Stardate 20011020.2055 (On Screen): Saudi Arabia is a wild card. It announced that if the United States attacked any Arab country, the Saudis would side with the Arabs. That's interesting, because the next target on the list after Afghanistan is straightened out is almost certainly Iraq. One way or another, the reign of Saddam Hussein is going to end soon. If it doesn't happen through diplomacy (which seems unlikely) or assassination (on the ground or by targetted air attack, which seems even more unlikely) then it will involve a ground war. The question is the extent to which Saudi Arabia follows through on this threat. For example, it could make a token demonstration simply by refusing to permit use of its land and airspace. In that case, an attack would be made from the Gulf and out of Turkey, but the fighting would be difficult because the front would initially be narrow in both places. If that was the extent of Saudi "siding", it would be a problem but not a fatal one.
A second level would be if they actually provided troops and other aid. That is actually less of a concern than you might think; Saudi Arabia actually doesn't have that big an army. Their air force would be a much more formidable threat, since they're armed with F-16's; on the other hand they don't have anything like as many of them, and though their pilots are good, they're not as good as ours. If Saudi jets tried to defend Iraqi air space, then their airfields would be subject to attacks to render them useless, and there might have to be other actions against them. I don't think they would have the ability to hold the air over Iraq; I don't think they could hold the air even over Saudi Arabia if we decided to dispute it. The real question would be their oil and what they would do with it.
They tried a boycott once already, in 1973. At that time, OPEC controlled a larger percentage of the world's oil supply than they do now. Since then, the North Sea oil field, North Slope of Alaska and major oil production in Russia have come on line. Russia, in particular, is eager to export more oil to get hard currency. There is also the US strategic petroleum reserve, established in 1975 to protect the nation against a recurrance of an oil supply boycott. It currently contains in excess of 500 million barrels of petroleum, and unlike oil wells it can be pumped out as fast as it's needed. There's also the fact that Kuwait, unlike Saudi Arabia, would have no sympathy for Iraq and might be willing to increase oil output to compensate for a cutoff by Saudi Arabia, if the US Navy could keep the waterways to Kuwait clear. So while a cutoff of Saudi oil could be a problem, I don't think it would be a catastrophe. And Mexico and Venezuala also might be able to increase production at least to some extent, and surely would do so if asked. There would be an impact, but I don't think it would be as severe as in 1973 -- and it wasn't effective then, either.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is very vulnerable. It is not self-sufficient in virtually anything except petroleum, and would be extremely vulnerable to a naval blockade. As long as it was still shipping oil, this would not be necessary, but if it stopped doing so, the US could cut Saudi Arabia off from all world goods, including food if need be; Saudi Arabia would be hurt much sooner and much deeper by that then would the rest of the world. By far the easiest way to do this would be to mine the Saudi Arabian harbors. One B-52 can drop enough mines in one sortie to render pretty much any harbor useless (it doesn't take many); with the resources we have in that area now, we could stop all shipping in and out of Saudi Arabia within three days. Mines brook no arguments, they listen to no threats, and they can't be frightened or bluffed. They don't negotiate and they can't be bought off.
I believe that this announcement by Saudi Arabia was mainly intended for internal consumption. They are trying to deal with the political issues involved in having the US attack a Muslim nation, albeit not an Arab one. The Taliban are trying to play up the war as Christianity versus Islam, a new crusade; the US (and indeed the Saudi government) are trying to portray it as a battle of civilization against terrorists; the US is letting Saudi Arabia sit it out and stay neutral, because we don't need them and we recognize that forcing them to actively support us could destabilize their government. But even with the nation remaining neutral, this is leading to unrest inside Saudi Arabia. The Saud monarchy's grip on the nation is reported to be loosening, and the possibility does exist for a revolution there. This announcement was intended to help prevent that, by portraying the Saud's as loyal Arabs.
Still, when and if this eventuality actually does come up, I suspect the refusal to allow use of their territory would be the main extent to which they would carry out their threat. If that was all they did, while continuing to trade, we would probably ignore it just as we are now, letting them stay neutral. If they begin active military operations against us, we'd blockade and their government would almost certainly fall. Unfortunately, what would replace it would probably be worse in the long run, and it might lead eventually to a war in Saudi Arabia after Iraq was taken care of. Still, that prospect would not cheer the Saud's themselves, since they would be gone.
It's also possible, of course, that when the time finally came that they'd change their mind. Once we've replaced the Taliban, if it turns out that we do a decent job of nation building afterwards and set up a government sympathetic to the practice of Islam, even though not a theocracy, this would remove enormous pressure. It would prove that this is indeed not a war against Islam or even against the people of a given nation, but only against their leaders. That might then make it politically more palatable for the Saudis to declare neutrality in any war against Iraq.
Another factor which might aid in that is if it turned out that Iraq had a hand in some sort of international use of weapons of mass destruction. In particular, if it turns out that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attack, or if it turns out that Iraq is involved in the anthrax mail, or if Iraq were to commit some similar atrocity (i.e. providing nerve gas for a terrorist attack, or worse yet a nuke), then it would be possible for the Saudi government to declare Saddam himself to be a monster and, in essence, to disown him as an Arab. This war is going to involve far more diplomacy and negotiations and shifting alliances than any war since WWI. With so many ways that the war in Afghanistan itself could go, it's almost impossible to forecast what the next part of the conflict would be or how it would be fought. Almost any war involves a combination of planning and improvisation; this one will involve somewhat more improvisation than most. (discussion in progress)
Update: Another event which would change everything would be if there were a major terrorist attack on Saudi Arabia itself by an Arab and/or Islamic terrorist group. It's difficult to say how big "major" would need to be, it would depend on the details of the attack. For example, a small nerve-gas or bio-weapon attack on Saudi Arabia would be politically as effective as a much larger death toll caused by more conventional weapons. That would change the situation into more like it was in 1990, when one Arab nation fought against another, with the help of outsiders; it then could be justified internally as not being an Arab versus Christian conflict.
