You are here


Today's Magic Trick: Spreading the Blame Without Thinning It Out

What's clear by now -- or ought to be -- is that the "Abu Ghraib Scandal" doesn't really reduce to who ordered whom to do what. Ultimately, what happened was that several groups of people, operating from the lowest to the highest levels of our military-political-industrial complex, all came to accept variations on an ethos that valorized the degradation of human beings.

What must not be lost in all of this is that the depravity at the bottom would not have been enabled without blessing from the top, cascading down through the "ranks" (and through the shadowy, extra-rank, quasi-civilian hierarchies of "military intelligence").

The rationalizations certainly varied with political ideology and position in the food chain -- and certainly with the individual as well. Rumsfeld rationalized his decisions with the rationale of preventing attacks on American forces (and contractors). Cambone rationalized his decisions as loyalty to Rumsfeld (and maybe a desire to prevent further attacks).

"Military Intelligence" (we now know, largely civilian contractors working under the SAP brief) probably just rationalized that they were 'doing their jobs'.

As did, probably, the guards. But at the lower levels, only a doctrinist would fail to understand that there was frank depravity going on, that was enabled by the individual cruelty, the street-gang mentality, of people like Spc Grainer.

We should be angry that this was allowed to happen. I've said before that we see this all the time, and we do, but (much as it pains me to admit), G. W. Bush is right about one thing: This does not represent "American Values" as we understand them in our daily lives. We get through each day by believing that we're better than this, and we ought to be angry that someone is taking away our ability to believe that.

And folks, this is a just the foreshadowing of a cascade of self-loathing waiting to happen, and we would not be in this situation if we had not been set up for it by a cadre of self-serving ideological zealots who had to have their blessed war, regardless of the consequences for America and for the chances of civil society in the world. Which, incidentally, ought to be pretty good by now, except that it's in the interest of war profiteers that they not be:

The Cheney Gang embraces an unfortunate but fundamental truth: there are billions to be made and power to be grabbed through war, pestilence, and chaos; not so much to be made through peace, equality, and stability. You have admit that enslaving the richest and most powerful country on the planet to forward the business plans of, at most, three or four hundred people is a ballsy move. But make no mistake: true, effective homeland security is antithetical to their aims. This country, and control of its government, is their tool. Period. [ddjangoWIrE, "Being prepared ...or being set up?"]

Our military are far from blameless. At the highest level, their defense still amounts to "I was following orders": Orders to plan an invasion in a way they knew would fail; orders to cede their authority and responsibility to others who didn't know what they were doing.

Faith v. Morality -- Revisited

Steven Waldman (â??No Wizard Left Behindâ?) states,

â??It's not, as one might expect, that Left Behind is Christian and Harry Potter pagan, but rather that Left Behind is Protestant and Harry Potter is Catholic.â?

Sorry, but that is oversimplification. Left Behind is Christian, not just Protestant. But it is a literalist, fundamentalist version of Christianity. And, even though we see a large modern Protestant contingent, Christian fundamentalists are found across the board.

As far as Harry Potter, this is even more ambiguous, in my estimation. I have read articles by Catholics who would cringe at the thought of being associated with Harry Potter â??theologyâ? (another topic for another time). In fact, some accuse the writings of promoting not just paganism, but also so-called â??hereticalâ? Gnosticism. As far as soteriology, Christian denominations are â??faithsâ? and generally have pistic emphasis. And morality is also endemic in all Christian theology, regardless of varied emphasis by certain factions portrayed in Left Behind.

Left Behind is certainly not representative of all Protestants, as Harry Potter is not a Catholic ambassador.

Why the need to pigeonhole Harry Potter, even though Harry Potter might be mirroring some values shared by Christians? I would seriously consider whether he is promoting Morality or whether he is promoting individual self-acquaintance, which in turn could enable an experiential ethical sense vs. one based on specifically following Catholic morality. Quite frankly, emphasis on a path of individual self-knowledge has been historically heavily polemicized against by Catholics and has been considered dangerous to the organized Christian institution (with its hierarchy of required intermediaries).

As Steven Waldman does state,

â??Some Christians view Harry Potter as anti-Christian because it glorifies witchcraft.â?

This is representative of what I consider a dangerous modern trend to literalize. What happened to symbolism, metaphor? Cannot the â??magicâ? signify a process of personal, alchemical psychological and/or spiritual transformation?

Mr. Waldman ends:

â??Left Behind is fatalistic; Harry Potter sees outcome determined by individual actions. Both provide a roadmap for how to live a good life, but in one case the key is morality, and in the other it is faith.â?

