order those things through the library? Putting a book of quotes from a dead Communist leader on a terror-suspect-book watch-list is typical of a govern-mental approach that equates all things non-democratic with Evil. There is a vast difference between a Communist state (which rejects religion) and the Caliphate desired by ‘Islamic’ extremists, but still the two are lumped together with a single threat response.

Not that such things are only happening in the US: about five or six years ago, before the Sept 11th 2001 attacks, I knew a guy who was doing his PhD thesis about the increase in surveillance on the British public by the government. After doing his course for a couple of years he finally quit after finding evidence that his own phone-line was now being tapped and strong suggestions a file was being kept about him because of his studies. Apparently finding out about what your government knows about you is considered a risk to the state. Amusingly, as an academic and a liberal minded person, there’s probably a file on me too.

More about the Little Red Book case.

*not actually true: ‘There has been more money and more weapons flowing into their [militant insurgent’s] hands in recent months,’source, November 28, 2005


US bans torture


The astonishing thing here to me is that torture was not already banned. That coy little phrase ‘in the custody of the U.S. government’ appears though, which may allow ‘extraordinary rendition’ to continue, a.k.a. sending people off to other countries to be tortured by governments with lower standards.

‘No matter how evil or bad they are’ is a problematic phrase for me, because it suggests still the idea ‘but we’ll still think that they deserve it’ is silently added on the end, which doesn’t really encourage good behaviour by all departments involved.

It’s also a little surprising that Bush is still using the phrase ‘war on terror’. Hasn’t he realised what an incredibly stupid phrase that is by now? In particular it is utterly ridiculous considering that Iraq now has more terrorists in it than before Bush started. If you were to attempt to organise a method to ostracise and potentially radicalise large sections of the world’s population then you would go about it just the way that he has, but for some unknown reason he still believes that firstly he is engaged in a war (which by definition is between nations, so why aren’t we invading Terrorismia? Oh, that’s right, it doesn’t exist so no-one can be at war with terrorism) and secondly that he can somehow win a fight in which killing people for their beliefs will most likely make their families feel violently angry.

On a related note, the Patriot Act is in grave danger of disappearing from the law books thanks to suspciously well-timed revelations that hundreds or possibly thousands of people have had their conversations listened to on authorisation of the US president without any court approval. Bush states that he ‘authorized the National Security Agency, consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, to intercept the international communications of people with known links to Al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations’, but, given the simple fact that he had consistently led his country to believe that there were links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, I can’t help but wonder just how rigourously established these ‘known links’ really are. The strange thing here is that systems exist through which Bush can ask for a secret court hearing to permit electronic surveillance but he has decided to ignore that process and authorise the whole thing himself without any court approval; the result would be exactly the same except that additional safe-guards to protect the rights of individuals would be place, so why is he doing this secretly? I do worry when the leader of the most powerful nation on earth begins to act in ways that appear irrational at best and paranoid at worst.

Article about Bush tapping phones (quote taken from page two).

Shock news: rocks are old!

The NYT reports that a stone wall, dating somewhere between the late 1600s and 1760s, has been found during excavations to create a new subway line. It’s thought to be a remaining part of the Colonial defence structures from that time, probably used to protect the settlement from sea-based attacks using cannons and known as the Battery (some records show that the walls were manned by Duracell bunnies, and rumours suggesting that those records are written in my hand are all lies).

This obviously poses a problem, because a 45 foot wall of archaeological interest right in the path of your very expensive subway is always going to slow things down. I can’t say for sure, but in the UK we would measure, photograph, and record it as much as possible, then put a hole through it where it needs to be; if we didn’t know about the wall for centuries then the data will be preserved and overall there will be a gain. This is the most sensible option and has been suggested, with a twist, by the people on the project: ‘One idea the authority floated was to remove a three-foot-long section of the wall to be preserved elsewhere, and then go ahead with the excavation.’

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting massive flashbacks to a Sheryl Crow lyric: ‘They pull up all the trees and put them in a tree museum’. Sometimes historical items only really make sense in context. How about moving Stonehenge to central London to make it more convenient for tourists to visit? It’s nice to know that the wall is there, but it loses all meaning when you move it somewhere else. Warrie Price, president of the Battery Conservancy, summarises the strangeness of this attitude:

“If these stones are able to be reused,” she said, “it would be wonderful to be able to actually touch this history.”

Yes, shock news indeed; stones have been around for a long time. How many generations would it take before the surface of the stones would be worn down by tourist hands, leaving nothing of the original workings? So instead, it would likely be in a cabinet, and then you have created a strange relic: ‘Come See The Original Stones!’ The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote about the idea of simulation, suggesting that natural authenticity is being replaced by icons that represent authenticity. These icons simulate the properties of the original object or experience but repackage it out of context so that it loses its meaning. A wall only has meaning when it is in the place that it was built, because that is the defining feature of it, so by removing it from that location you get a distancing from the original purpose; it becomes a symbol of an old wall.

Perhaps I’m misjudging Warrie Price, maybe she means that it would be good if the stones could be put in as part of a new building, which is a different activity. Reusing them as a part of a wall, not as part of an exhibit as is suggested by the article, adds to their meaning rather than subtracting from it. They become a part of the continuous history of being, repurposed into an ongoing historical narrative. Yes, their value as a building material is equal to others, but the meaning of the stones is added to by their reuse rather than subtracted from by being placed out of context. In other words, a wall that is no longer a wall is just a pile of stones, and we already know that rocks are old.*

*unless everything was created 4000 years ago by a supernatural/alien being, of course.

ID cards video

The government has made a little video to explain about why ID cards are the way ‘to answer why identity cards are necessary and how the scheme will work’.

Download available here.

The amusing thing is that it doesn’t actually answer why ID cards are necessary. Surely a little bit more data in a passport would do exactly the same thing? We’ll end up with biometric data in those anyway, so why do we need a massively expensive new scheme that actually produces extremely little?