Stardate 20011020.1558 (On Screen): More about yesterday's ground action is coming out. Two targets were assaulted, an airfield and a Taliban command post. There were three purposes to these raids. First, to establish the political and propaganda point that we actually do have the ability to operate on the ground there. Second, to try to capture documents and other information. Third, to destroy those installations afterwards. (If destruction was all that was required, they would have bombed them.) It appears all three were accomplished, and the men were extracted afterwards, so the operation was a success. The Pentagon is not revealing the extent to which they suffered casualties. The Taliban are claiming that they drove the attack off. That's horseshit, typical Taliban false bravado. The Rangers left because there was no longer any reason to stay. (discuss)
Stardate 20011020.1228 (On Screen): We got another scumwatch entry here. Someone is passing around an email scam which contains an HTML-encoded form. It claims to be from the Red Cross; you put in your credit card number and other identifying information and "make a donation" -- to the scammers, since the Red Cross has nothing to do with it. Of course, whoever does this is going to be traced, since it's not possible to get money via credit cards this way without leaving a paper trail. But in the mean time, if you want to give money to the Red Cross, visit their web site. (discuss)
Stardate 20011020.1106 (On Screen): It's amazing where you can end up when you choose an axiom incorrectly. John Calvin began with the axiom "God is omniscient and omnipotent." His religion didn't admit any other alternative; the Bible said that God was all knowing and all powerful and Calvin believed in biblical inerrancy. If God is omnipotent, then God controlled every aspect of the fate of the universe at the moment it was created. If God is omniscient, then at the moment He created it he knew everything that would take place within it to the end of time. But that, in turn, meant that He knew everyone who would be born, what they would do during their lives, when they would die, and most important of all, whether they would go to heaven or hell. But if God knew those things, then it means that they are predetermined. There is nothing any of us can do about it. Some of us will reside in heavenly bliss, some will burn in eternal agony, and nothing whatever that we do while we live will change it. That became known as the "doctrine of predestination", and the creed of "Calvinism" was based on it; several major modern Protestant faiths (such as the Methodist Church in which I was raised) are derived from it. But logically, this means that none of us have free will (because God predetermined what we would all do when He created the universe), and therefore in one sense there can be no sin. "Sin" generally means to act in a way which contradicts God's will for us -- but under predestination that is logically impossible. There is no justice in the unverse; some will be rewarded and some punished, but not for anything that they themselves actually do. And indeed, Calvinism states forthrightly that there is nothing that a person who is condemned to hell can do in their life to change that.
In academia today, there exists in some segments of the humanities a new "postmodernist" theory which eschews such concepts as objective reality, logic, right and wrong and instead adopts a universal concept of relativism. I believe I know where this started: the axiom is, in fact, political correctness: No-one should ever be offended. Never hurt anyone else's feelings, never tell them they're wrong about something. But what if two people actually do fundamentally disagree about something? If neither of them is wrong, then it must be possible for contradictions to exist. Logic says that can't happen, so logic must be wrong. If they make contradictory statements about the real world, then they must both be right, which means that reality is entirely subjective, never objective. (If reality was objective, then at least one of them must be wrong, and no-one is ever wrong, for then it would be necessary to tell them so, which would offend them, and axiomatically we may never offend anyone.) In defense of that axiom, the result is a tower of babble.
A professor of physics at NYU named Alan Sokal observed this process and was bemused, and progressively more and more disgusted by it. Five years ago he decided to try an experiment:
For some years I've been troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities. But I'm a mere physicist: if I find myself unable to make head or tail of jouissance and différance, perhaps that just reflects my own inadequacy.
His paper is a masterpiece of double talk, including puns masquerading as argument, non sequiters, unsupported and outrageous statements, and sheer nonsense. They published it. The first paragraph is typical:
There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in "eternal'' physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the "objective'' procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.
..and it only goes downhill from there. And they published it. Then Sokal went public with his description of the experiment, which is much more lucid.
I don't think that these ideas in academia will ever have much impact in the real world, if for no other reason than because they don't survive application to the real world. They seem to flourish in the ivory tower and are taught to many students, but leaving the womb and actually trying to make a living in the real world for a few years is like a splash in the face with cold water. Still, as long as this was confined to fuzzy academic papers, it was mostly harmless, as long as it didn't permanently damage any of the students exposed to it.
But with recent political events, the people subscribing to these beliefs are coming out of the woodwork and attempting to apply their world-view (such as it is) to the political realm, specifically to the war we're now fighting. (As might be expected, they're all opposed to the war.) The result has been amazing and apalling. This morning I found the following statement posted on MetaFilter, which I will reproduce in its entirety:
"The majority of the people out there who hate the U.S.A are the misinformed ones. Many of them are uneducated and illiterate and absent of basic human logic"
You can see the axiom coming out in that last sentence; "all people have equal value." In one sense that is correct; and on one level I believe it to be true. I think that everyone should have equal rights, and I don't believe ethically that all other things being equal we have a right to decide that one person is more valuable than any other person, for instance so that we could kill one person deliberately so as to use them as an organ donor to save the life of another. But I don't extrapolate from that to the idea that every idea held by anyone is equally valid. I accept axiomatically that there is a real world which exists objectively. I recognize that our perceptions of it are subjective, but to the extent that they are congruent to the real world they are valid, and to the extent that they are not congruent they are invalid. If two people have different opinions about the real world that are contradictory, at least one of them must be wrong (whether that hurts their feelings or not). It's possible that they both are wrong, but they cannot both be right, because there is only one objective reality.
But see where his argument takes him: Logic is reasoning, which more or less depends on your interpretation of reality. Since when? Logic is part of mathematics; it is precise and unambiguous and only permits one answer for a given set of assumptions. If two people get different and contradictory conclusions, then either the assumptions themselves were contradictory, or one of them made a mistake. No amount of arguing about the validity of conflicting viewpoints will change that. Logic has nothing to do with "your interpretation of reality", nothing whatever.
But to these postmodern thinkers, logic is anathema precisely because it only permits one answer, which means that in any situation where logic can be applied, different opinions can't be equally valid. Their axiom requires that they must be equally valid, so from their point of view logic must be a local phenomenon, not a universal mathematical construct. In other words, I use formal logic only because I believe it to be true; if someone else uses a different logic (or no logic at all) and gets a different answer, they must also be respected for that.