How do individual actions necessarily imply that the key â??is moralityâ? rather than self-discovery, which in turn might initiate compassionate moral/ethical action? The term â??moralityâ? covers a broad range, including religious moral systems and even laws that, yes, might work for some, but are designed to be broken by others. Even faith could be another key, but what kind of faith? Faith in oneâ??s own experience or pious faith in someone elseâ??s faith?

And do we even need to slap specific religious labels on Harry Potter? What happened to imagination?

End of sermon.


Faith v. Morality

Harry the P vs. the "Left Behind" series:

In that sense, despite their similarities, at their hearts the two series are different in a fundamental but not obvious way. Left Behind is fatalistic; Harry Potter sees outcome determined by individual actions. Both provide a roadmap for how to live a good life, but in one case the key is morality, and in the other it is faith. [emph added] ["No Wizard Left Behind", Slate]

I'll add: The Left Behind books are ultimately about getting to gloat (if only virtually) over the ruination of people you don't like.

(Thanks to MeFi.)

Note to Vinegar Joe

Senator Lieberman needs to understand something really basic: America breeds creeps like Charles Graner and sheep like Lynndie England. And guess what! Iraq breeds them, too; so do England, German, China... Find me a country that doesn't, and I'll show you paradise.

What's more, every place on earth where humans live has been breeding them for as long as we can imagine. The "increasingly violent and pornographic" popular culture in America might help -- probably do help -- but these monstrosities vary only in detail from things our intelligence agencies have trained and sponsored in various parts of the world for many decades. Long before the internet was anything but a pipe dream; way back when people were debating an "X" rating for Tobe Hooper's original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

So, here's hoping that Senator Lieberman can get a little perspective and tone down the invective. If he really wants to make American society more civil, preaching ain't the way to go.


This Just In: Pros Say That Stuff Don't Work!

From Reuters (via Yahoo), and currently absent on the blogosphere:

"Under questioning, a terrorist should be made to yield. Sexual abuse goes too far by breaking him, so it's not an option," Ami Ayalon, former chief of Israel's Shin Bet domestic security service, told Reuters.

"A broken man will say anything. That information is worthless."

This was only ever really about power. It was only ever really about a bunch of guys wanting to exercise ultimate power to humiliate ... somebody. Anybody. Oh, hey, look: There are some guys everybody hates!

Let's screw them over good. Let's make them ashamed they were ever born.

What -- they didn't do anything? Who cares! Everybody will be on our side when we humiliate them.

And, hey -- if we're really lucky, we'll be able to recruit some kinky morons with prison guard fantasies to help us out.

Special note -- courtesy MeFi [sorry, can't find the comment]: If you can't actually get a job as an interrogator, you can go to the Abu Ghraib fantasy camp, where you can humiliate willing subs -- er, surrogate iraqui prisoners -- er.... well, you can play torture dom, OK?

Thought for the Moment

From nicwolff @ MeFi:

And when you read "No responsible official of the Department of Defense approved any program that..." realize that the next paragraph is:

"To correct one of the many errors in fact, Undersecretary Cambone has no responsibility, nor has he had any responsibility in the past, for detainee or interrogation programs in Afghanistan, Iraq, or anywhere else in the world.

Got that? "No responsible official approved... Undersecretary Cambone has no responsibility". Nice.

There's probably something terribly clever that I could say here, but right now I'm struck dumb with awe that it could all boil down to something so....lawyerly...


Vinegar Joe's Musing for the Day

What caused these heinous acts? Was it just the latest example of the reality history reveals, that some soldiers crack under the stress of war? Was it the human weakness of guards exploiting the temporary power they hold over those in their control? Was it directed, encouraged, facilitated or tolerated by higher-ups in the chain of command? Was it somehow also the cumulative effect on a generation raised in an entertainment and Internet culture that has grown increasingly violent and pornographic?

I do not know enough yet to answer these important questions with sufficient confidence.

[Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman D-CT, Opinion Journal] [courtesy Daypop]

Vinegar Joe may not have the answers -- but it interests me which questions he chose to ask. They boil down to:

  • Was it the human weakness of soldiers under pressure?
  • Was it the human weakness of bullies put into uniforms?
  • Was it the human weakness of bullies put into uniforms, who maybe got a little encouragement from above?
  • Was it the human weakness of bullies put into uniforms who got that way because our culture has become an amoral cesspool thanks to those awful folks in Hollywood and the excessively permissive Internet?

Not asked: Was it the human weakness of bullies in suits and ties, granted ultimate bureacratic power and immunity from accountability?

Ascent of the Bullies

Catherine Seipp (courtesy DayPop) has some meditations on that snarky old pseudo-intellectual, Dennis Miller:

"Eddie's going to field that one," said Miller, referring to senior producer Eddie Feldman, "because you're too deep for me, Sylvia Plath."

Can anyone remember when Dennis Miller was funny and not snide -- when he was something more than the pseudo-intellectual equivalent of a schoolyard bully looking for the the biggest dog, so he could get on their team?

"I wish there was a country called al Qaeda and we could have started the war there," Miller said, "but there wasn't. And Hussein and his punk sons were just unlucky enough to draw the Wonka ticket in the a**hole lottery."

... And, of course, the long-term cost to our country -- international good-will, breeding the next four or five generations of terrorists, spending us into a hole that will bankrupt the federal government for administrations to come -- little, minor things like these don't matter.....


The Orient Express Problem

Bruce Sterling wonders just where the match drops in a distributed-responsibility scenario:

Suppose that these imaginary, entirely speculative, ticked-off arsonists adapted the handy tactics of Sven's own "Netsky" gang. So, like, one guy buys some gasoline, two more stockpile rags and bottles in a nifty private archive of tips and techniques, and then you get, like, a disaffected, emotionally wounded teenager living in his mom's basement to drive by in someone else's car with the keys left in it, throwing lit matches. When all hell breaks loose and the smoke is still rising, somebody gets a book deal, and somebody else in on the racket sells out the match-flinging point guy for a cool quarter million from Mister Softee.

*I mean, that's basically what's happening already, right? Except that arson merely burns one home while these characters are disrupting airlines, universities, and the daily lives of tens of thousands of innocent people.

Silly Rabbi; you're reasoning again.

It's the Orient Express problem: If they all did it, who's responsible? I don't recall this ever being discussed in ethics class, but I'm sure the utilitarians ran endless thought-experiments on it.

And it's a good question; and it's not just for hackers, either. If Jane Karpinski didn't order the excessive interrogation techniques, she didn't stop them either; if Lynndie England didn't do anything but gesture, leer, and hold the leash, well, she sure didn't report the abuse; if Maj.-Gen. Geoffrey Miller didn't order the specfic techniques used in Abu Ghraib, he sure suggested something; and where do we stop?

It's enough to drive you mad, ultimately. The usual response -- the one we make every day, when we are haunted by the shadow of our complicity in something larger, such as when we tank up our gas-guzzler or buy clothing manufactured in "emerging world" sweatshops -- is to shut it all out of our minds. Often, these days, the mere existence of any contradiction is used as an excuse for any other (well, at least any other that we find appealing). (After all, "anything can follow from a contradiction.")

I don't have an answer. I do know that relying too much on logic to analyze your ethical choices it a slippery slope toward sociopathy.


Faith & Intellect

Frankly, I fail to see how it takes any intellect at all to have faith. Which is quite different from saying that faith is 'anti-intellectual.' What's lacking from an assertion on that matter is any idea of what faith is; I'm not aware of any commonly used definition that requires intellect.

So it might be that people who say that faith is anti-intellectual "aren't very bright"; I prefer to think they're just not using their imaginations.

Of religions faith, on the other hand, one could make the argument (with some strain and effort, I should think) that intellect is required to elaborate it and make it stand up to the world as we know it. But I suspect that what's really at work is not intellect per se, but rather, intellectual skill. Sophistry, as it were. Better to let faith be what faith is good at being.

As for myself, I will leave my faith in simple things: The sun will rise; I will not die in my sleep.

[Imperial] Clothing and the Digerati

Gerrit at SmartMobs agrees with Blue Arnaud: Privacy is a lost cause.

We should forget about trying to keep "our data" private; we should make it public, and take care that it is under our control. "This profile can be the basis for the social networking services," Gerritt summarizes.

But he doesn't do it justice. In truth, for Blue Arnaud, it seems to be as much about commerce as about the humans we're profiling:

This user profile has value for companies. Companies can access this profile under a Personal Commons license in a standardised and legal way. Then they can adapt their interaction with a user accordingly. They might even give discount if an user profile is available, as it makes their live cheaper (less marketing cost). This profile can also be the basis of the various Social Networking Services, which can then focus on their business: networking. A userâ??s wishlist and transaction trail is no longer available to just Amazon, but all book shops.

"So be in control again," Blue Arnaud admonishes, like a good libertarian-tinged digeratum:

A user should make this profile explicit, as some users are already doing in their weblog. Make sure that this profile represents yourself (or one of your personae) or otherwise the world might invent your profile and they might guess wrong. And publish this profile on your own website, weblog, whatever. The user becomes a writer and a publisher. This profile information could be published under some Personal Commons arrangement, i.e. personal information that is available to the world.

Beyond the detail, this is no new idea among the digerati; it's really just another variation on that ripe old technophilic anthropomorphism, "information wants to be free", which seems to get tossed around so glibly by people who utterly fail to understand its consequences. The barriers of the personal are eroding every day; that's a good thing, these folks seem to be saying.

They haven't thought it through.