The problem with logic is that it is treated as a science. And science is interpretive also. Scientists objectify principles involving the systematized observation of and experiment with phenomena, but generally fail to include feelings, opinions, personal idiosyncrasy. It's also necessary to abjure any idea that there is objective reality, and since Science is based on that, then it must also be wrong; it's not an observation of objective reality, but rather a matter of opinion. Given that there can be differing opinions about the real world, then there must not be any "real world", which means it can't be studied objectively. The world must be what we think it is; reality is equally local. Unfortunately, the real world isn't going to cooperate. If someone decides that they can breath under water, I can show them physiological evidence to the contrary and they'll simply respond "That's your reality, not mine." OK, fine, but if they decide to test it out, they're still going to drown.
The rest of this is equally disjointed; from his observations he concludes that "science is not an exact science", i.e., that it's a matter of opinion. In some reductionist sense there's a little bit of truth to this, but not damned much.
What I'm getting at is logic is subjective to the interpretor. the fact that you state "the people out there who hate the U.S.A" are "absent" of logic implies denial of significance or worth as human beings. And here we have the crux of it; here is the axiom I mentioned, in all its glory. The act of disagreeing with someone and stating that they're wrong is an act of disrespect, which is not allowed. Simply because of that, it is not allowed to disagree with someone, or to say that they are wrong.
Now the person they were arguing against made a point which in fact may not have been correct; the fact that "slappy" spouted this nonsense doesn't prove that "rabbit" was right. Still, I found slappy's statements to be incredibly outrageous, and objected to some of them. Slappy's response to me was as follows, quoted in full:
Steven I'm not going to dignify your response. Except to say that I'm sorry. I cannot help you.
I have three observations on this. First, it is amazingly condescending. Second, I think that slappy wasn't able to respond to my arguments on the merits. Third, and perhaps most importantly, axiomatically slappy wasn't able to respond precisely because doing so would have required arguing with me and telling me I was wrong.
I would never dream of censoring this kind of thing -- and I don't need to, for this shows the value of the marketplace of ideas. We make our decisions collectively (and by necessity we must collectively make a single decision) and it isn't possible to make such decisions unanimously. So the philosophy of the First Amendment is that we publicly debate: different people express different points of view, they argue with each other, and the majority of voters who are undecided listen to the arguments and decide who has made the most persuasive one. After a while, a consensus (not unanimous, but a plurality) agree on one position and then the state adopts that position for its policy. When a position is as intellectually flawed as "postmodern literary theory" (or whatever the heck this is called) then it will not survive this process of examination and will be rejected by the body politic -- and indeed, it is having little or no effect.
Of course, this process itself is anathema to believers in this, because it requires debate, i.e. it requires people to tell others that they are wrong about things and to tell them why, which axiomatically is unacceptable. Oddly enough, this leads them to a contradiction as profound as Calvin's; beginning with omniscience and omnipotence of God he ends up denying free will or sin or any kind of cosmic justice. (If God is all powerful and all knowing, then God cannot be all loving, else why would He condemn some to hell?) Equally, beginning with the concept that no-one should ever be offended or told they are wrong, believers in postmodern literary theory have become among the most militant believers in censorship in the US now. It manifests on college campuses where there is a new Inquisition against the thought crime of "Insensitivity"; offenders are censured -- and censored -- and condemned to a gulag for reprogramming (otherwise called such things as "diversity training", a form of political indoctrination to make them think correct thoughts).
Think this is an exaggeration? I'm sad to say that this is going on all the time on campuses in the US. The student newspaper at Berkeley published an editorial cartoon in the wake of the WTC bombing which showed two of the attackers discovering that they were in hell instead of in heaven. And the Berkeley student council decided this was insensitive because it might offend Muslims; they tried to force the paper to publish an apology, and the newspaper refused. So the Student Council decided to punish them; it tried to raise their rent and tried to condemn them all to the gulag of diversity training. Unfortunately, the case got national attention and became very embarassing, and the result was for them to pass a face-saving measure which had no real effect.
If this proves nothing else, it proves the value and importance of our fundamental right to tell someone that they're wrong. We can respect someone and disagree with them at the same time -- and we must have the right to disagree with them, publicly, even if it hurts their feelings. If we lose that, none of us will be free to say anything at all. (discussion in progress)
Update: More supplemental reading on the nonsense of Postmodern Literary Theory.
Update 20011021: I was not the only one who found slappy's one-line dismissal to be condescending and inadequate. In response to a chorus of criticism about it, slappy says the following: I dismiss intellectual intimidation. It's a waste of time. Steven could have contributed a critical perspective to my "block of text " (as you so eloquantly put it) without slanderous remarks. Just as you yourself choose to respond as a hositle and judgemental neocolonial. So did he at that point. Neither of you intimidate me, and because of *your* rudeness, now any impressions you might have made are as inconsequential as my response(s). judge me as condescending. it takes one to know one. While my original response did contain a small element of scorn, it was hardly slander. Apparently the only "critical perspective" which would have been acceptable would have been one which didn't disagree. (There's that axiom again.) The mere act of disagreement is "intimidation" and "slander".
Stardate 20011020.0603 (On Screen): Microsoft confirms that a program being distributed anonymously does indeed remove the copy protection from its .WMA file format.
Nevertheless, the damage to Microsoft's overall digital rights management (DRM) software campaign is slight, Usher said. The company has built in a means to update the protections for cases such as this. Some music on the market may lose its locks, but the software as a whole will remain secure, Usher said.
You know, if I was a recording exec who had just had the copy protection for the last three years worth of my music removed by hackers, I would not be very comforted to know that Microsoft's "software as a whole" remained secure. This particular break probably didn't have much effect simply because the .WMA format hasn't yet been used extensively, but if it does become broadly used and this happens again, the definition of "some music" might be billions of dollars worth. (discuss)
Here's a description written by the anonymous author. (It includes a PGP signature. I hope our hero is smart enough to use a different one for his public personna. If he's using the same one, he will have proved his identity. Those who live by crypto...)