They seem to believe that there will be some kind of real and fundamental trasnformation in the nature of the human animal -- forgetting, as always, that the human is animal, and thus evolved in the real and not metaphorical sense of the term. And that barring truly godlike capacity to restructure our very genome, biology, ultimately, will win out.

We forget the timescales of evolution at greater peril than threatens us for forgetting the lessons of history. Since, after all, Evolution is the most fundamental history lesson of all.

They haven't really used their imaginations. It's a pity; their far flung imaginings prove it's possible. Much like simplistic advocates of total sexual freedom, they have failed to really look inside themselves to ascertain what it would feel like for this world to be true.

Or perhaps they're just technofetishists.

Lynching General Karpinski

The WP posts an apologia for Brigadier General Jane Karpinski [free reg req'd]. As each day passes, the world more and more baldly resembles Wealth Bondage:

Karpinski specializes in placing up-and-coming executives in stressful situations to see how they fare. For example, she might assign a business person to make a speech and then have someone scatter his briefing papers, or subject him to loud noise or language barriers, sometimes taping the whole thing by hidden camera. She tests people for what she calls "skills under fire," which is fitting, given her life right now.

Karpinski says the fact that she functions best under "any kind of stress or pressure" is what made her such a good leader during her time as commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade. But a 53-page report of the investigation into abuses at Abu Ghraib, an inquiry led by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, suggests otherwise. It depicts a commander with poor communication skills who "rubber stamped" investigations into escapes by detainees, and made too few visits to Abu Ghraib, which she recalls as about 35 miles from where she was headquartered. It says she understaffed the prison, exercised poor oversight and failed to remind her soldiers of the Geneva Conventions' protections for detainees. It recommends that she be "relieved from command." It includes this account of an interview with her:

"BG Karpinski was extremely emotional during much of her testimony. What I found particularly disturbing in her testimony was her complete unwillingness to either understand or accept that many of the problems inherent in the 800th MP Brigade were caused or exacerbated by poor leadership and the refusal of her command to both establish and enforce basic standards and principles among its soldiers."

Many people with a few years of experience inside Corporate America will find Taguba's characterization entirely consistent with Karpinski being good at her civilian job: Screwing with people for fun and profit. If your job is to rattle people and see what shakes loose, chances are you won't be very good at leading rattled people; your natural tendency will be to rattle them more, to tell them to tough it up and stop whining.

But it's not her fault, of course. She couldn't be everywhere and know everything:

"I don't see why she wouldn't have been responsible," says retired Army Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, a former director of the National Security Agency. "If she commands the prisons, she's responsible for what goes on in the prisons."

But Karpinski's brother, Jay Beam, who also served in the Army for 12 years, sees it differently.

"That would be like saying -- what's his name with Disney? Eisner? -- that Eisner would know what a ride operator at Disney was doing. That's what you have middle management for, and you've got to be able to trust your subordinates."

And therein lies the problem: Someone who's business is "turning up the heat on corporate types to see if they fry" is not likely to be someone who's trusted by subordinates -- which is, after all, the necessary antecedent to being able to trust your subordinates.

I would not be the tiniest bit surprised if General Karpinski were being scapegoated. From everything I've heard, that's how the Army hierarchy works. (And why not? That's how corporate hierarchies work.)

But I would be extremely surprised if Karpinski were a good leader who "bring[s] great experience to the table." It's just not something I find plausible when said about someone who's job is to crack others. Leadership trickles down, and so does sh*t. Chalk it up as another triumph of greedism.

"An atrocity-producing situation"

From WeSun, 2004/05/09, psychologist Robert Jay Lifton on the conditions necessary to engender an "atrocity-producing situation" ("Mental Aspects of Abuse and War"):

[What's involved is] the creation of a group process that goes beyond individual psychology... that one could call an atrocity-producing situation.


To really carry through atrocities of this kind, you need something more. You need a situation that has some sanction, some approval above, and which draws in people from below who have psychological struggles of their own. This is most likely to happen ... in counter-insurgency wars, as in the case of Vietnam and now Iraq in which you feel under duress and threatened, and there's considerable hostility from the environment, and it's very hard to locate and pin down your enemy.


.... [T]o carry through the work of that ... so called atrocity producing situation, one had to form a special new self. Of course it's the same person, but one forms a second self in what I call 'doubling'. One becomes a different person in that environment, and that's why old friends hardly recognize that person. And when one returns to an ordinary environment, and is no longer in a situation of atrocity, one seeks to return to that earlier, more humane self.... And it's a constant struggle over time....

We've been lucky so far. This hasn't yet gone on for years and years and poisoned tens of thousands of patriotic young soldiers -- only thousands.

But this "atrocity producing situation" is sitting in a big electronic fishbowl, and every day that this issue persists unresolved, it poisons tens of millions of non-military Americans and hundreds of millions of non-Americans.

Ghosts of My Lai, Part I

If the ghosts of My Lai are stirring, they've been awakened by chickenhawks who salivate righteously over accounts of torture.

It feels trite to once again point out how ignorant of history [MeFi] we Americans (and British) are. It feels trite to point out that we have created a mess for ourselves that it will take generations to begin to repair -- that we have sowed the whirlwind. What we reap now are merely the opportunistic weeds that spring up in the earth disturbed by our plows, on the furrows we haven't spared the labor to care for.

We are asked to believe that it would harm the "war effort" if SecDef Rumsfeld were to resign. I find it sublimely ironic that the Administration is so concerned for military morale. The ghosts of My Lai are rising to haunt us; no, our soldiers haven't gunned down villagers in a field this time, nor can we expect them to start (presumably, we can hire contractors to take care of that). But we can see that the wound hurts some even more than My Lai did. The American military worked hard to heal itself from the festering wounds of Vietnam (whether or not successfully is another topic for another time), and now, their own superiors have inflicted similar wounds to the honor that they worked so hard to get back.

Of course, Rumsfeld's resignation would solve nothing; he's a minion, not a mastermind. The title of "mastermind" belongs to others, such as our own Vice President. Even the President himself is rescued from minion-status only by virtue of the fact that people have to do what he says; like Seward (as NYS Governor) or Theodore Roosevelt, he could (should he choose) shitcan the lot of them. But he won't, because he's fundamentally compromised to an extent we haven't seen in an American president since the 19th century. Even Richard Nixon at least had the spine to admit, if only tacitly, that he knew what was going on. He did not willfully cultivate ignorance, as George W. Bush has. (For the last so anti-intellectual President, though, we need only go back to Coolidge.)

"Corporate Person" as Psychopath

The modern concept of the corporation, as it is realized in America and Britain, is of an entity that is permitted to act as a "legal person". But just what kind of a person would a corporation be? The Economist, reviewing the 2003 documentary The Corporation, provides an answer: It would be a psychopath.


Like all psychopaths, the firm is singularly self-interested: its purpose is to create wealth for its shareholders. And, like all psychopaths, the firm is irresponsible, because it puts others at risk to satisfy its profit-maximising goal, harming employees and customers, and damaging the environment. The corporation manipulates everything. It is grandiose, always insisting that it is the best, or number one. It has no empathy, refuses to accept responsibility for its actions and feels no remorse. It relates to others only superficially, via make-believe versions of itself manufactured by public-relations consultants and marketing men. In short, if the metaphor of the firm as person is a valid one, then the corporation is clinically insane.


The main message of the film is that, through their psychopathic pursuit of profit, firms make good people do bad things. Lucy Hughes of Initiative Media, an advertising consultancy, is shown musing about the ethics of designing marketing strategies that exploit the tendency of children to nag parents to buy things, before comforting herself with the thought that she is merely performing her proper role in society. Mark Barry, a â??competitive intelligence professionalâ?, disguises himself as a headhunter to extract information for his corporate clients from rivals, while telling the camera that he would never behave so deceitfully in his private life. Human values and morality survive the onslaught of corporate pathology only via a carefully cultivated schizophrenia: the tobacco boss goes home, hugs his kids and feels a little less bad about spreading cancer....

The film-makers have the Corporate Person as their subject. True to their milieu, The Economist finds that insufficient: Socialist dictatorships are also psychopathic, they point out. Bureacracies are just as bad as corporations. Just ask the North Koreans.

But The Economist fails in its analysis inasmuch as it falsely concludes that states are somehow generically less accountable than corporations. In America -- at least, in theory, and assuming we have paid attention -- we do have some measure of control over the "Corporate Person" as embodied by the state. And as the Corporate Persons of the world proceed to internationalise themselves, they become less subject to the laws of individual countries. And as a state runs up against the petty restrictions forced upon by by its bleeding-heart populace, it turns to "contractors" in the pay of Corporate Persons who are not bound by state regulation.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Propaganda

Is History the Nightmare? Or is history the dream analysis we undergo to make sense of the nightmare?

I think the distinction is this: Third Reich propaganda extolled what almost any sane person would consider to be an objective evil. Communist propaganda extolled virtues (such as labor for the common good, solidarity and community) which are not objectively evil... the problem being that they did not practice them. It may seem odd, but I find in the end that Communist propaganda as art is acceptable because it was a lie. Unlike Nazi propaganda, the Commie stuff didn't promote the aspirations of it's rulers, but rather the lies of its rulers. The horror of Nazism is that it was exactly what it aspired to be. The horror of so-called Communism is that it wasn't.
[George Spiggott on MeFi, "Fools for Communism"]

Alas, it's not true; but it does touch on a truth. There was plenty of Nazi propaganda that extolled the pursuit of noble virtues, and plenty that fronted outrageous lies.