Stardate 20011020.0528 (On Screen): The house in Miami from which Elian was taken in an armed raid, prior to being reunited with his father, has been turned into a museum about him. Some of his toys, the "Batman" costume he wore for Halloween, and various other artifacts are on display. It's described in elegiac terms, almost as if he had died. I'm dumfounded by this. Either the place will be closed again within two years, or someone is going to experience a miracle cure there and it's going to become a holy shrine. (Hey, if it's good enough for Graceland...) (discuss)
Stardate 20011019.2037 (On Screen): The Pentagon has confirmed the first ground action in Afghanistan. More than 100 special forces troops made an attack near Kandahar. However, this doesn't seem to be whatever it was that was reported by the Iranians yesterday, since this operation took place today. (discuss)
Stardate 20011019.1845 (On Screen vi long range sensors): The main body of this article is interesting; it posits that nations and groups which are still grousing over past iniquities, often hundreds of years past, actually betray the fact that they are unhappy with their sorry state today. In essence, successful nations and groups don't do this; it's only groups that fail and don't want to take responsibility for their failure. There's some truth to this.
But it was his addendum to his article, about something completely different, that got me thinking. He asks people to write in with questions about mathematics which confuse them. I, like him, have a heavy background in math; rather than talk about that specifically, I'm going to get all nerdy and explain what I think is the most powerful mathematical concept that I think most people have never heard of. It's isomorphism, and it's a term from set theory. So, let's see if I can describe it rigorously, and then I'll provide an explanation of it.
Given sets A and B and a transform F, then if for every entry in A the transform F selects one and only one entry in B then F is called a "function", and we say that F(A)=B. If there exists an inverse function F' such that F'(B)=A and such that F'(F(x))=x for all x in A, then F is said to be a "one to one" function.
Boy, was that a pain to format by hand. Sheesh. Anyway, what that means is that some problems in one space may be difficult to solve but a different problem in a different space may be easy to solve. If you can set up those transform functions C and D and if they are not difficult either, it may actually be easier to transform the problem into the other space, solve it there, and transform the solution back. In fact, we do it all the time; that is how we apply mathematics to the real world.
If we have a bag with 17 gumballs in it and add 23 gumballs to the bag, then how many gumballs will there be in the bag? 40, right? But if you didn't know any mathematics, the only way to find out would be to do it and count the result. What you actually did to solve that problem was to convert a pile of 17 gumballs into the mathematical construct 17 and equally 23 physical gumballs into the mathematical construct 23, apply the mathematical function "addition" to them yielding the mathematical construct 40, and then convert that back into the expected physical reality of 40 gumballs.
Technically speaking, what you did was to identify set A as the space of pre-merge piles of gumballs, a one-to-one transform C between A and the space of integers a representing the sizes of pre-merge piles of gumballs, use "addition" for the function f yielding b, a numerical representation of combined piles, and a transform D back from b to the set B which is the set of combined piles. As a result, you can use this to predict how big piles of gumballs will be when you merge them without counting the result. This becomes particularly valuable when the numbers involved are large, because addition scales for big numbers far better than counting does. (It's a lot faster to add two ten-digit numbers then it is to count ten billion objects.) Since the mathematical construct "addition" is isomorphic to the physical operation of combining two piles of gumballs (or almost anything else) into a single pile, you get the right answer.
Mathematics is only useful to us because of its isomorphism to various real world operations; without it, all mathematics would be nothing more than an interesting intellectual puzzle. The only pitfall is when we think we can construct the two transform functions and assume an isomorphism which isn't there; if we're mistaken, then math will give us the wrong answer. It's not that the math is false, rather it's that either the transforms were incorrect or the function we tried to use wasn't really isomorphic to the physical reality. For example, if we try to navigate a globe using a flat map and Euclidean geometry, we'll get lost. Plane geometry is not isomorphic to nagivation on the surface of a sphere. Spherical geometry, on the other hand, is.
Another more famous example is Newton's physics. He created a series of algebraic formulas and postulated that they were isomorphic to the behavior of moving objects. It took nearly 300 years before people realized that they weren't quite right, then Einstein rewrote them, made them slightly more elaborate, and now we do think that they give the right answers. (That was part of the Theory of Special Relativity, by the way.)
But isomorphism is more powerful than that, because not only does it permit you to switch between spaces, it also allows you to demonstrate that seemingly unrelated problems in the same space are actually identical. For example, algebraic transformations of equations are actually a series of isomorphisms; you process a complex equation into a simple one because the operations you perform in those tranformations guarantee that the result is isomorphic.
All mathematical proofs rely on isomorphisms. You prove that an equation is true by setting up a series of transforms which demonstrate an isomorphism between the equation and the tautology 1=1. Equally, you prove that an equation is false by setting up a series of transforms which demonstrate an isomorphism between the equation and the contradiction 1=0.
Back in the real world, cracking a given RSA cipher is isomorphic to factoring a certain composite number. If either of those problems is ever solved in an efficient fashion, the other will be too, because the transforms are extremely easy. Equally, in computer science one way to prove uncomputability is to demonstrate isomorphism to the Stopping Problem, which has been proved rigorously to not have a general solution for a Turing machine. I can demonstrate that automated removal of dead code from source has no general solution for a Pentium because I can demonstrate a transform function from the Pentium to a Turing machine, an isomorphism between dead code removal and the Stopping Problem, and a transform back from the Turing machine solution space to the Pentium space. Thus there is no general solution for the Pentium for that problem; it can't be coded and it's pointless to try.
In a sense, isomorphism is the most important principle in mathematics; it's surprising how few people even know the word. (discuss)
Stardate 20011019.1712 (On Screen): Well, I've gone out on a limb before here with predictions, so I'm going to make another one now: I expect that Matt will finally get fed up with Metafilter and do one of two things within the next month: either stop managing it and let it freerun (i.e. no fixes of front-page mistakes, no deletion of objectionable or double posts, no nothing -- maybe he even stops reading it) or else he's going to take it down outright. It's going to be a collaborative decision between him and Jason (since Jason is providing the bandwidth and may be regretting that now, considering how busy the site is, and because Jason has to do any hands-on management like backups). The inmates have taken over the asylum and they're thoroughly abusing his hospitality. I've written about how I think of my discussion system as being a virtual party that I've invited you all to participate in. Matt's party (featuring about ten thousand of his closes friends) has turned into a riot. Unfortunately, the worst thing about it is that the majority of people participating there no longer think of themselves as being guests in Matt's virtual home; they think of themselves as being residents in a community.