The essential difference seems to me to be in the appeal to authority. Nazi (fascist) propaganda focused largely on authority as an embodied moral force -- and the embodiment was the agents of the State: In the person of Hitler, in the image of the SS, in the orderly brown uniforms.

By contrast, Soviet propaganda seems to focus on authority as an abstract force. Men in uniform are relatively rare; more commonly, the posters depict the informal uniform of "the worker" (overalls, work boots, head scarves).

So the difference seems to be where the authority is said to be vested: In the State (or the "Volk", for that matter), or with the Workers. There's the grain of truth in George Spiggott's observation: The Nazis presented authority as vested in the State, and it was; the Soviets presented authority as vested in the Workers, and it wasn't.

So at that level, yes, the Nazis "told the truth", and the Soviets lied.


How About An "Observer Effect" Meme?

"They got this guy, in Germany. Fritz Something-or-other. Or is it? Maybe it's Werner. Anyway, he's got this theory, you wanna test something, you know, scientifically - how the planets go round the sun, what sunspots are made of, why the water comes out of the tap - well, you gotta look at it. But sometimes you look at it, your looking changes it. Ya can't know the reality of what happened, or what would've happened if you hadn't-a stuck in your own goddamn schnozz. So there is no 'what happened'? Not in any sense that we can grasp, with our puny minds. Because our minds... our minds get in the way. Looking at something changes it. They call it the 'Uncertainty Principle'. Sure, it sounds screwy, but even Einstein says the guy's on to something." ['Freddy Riedenscheider', The Man Who Wasn't There]

Sam Arbesman's MemeSpread project aimed to chart the progress of a particular (albeit problematic) meme thoughout the "blogosphere", given known sources. Initially seeded on, BoingBoing and Slashdot, Only Kottke picked it up; it apparently fared poorly until it hit MeFi, from whence it boomed across the web like one of those evanescant thunderclaps that wash across the blogosphere like a summer rain in the desert.

A Wired News article summarizes the story (though it fails to link to Arbesman's own writeup [pdf]). Aside from a passing reference to the "Hawthorne Effect", though, it doesn't really deal with the difficulty of studying phenomena such as this. It reminds me of a similar project I pitched to my undergrad advisor in 1992, with the idea of pushing out memes via Usenet. (He was uncomfortable with the human subjects concerns -- my experimental design was constructed to avoid observer effects.)

"On Social Software Consultancy"

Man, the threads just never stop weaving...

An overview piece on "social software" and its high-level requirements, from the perspective of needing to deliver recommendations to a client: Matt Webb, "On Social Software Consultancy", INTERCONNECTED, courtesy

Worth a detailed read-through; need to come back to this...

Mis-Defined Words

Here's a thought-experiment for those folks who don't think what happened at Abu Ghraib was "torture." Note that this experiment will be particularly fruitful for conservative Christians and people with an intact and functining moral imagination.

Imagine that you're a male, heterosexual, evangelical Christian police officer, assigned to bust mobsters who run a prostitution ring. Let's say you're captured by "the enemy". They proceed to strip you naked, urinate on you, doll you up in bondage gear, and place you into humiliating positions -- e.g., arranged, naked, into a 69 with one of your fellow officers.

Then they take pictures of you.

And maybe they tell you that they're going to send those pictures around to everybody in your church, in brown envelopes marked "Sweepstakes entry inside!"

And then, for good measure, they cram a glow-stick where the sun don't shine.

Now ask yourself -- be honest -- was that "torture"?

Outsourcing the Dirty Work

From American Samizdat:

The Iraq torture scandal just keeps getting worse. Much worse.

Contractors and the CIA are coming under close scrutiny for their role in all this, which should not be a surprise. The hallmark of this war has been the heavy dependence on private companies to provide just about everything.

And as for the CIA, torture is in their blood. Vikram Dodd points out in today's Guardian that we have every reason to believe that the operators of US detention centers are just following the same script that's been in place for over 40 years, the advice from two historic CIA manuals for "interrogation" -- one from 1963, the other from 1983.

The nature of these tortures (harnessing old women up to ride them like horses, glow-stick sodomy -- all that's wanting is rum and the lash to make the Brits feel at home) certainly fits the Tutor's characterization: This starts to look a lot like bondage, after all.

But of course, it's not really torture; the SecDef himself says so: "I don't know if it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there's been a conviction for torture. And therefore I'm not going to address the torture word."

Consider, too, Rummy's response when first facing the press corps: 'We had reports before; we expected them. We've always known that terrorists alledge abuse when they're imprisoned, that's just something they do.'