Just today someone wrote to me and asked why I decided to use UBBS for my discussion system instead of taking advantage of the commenting feature that Graymatter supports. There are several reasons. First, it's more convenient for me. Graymatter's discussion system works very well for someone who posts no more than twice per day, but I have sometimes written fifteen per day, and I average well above that (1155 posts in 145 days since I started using Greymatter). In every other regard Greymatter seems to be scaling pretty well (though a "rebuild all" now takes quite a long time; fortunately it isn't necessary to do that very often). But its comment system isn't really right for that: For me to keep up with comments (because they're usually discussions rather than comments), I'd have to load the front page myself regularly and try to remember how many comments each thread had so I could figure out which ones had new comments. With UBBS, on the other hand, all the comments are collected in one place and UBBS itself tells me which ones are new since the last time I looked. It's far easier for me.
But another reason is that UBBS has far stronger management mechanisms. I'm not using them all, but they can be turned on if I wish. Right now there are somewhat above 80 registered members and that's fine. But these kinds of things tend to follow an exponential curve, and it could very easily explode. If that happens, I'll enable a feature which makes it so that I have to manually approve new memberships, and I'll meter the rate at which new people are let in. To some extent, I observed the decline of MetaFilter (beginning about the time membership hit 2000 or so) and thought deeply about it before I decided what to do with a discussion system here, and my choice of UBBS was heavily driven by that. I don't want Clueless Comments to become Son of MetaFilter. (Tokyo would never survive it.) (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20011019.1607 (On Screen): You know, with all the reports of places being evacuated because of powdered sugar, and confetti, and stuff like that, it's almost refreshing to hear a report of an evacuation which was really justified. Almost, that is, but not quite: what the fuck was someone in Philadelphia doing with five ounces of C4? It was checked into a locker in a bus depot on September 29, and declared abandoned and removed on October 3. It was opened today as part of a routine process of dispensing with unclaimed luggage. Of course, today's quiz is "Foreign, or domestic?" I think it will turn out to be foreign, not domestic. While I don't think the anthrax attacks are associated with al Qaeda (though I have no particular basis for that) I suspect this will turn out to be linked to them. But unlike the anthrax, it should be possible to trace this. They put markers in explosives when they're manufactured for precisely this reason. (discuss)
Stardate 20011019.1321 (On Screen): Another indication that the Taliban are losing control: five offices belonging to a Swedish aid agency in the northern part of Afghanistan were looted by Taliban forces. It appears that they were primarily interested in taking vehicles, which they used to flee the region. (discuss)
Update: Yet more indications that support for the Taliban is failing; we've been apparently fomenting rebellion among Pashtun leaders who have been fed up with the Taliban for a long time anyway.
Stardate 20011019.1311 (On Screen): A high school student in France organized a demonstration in favor of bin Laden, and against the US. He's under investigation and may be charged with the crime if "justifying acts of terrorism''. I think this is wrong. At least in the US, such a law would be blatantly unconstitutional, but of course French law has a different basis. Still, I find it troubling that it's possible for someone to go to prison in an otherwise enlightened nation for expressing a political opinion, no matter how abhorrent. (discuss)
Stardate 20011019.1256 (On Screen): It took more than 17 years to find the Unabomber, and then it happened only because Ted Kaczynski's brother David recognized his brother's writing style and was a good enough man to go to the authorities. (Let us honor David for being as good a man as Ted was evil; a greater contrast between two men is hard to conceive.) The fact is that it is impossible to trace mail unless the person who sends it makes a mistake. Absent fingerprints or some other clue as to the source, there's nothing that can be done. Authorities are now trying to trace down the source of the letters which contained anthrax which seem to have been sent from Trenton, New Jersey. Two of the letters were mailed at the same place and time; the third probably was also but the letter in Florida was discarded before the people at American Media understood its significance. But that doesn't prove that the person who sent it lived in that neighborhood -- or even that they live in New Jersey at all. Ted Kaczynski sent his packages from all over the US. If whoever-it-is that sent the anthrax-contaminated letters is smart enough to culture the stuff and prepare these kinds of letters without getting the disease, then surely he also knows how to avoid putting fingerprints on the letters or leaving anything that could be traced, let alone being smart enough to drive to a mailbox. (And, indeed, the anthrax-comtaminated letter which was received in Nairobi was mailed from Atlanta.) I hope it won't take 17 years and numerous other people getting infected to find this guy, but it's unfortunately true that the way he'll probably be found is by someone recognizing his handwriting and identifying him to authorities. (discuss)
Stardate 20011019.1243 (On Screen): I think maybe the Taliban are finding us to be a bit bewildering, too, not to mention very frustrating. They now invite us to send in a major ground force and face them like men -- then they'll show us. They say. The problem is that they are from a warrior tradition, and that's not the same as being a soldier. We've got soldiers, not warriors. It's a different view on things.
A warrior's main goal is to prove his courage; he seeks glory. A soldier is a professional whose job is to advance the political aims of his nation; his goal is to win with the least cost to his own side. Within those parameters, all other things being equal he'll also choose a course which minimizes unnecessary losses to the other side -- but minimizing his own losses is more important. A good soldier isn't trying to prove his bravery or get medals or get his name in the newspapers. A good soldier doesn't seek a glorious death. A good soldier has a job to do; he does it quickly and professionally, and then returns to the barracks and trains for the next mission. To a warrior, a soldier looks, at the least, uncouth; at the most, cowardly. That isn't true, and soldiers can be extremely brave.
To a warrior, the way you fight is with set piece battles. The two sides line up, they all stand and yell at the enemies and wave their weapons in the air, and then charge each other. That's fine if both sides play that way. Problem is that to a soldier that's foolishness; what he wants to do is to slaughter the enemy with a minimum of fuss; if his enemy is lined up that way he'll call in an airstrike. This isn't cowardice, it's simply efficiency. But to a warrior this is very frustrating; there's no opportunity to show courage; all the warriors can do is to die for their country. ("Nobody ever won a war by dying for his country.")
So while we acknowledge the Taliban's invitation, we must gratefully decline. All other things being equal, we'd rather win the war. There isn't any place for a warrior on a 21st century battlefield. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20011019.1026 (On Screen): A university professor is concerned that the electronic revolution in digital communication will lead to an all-new era of plagiarism. She's concerned that students will have unprecedented ability to locate and use essays written by other students, thus not writing their own. I think she's grasping at straws and fingering the wrong villain.
Plagiarism by students is nothing new; I remember seeing magazine ads when I was a kid where you could mail away for such essays. Like everything else, the internet simply makes it easier. But the root cause is not that the kids are dishonest, but rather that like all rational people they see no reason to expend effort on busy-work. The sad truth is that most of the essays assigned to kids in school are a pointless waste of time; the kids don't learn anything by writing them. Anyway, you don't become a good writer by practicing writing; you become a good writer by practicing thinking. In order to write well, you must formulate what you want to say. Once you've done that, the medium by which you express yourself is unimportant; it could be a drawing or written words in a row or a song or a dance or a speech. Equally, people learn when and only when they are interested in the subject. All subjects are inherently interesting and all kids are curious -- but schools are designed in such a way as to stifle that. (Ted Nelson once wryly commented that schools are in the business of making students hate subjects; the one they learn to hate last is the one they make their career.)
The point? You can't plagiarize if you're writing something for the first time. If no-one else has ever said what you're saying before you, then plagiarism is impossible because there's nothing to steal. Writers in the real world won't face that problem because they have a will to express themselves and something new to say. Students, on the other hand, will always have an incentive to plagiarize because the work is pointless (from the point of view of the kid) and the subject matter is stale and rehashed. It would be easy to prevent this by having the teacher come up with a new subject matter each year for each class to write about. (Nah, never work; that would require the teachers to be creative.) But more to the point, if you challenge the students and intrigue them, and make them think, so that they really want to express themselves and find themselves with something to say, they'll write. I didn't become an effective writer until I was past 30, because I had no message until then. (discussion in progress)
Update: Apparently someone out there wants to have my baby.
Stardate 20011019.0953 (Crew, this is the Captain): After David straightened me out about how a cipher product could have a back door, I've been doing more thinking about it. The general idea is that the encryption package chooses a random session key and uses that to encrypt the data. The password you choose is then used to encrypt that session key, and in addition, a public key provided by the government is also used to encrypt the session key. Both encrypted keys are then attached to the encrypted file. Finally, a strong checksum would be calculated over the totality and appended, to prevent any part of it from being tampered with (for instance, by zapping the government's encrypted copy of the session key). When you want to decrypt, you provide your password and it is used to decrypt the session key, which is then used to decrypt the data. (If the checksum fails, the program would refuse to decrypt.) When the government wants to decrypt, they use their private key to decrypt the other copy of the session key.
The theory then is that they would be able to outlaw strong crypto by using something akin to Carnivore to monitor traffic on the internet. When anything which was encrypted went by and didn't have a valid construction (i.e. wasn't encapsulated in one of the approved ciphers having a backdoor) then that would be flagged as illegal use of crypto and investigated. If they found that it was encapsulated correctly but the checksum failed, that too would be investigated.
The problem is that it still doesn't prevent me from using strong crypto. I can obtain, or write for myself, a strong crypto package which has no backdoor. I can give that package to a friend. I can encrypt my data using it, armoring my data with steel plate. I then take the encrypted output and run it through one of the approved crypto packages that does have a backdoor prior to transmission. That encapsulates it in an approved digital envelope, placing tissue paper outside my steel plate. I don't tamper with the file (because I don't need to); I transmit it as is. Carnivore sees it, sees that it is encapsulated correctly, sees that the checksum matches, and decides that it is clean. My friend who receives it decrypts it using his copy of the approved crypto package (removing the tissue paper), then takes the result and decrypts again using our strong crypto (removing the steel plate). If the government ever decides to try to break into our communications, they would use their secret key, retrieve the session key and remove the outer layer of encryption (the tissue paper) -- and then run into our strong crypto for which they have no backdoor. Our steel plate would still keep them out.
The only way for them to detect this would be for them to routinely decrypt most of te messages they intercepted and to apply a heuristic to the result to decide if it contained an encrypted data package. There are severe technical problems with this but the worst problem is political. All of the proposals about this assume that the government would only be able to use its private key in this way with a warrant or some equivalent form of probable cause. There's no way that the public (or Congress) would grant them permission to routinely decrypt messages speculatively, and if they don't do that then there's no way for them to detect the fact that I'm using strong crypto while hiding it inside their approved weak crypto. (discussion in progress)
Suppose that I send my data using an approved crypto package but I doubly-encrypt. If the intercepting system decrypted my message so as to determine that it didn't contain illegal crypto, then its first decrypt pass would reveal another approved crypto envelope. It would then have to decrypt that -- otherwise I could hide my steel plate inside two envelopes made of tissue paper. (Or three, or five, or twenty...) They would have to progressively decrypt as many times as needed to reach the inside of the approved crypto, how many levels deep that was, in order to determine if something illegal was held within it. (When bits are illegal, only criminals will have bits...) This provides the opportunity for culture jamming. Take something innocuous (such as the text of the Bill of Rights, surely protected speech) and recursively encrypt it ten thousand times with an approved crypto package. Each time it grows a few bytes as new encrypted passwords and checksums are added; the resulting file might be a few hundred K. This could be done under automated control using some sort of scripting language; let it run over night. It doesn't matter what password you use; so you may as well use the same one each time (such as "free speech"). Then you and a coterie of friends spend a lot of time sending the resulting file back and forth to each other. Lots of people post it to their web sites and tell people to aid the cause by downloading and discarding it. Your compute load is small; you only have to create the file once. But each time Carnivore intercepted a copy of the file, it would have to decrypt it completely. Do enough of that and even NSA's computers would choke.
Stardate 20011019.0930 (On Screen): Upon reading James Lileks' latest column, it occurred to me that those who are making excessive attempts to understand the other side and look for deeper causes (i.e. to figure out reasons why they did this to us because of evil things we ourselves did earlier) are actually demonstrating moral cowardice. One of the most difficult things to do is to take sides: to look at a conflict, to decide that one participant is better than the other, and then to commit to that side and take the consequences of that decision.