Something interesting is happening to American power, and not just on the Other-World Street: "The Pentagon" is now despised by its generals (who were of course first despised by It), and the CIA has leapt eagerly back into the role of Creepy Spook (and Bondage Domme?); meanwhile, all the things that US soldiers and bureaucrats aren't legally allowed to do are now just done by contractors.

Memo to Libertarians: If you can afford to hire goons, you can do whatever you want. And there's a big and eager pool of folks just itching to get paid for rough trade.

On Being A Good 'Security Consumer'

The invasion of Iraq, for example, is presented as an important move for national security. It may be true, but it's only half of the argument. Invading Iraq has cost the United States enormously. The monetary bill is more than $100 billion, and the cost is still rising. The cost in American lives is more than 600, and the number is still rising. The cost in world opinion is considerable. There's a question that needs to be addressed: "Was this the best way to spend all of that? As security consumers, did we get the most security we could have for that $100 billion, those lives, and those other things?"

If it was, then we did the right thing. But if it wasn't, then we made a mistake. Even though a free Iraq is a good thing in the abstract, we would have been smarter spending our money, and lives and good will, in the world elsewhere.


We need to bring the same analysis to bear when thinking about other security countermeasures. Is the added security from the CAPPS-II airline profiling system worth the billions of dollars it will cost, both in dollars and in the systematic stigmatization of certain classes of Americans? Would we be smarter to spend our money on hiring Arabic translators within the FBI and the CIA, or on emergency response capabilities in our cities and towns?

As security consumers, we get to make this choice. America doesn't have infinite money or freedoms. If we're going to spend them to get security, we should act like smart consumers and get the most security we can.

[ZDNet -- Bruce Schneier, "The security trade-off"]

Grendel's Dance

Here's how it works:

Grendel sleeps with Arthur. The great heroes, and the great villains, all sleep together in the same dark cave. But don't take my word for it.

The villains will rise first (so the stories tell us). They'll rise, creaky, perhaps awakened by some injustice, by some raider in their tomb. They'll be angry, and we won't be able to blame them. But we will be able to fear them, and we will. We will fear them.

Tradition has it that the first victims will be hapless. The robber himself will escape - perhaps he'll die later, perhaps he'll go scot-free. But the first victim will be an old woodcutter, or an elderly woman foraging for roots in the forest near the forbidden cave. It's important that it be so. It's important.

And all of this has already happened, of course. That's the most important thing. You need to remember that: This has already happened, even if only in the dreamtime.

And then there is the king.

Arthur sleeps somewhere inside a barrow, Merlin inside a tree. And someday one or both will waken, and ride forth to save us from our darkest enemies in our darkest hour - or save us from ourselves, in the darkest hour of our dawn patrol.

But no one ever says exactly how this will happen. Where will his armies come from? Will he lead a retinue of ghostly or wakened armored knights, creaky as their leader from their long sleep? Will he sally forth in battle? Will he become a political leader, a moral leader - will his mere stature, his mythic presence, be enough to banish the darkness?

Sometimes, it is hinted that the hero will fall again, but ever nobly, and only after our deliverance. Only after fulfilling the purpose of his long sleep, his long stopover on his trip to eternity.

But even there details are sketchy. This is, after all, something that hasn't yet happened, not even in the dreamtime.

So what have these two in common, and what holds them yet apart? Grendel dies; Arthur yet lives. Arthur yet lives, because he has not yet arisen to be killed. As long as Arthur has not yet risen, Grendel yet lives. So they dance. So they dance.

[Originally written sometime before 2000...recently unearthed during a spate of digital archaeology, and posted with the eery realization of how well it applies to the current world...]

Being at one with the mirror

Evil is inconceivable - until you taste its pleasures for yourself. And don't you taste it, passing these lurid torture photos from hand to hand, from blog to blog? Deny it if you will. But why are your pupils so dilated, drinking in the most forbidden pleasure? We will not as a nation conquer evil until we find it, each of us, in his or her own lusts, and conquer it there. Will to power; power to hurt - the lust that grows when slaked, that only increases with age.
[The Happy Tutor / Wealth Bondage]

Is there a corollary here to Truffaut's Maxim? Perhaps: It's impossible to oppose sex-n-violence, because sex-n-violence are just too exciting? Some deeper truth lurks...

"I come here not to bury Pat Tillman, but to modify him"

From San Francisco Chronicle, Gwen Knapp relates impressions from Pat Tillman's funeral:

"Pat isn't with God," he said. "He's f -- ing dead. He wasn't religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he's f -- ing dead."

What? This didn't happen for God, as well as country? A professional athlete turned soldier, and we're supposed to believe that he'd have no use for piety? Robbed of a cliche, where does that leave us?

By now, everyone knows Tillman didn't want people to talk about him -- to read any other reasons than his own into why he did what he did. And now his family (his father said similarly irreverent things) have done their bit to subvert the Tillman Myth. But really, as long as we keep talking about him, we can't help but perpetuate it.

So, barring unforeseens, I'll vow to never mention Pat Tillman here again. I'll just say, along with McCain, that he seemed to be an honorable man.

Literal Arthur

5. The next religion will value myth, and not confuse it with history.


And yet, a religion that presents its mythology as history will never make peace with science. Each new archeological discovery or new method of textual criticism will pose a challenge that will demand a new denial, rationalization, or reinterpretation. Eventually this baggage will be too heavy to carry, as it currently is for many Christians. But if a religion truly values its mythology, then there is no need to claim it as history. Fundamentalists cling so desperately to historical accuracy of the Genesis creation story because if it is "just a myth" it has no value for them. But this is an absurd point of view--would we really prefer an accurate history of Troy to The Iliad? Would we choose true Danish history over Hamlet? The next religion will recognize that myth is often more important than history, just as the exploits of King Arthur have as much significance to Western culture as the actions of any historical English king. Whether Arthur is historical or not does not matter, for he is mythic.

[Characteristics of the Next Religion]

So many missed points, and all to the point.

Hamlet is not Danish history, and does not seriously purport to be. And if closely observing religion (as I dare say I've done since the tender age of about eight) has taught me anything, it's that people have surprisingly little problem with the 'heavy baggage' of mere logical inconsistency.

I'll cop to "point missed", of course; this passage is meant to describe how it oughta be, not how it is. But in hopefulness, it's trecherously naive: The idea of Arthur is much more dangerous (as a function of its greater worldly power) as a literal myth than a metaphorical one.

Risk and Restraint

Why are we in such a bad spot with network security?

The ugly truth of system security is that it will never be possible to be fully secure. Never. That's just a truth we've got to face. It's always going to be possible to hack a system that's online. The best we'll ever be able to do is make it hard, and prevent excessive damage.

It's not a function of your operating system, your applications, or your purity of essence. It's just a fact of life.

In fact, though, we're arguably a lot safer online than we are in real-life:

Online: Real World:
We can easily install firewalls that can only be defeated by fairly clever people. We have doors that can be beaten in by anyone with a sledgehammer.
We can back up our critical files and restore them from CD, DVD, external HD or tape. We permanently lose the memories that we lose when someone takes that sledgehammer and taps us on the skull with it.
If someone compromises our PC, it's not likely to cause bodily harm or loss of life. It's really really easy for a person of less than average intelligence to cause bodily harm or loss of life with any number of real-world implements. Or bare hands, for that matter.

In the real world, though, most of us go around with some reasonable sense of assurance that we'll be safe.

It's not because we've got police; it's because the vast majority of people don't do those harmful things. Maybe they think about it, but they don't act on it.

The difference, in other words, is because online is different from real life. Online, we "kill" with impunity, every day, in flame wars or RPGs or verbal metaphors. In the real world, we think twice.

For now.

Esse Quam Videre

Fast Company: "The cardinal rule at Google is, If you can do something that will improve the user's experience, do it." [Google IPO News Feed - RSS]

That all depends on who the user is, and what they perceive to be an improvement.

If the user is someone who's just bought a buttload of adwords from Google, then, hey, damn straight...

To paraphrase Fernando: To look not-Evil is much more important than to be not-Evil....

What's Virtual, Next?

It's not all good, at least not for everybody. The virtualization abstraction breaks the link between "a server"--in fact, the operating system--and the hardware on which it runs. This is counter to the way that some companies, notably Microsoft, see computers. Load a new Microsoft operating system on a machine and the first thing it does is lock itself down harder than a limpet on a rock. It scans the computer and uses all the details of the hardware it finds to generate a security code to make darn sure it can't be moved onto another machine. But when the hardware it scans is virtual, what good is that? If your license states that you can only ever run your OS on the computer on which it was first installed, do you give up on virtualization or do you find an OS with less draconian conditions? [Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet, "Virtual computing: real benefits, real changes"]

The F/OSS answer is "obviously, the latter." But as Rupert points out: "[Y]ou never get something for nothing, especially not from a company whose sole purpose is to sell you stuff." [Corrollary: A company whose sole purpose is to sell you stuff will expect to get a return on it's OSS investments.]

So the next great battle starts. IBM will play on the side of commodification (because they know that's what they do well), and Microsoft will play on the side of lock-in (because they think that's what they do well).

What we will fail to understand until too late -- if we ever do understand it -- is that "total freedom" (i.e., IBM's commoditized-service world) may well end up being "less free" (as in freedom or free beer) than a highly (but not totally) proprietized world, a la Microsoft.


Subscribe to RSS - Ethosphere