Those who plead with us that the situation is complicated and that we need to try to understand the enemy; what these people are actually trying to do is to stand apart from the conflict and remain neutral. They refuse to make a commitment and try to claim virtue for their equivocation. It becomes a way of rationalizing not getting involved: if both sides are morally equivalent and equally culpable, then there is no good reason to take any risks on behalf of either. (discuss)
Stardate 20011019.0704 (On Screen): Robert Pape writes:
The initial U.S. air strategy against Afghanistan is not working. We appear to be escalating toward a sustained air campaign to bomb that country for as long as it takes to topple the Taliban regime. Americans who remember the air war over Kosovo may think that a sustained air attack is a smart strategy. This is a misreading of both the history of air power and the lesson of Kosovo.
After only 12 days, isn't it just a tad bit premature to say that the strategy has failed? But more to the point, how does Pape know that the strategy is what he says it is? I don't think that the strategy here was to bomb them until they surrender. The strategy in a war has to be based on the local situation. The Taliban don't rule a unified organization; it isn't a nation. That's not what life is like in Afghanistan. What you have there is a scad of small warlords each of whom control anything from 50 to a thousand men. They ally with others when their interests are congruent, but they also readily change sides. The areas "controlled" by the Taliban are actually mostly controlled by these warlords, who have allied with the Taliban because they seemed to be the most powerful party. But if confidence in the Taliban can be reduced, many of these groups may decide to switch their loyalties; that is the goal of this campaign. The only force the Taliban really has which it directly controls and can rely on is a core of 5-10 thousand foreign soldiers most of whom are loyal to bin Laden rather than to the Taliban, but there are increasing reports of friction between these guys and the native Afghans.
He assumes in this that the goal was to kill the Taliban leadership directly. That was never the goal (though we would certainly do it if we thought we could pull it off). The purpose of this was first, to gain air supremacy (always the first goal of the US for the last sixty years) which has been done. Second, to start destroying military assets belonging to the Taliban, which is in progress. Third, to make it seem to everyone in Afghanistan as if the Taliban are the losing side, because when that happens all these independent warlords will begin changing sides and suddenly the Taliban won't have any army anymore. It remains to be seen whether this will succeed, but it is much too soon to declare it a failure. (discussion in progress)
Update 20011019: -- Russian military experts said Friday that America's goals in the war with Afghanistan are muddy and the lack of a clear strategy is causing disquiet in Moscow, which had its own bitter experience during a 10-year occupation that ended in defeat. While the Russians have been cooperating with us on this, I don't believe that we trust them enough yet to let them in on our plans, so it's difficult to see how they could know how muddy our strategy is.
Stardate 20011019.0625 (On Screen): It seems axiomatic to me that any digitally-secured file which can be read and processed by an authorized program can also be cracked and read by an unauthorized program. Since the authorized program has only the file to work with, then whatever is necessary to remove the encryption from it will be embodied in the code for the program and the contents of the file. Both of those are available to someone who is willing to do the work to reverse engineer the process, and once that's done it would be possible to create another program to do the same thing in a manner more benign to the user (i.e. more hostile to the copyright owner).
Case in point: it is claimed that someone has cracked and anonymously posted a program which will remove the encryption from Microsoft's .WMA file format, a mechanism that Microsoft had been pushing for controlled distribution of copyrighted music (i.e. as an alternative to MP3 which would be acceptable to RIAA). No software-only approach is capable of reliably locking up digital rights; it's hardly any wonder that the RIAA is trying to push for mandated hardware protection in all devices capable of processing such things. Buy your new computers now, folks; you may not like the ones they're selling in two years. (Maybe the RIAA proposal is actually a secret plot by Dell and Compaq to try to revive PC sales.) (discuss)
Stardate 20011019.0543 (On Screen): After a trip home, Ambassador Zaeef is back in Pakistan and apparently carries a new proposal that he intends to deliver to the Pakistani Foreign Ministry. For the moment he isn't revealing what it is, but he says that they still refuse to give up bin Laden (which isn't surprising, since there's every reason to believe that he's really the power behind the crown). Pakistan says it will listen. I don't expect anything important to come from this; if there are any concessions in this offer at all, they'll be minor and unimportant. The primary goal of this move will be to try to cast the Taliban as a reasonable government trying to find a peaceful conclusion in a struggle brought onto it by an international bully; it's going to be yet another attempt to play the "victim" card. (discuss)
I suspect it's going to amount to "Stop bombing us and let's talk it over."
Stardate 20011018.2305 (On Screen): Well, the subspace crystal ball failed this morning; it turns out that US forces are on the ground in Afghanistan now. They're described as operating "in small numbers", which could mean anything. I still think it's unlikely that they're actively seeking out combat; if there was some exchange of fire earlier today it was probably a meeting engagement (a chance encounter which develops into combat). But if the bombing made the Taliban leadership nervous, knowing that the rangers are on the ground should make them doubly so. (discuss)
Stardate 20011018.1750 (On Screen): Lock technology is interesting. Originally, the key was a certain shape, and there was a template inside the lock which was the same shape. If the key had any protrusions on it which were taller than the template permitted, then it couldn't be turned. That left open the possibility of making what was known as a "skeleton key", one which had the lowest hump possible in each of the critical positions. It would never hit the template on any lock, so it could always open them. That was a problem.
The solution was to use a different mechanism. Instead of a template, each position has two rods whose lengths add up to a constant sum. The upper rod is always the same length as the hump on the key it is intended to match, while the lower rod is the inverse length. When the proper key is inserted, this pushes the rods up, and the sum of the key and lower rod in each location is a constant. This pushes the upper rods into the lock while leaving the lower rods in the barrel, and the barrel can turn. If a wrong key is inserted, at least one rod will either rise too high (in which case the lower rod will lock the barrel in place and prevent it from rotating) or not high enough (in which case an upper rod will do the same thing). A skeleton key isn't possible; it would be too short and all the upper rods would block rotation.
So how do they make a master key? It works out that the locks actually have three rods in them instead of two for each bump on the key. One division matches the master key, the other the local key intended for just this lock. Of course, this means that if someone can actually extract a lock barrel and take it apart, they can figure out what the master key looks like and fabricate their own. Nothing is perfect. (It's been done, too; that's why most secure areas these days use electronics locks, such as card-keys, instead.)
Someone in Congress had the bright idea, now abandoned, of doing the same with crypto. They would require by law that all crypto not only work with a key (new meaning) designated by the user and presumably secret, but also with a closely-guarded master key. No matter what key the user used to encrypt, it would always be possible to decrypt with the master key. The only way to do that I can conceive of would be to encrypt twice: once with the user's key and in parallel with the master key on a separate copy of the clear; then store the two encrypted copies in the output file. Thus encryption would double the size. To decrypt with the user's key, one copy would be used; to decrypt with the master key the other would be used. I don't know how mathematically a cipher could be made so that a single copy could be decrypted by two different keys not related to each other.
The problem with this idea is that it is extremely fragile. If anyone ever leaks that master key, all the data stored everywhere with that particular cipher product is instantly open to anyone who gets hold of it. All it would take is one guy posting it to a usenet user group or putting it onto a chat room, and it would be all over the world in days, and people who had been using that cipher to protect their data would find that their armor plate had turned to wet tissue paper. I do not believe that anyone will willingly take that risk.
Another problem with it is that it could be defeated. It would be possible for someone to build a pair of hack programs. The first one takes the output of the encryption program and removes from it the copy using the master key, thus reducing the size of the file by 50%. To decrypt again, the other program would be used with would stuff 0's (or something else) into all the appropriate place so as to recreates a double-length file prior to being sent through the program. Presumably this wouldn't be as difficult as just taking the first half of the file, but however the two copies are processed into the final encrypted file, the code that did it would be in the product and could be reverse engineered.
The worst problem, though, is simply that strong encryption without all this crap is already readily available, and even if it weren't it could be implemented by any competent programmer in a week or less. It's just not that hard to do. So if the risks and expense associated with using products like this became too onerous, people would bypass it and use their own, defeating the point. I'm really glad they gave up on this; like most of the legislative ideas about crypto in recent years, it was extremely ill conceived. No matter how much the US government would like to control strong crypto, that is no longer within its capability. It hasn't been for at least ten years. (discussion in progress)
Update: I completely missed a different way to do it which actually is very practical. David enlightened me. (Thanks!)
Stardate 20011018.1332 (On Screen): A member of the al Qaeda organization was arrested in Dubai in July, and after the WTC attack he was extradited to France because of his implication in a foiled plot to bomb the US embassy there. He has been testifying in front of a judge in France. He testifies that the Taliban and al Qaeda are actually comingled at this point, and starting in May, any attacks made by al Qaeda would have had to have been approved by Mullah Omar. It's difficult to say whether this should be given any credence; he's already recanted his own confession given in Dubai. Still, it isn't all that farfetched. (discuss)
Stardate 20011018.1235 (Crew, this is the Captain): Well, I must say that it has been intriguing looking at my referer logs since I got them working properly. One amusing thing has been to see what kind of Google search strings have managed to land people on my site; I've been keeping a collection of them for the last couple of weeks, and here it is. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20011018.1221 (On Screen via long range sensors): I'm no fan of the National Review, whose positions are ordinarily far too reactionary for me. But I must confess that this satirical piece is right on target. It imagines what current commentators would say about the Doolittle Raid in 1942.
Most of those "quoted" are among those on the left who have been getting the most flack from the right (and from the mainstream, and even from others on the left) for their absurd statements; in some cases searching for a "deeper meaning" to the attack (evidently more than 5000 dead isn't enough meaning for them) or to try to figure out why those who attacked us did it, in hopes that we can learn how to alter our behavior in future so that they won't do it again. I believe what is really happening is that these people are in denial. We are in a war now, it is going to be a long and bloody war, and we will be involved in combat many times. Afghanistan is the first battlefield but it won't be the last; this will be a long and hard struggle. We in the US will be attacked again; our soldiers will fight, and some of us and some of them will die. We are going to kill a lot of people in other countries, too. That's the kind of thing that happens in a war.
But I think that deep down these folks are hoping against hope that there will be some sort of talisman, some magic phrase they can invoke which will turn back the clock and prevent this from happening. Each generation faces a major test; this is ours. Inevitably some people fail the test. (discuss)
Stardate 20011018.1208 (On Screen): A letter contaminated with anthrax was sent to Senator Daschle, Senate Majority leader. Certain people in his office got infected and are undergoing treatment. The Senate is continuing its business. So why did the House of Representatives shut down? (discuss)
Stardate 20011018.1148 (On Screen via long range sensors): Iranian state radio is reporting that US ground forces have landed near Kandahar and that fighting has begun. I'm not sure I believe this. Combat is a very confusing thing, and terrified men see things that aren't there. One thing can be mistaken for another. When the AC-130 gunships went into action, the Taliban originally said that helicoptor gunships were in action. What I suspect is going on here is that Taliban forces near Kandahar have been getting strafed by AC-130's. They're not used to aircraft firing small caliber weapons (such as the 25 mm Gatling gun on the AC-130) nor are they used to a weapon that hovers. Also, turbo-props such as are used on the AC-130 sound much different than jet engines; they do actually sound a bit like a helicoptor engine. So if Taliban troops have found some of their own apparently machine-gunned, they may assume it was ground troops which did it.
That said, if it is indeed the case that our military commanders hope to get this finished before winter, then they're going to need to get onto the ground fairly soon so as to allow themselves time to wrap this up before foul weather sets in. In general, an operation like this will work best if it is unexpected; it is always desireable in war to confuse your enemy. Our commanders won't confirm such an operation has taken place until after such time as the Taliban clearly know what is going on, so that it's no longer any secret from our enemies. How long that would take would depend entirely on what kind of operation is taking place. If it's really an armed assault, probably two days. If, on the other hand, this was a patrol which wasn't seeking combat but which got caught and had to fight its way out, it may be weeks before it's confirmed. (discuss)
Stardate 20011018.1137 (On Screen): The continuing tragedy of self-loathing that we call "Michael Jackson" is in the news again. In hopes of reinvorating a flagging career, Jackson decided to do a replay of his "We are the one" event, where he'd invite a whole series of top stars to participate in taping a single (written by Jackson) about the 9/11 attacks. Unfortunately, all the most important ones have turned him down. Of course, the course of his ongoing attempts to change his face have made him into a gargoyle. Lia has a favorite picture of him, but I think I can top it; apparently she hasn't seen this one:
Oh, and his friend there is what I suspect Jackson will look like in about another fifteen years at the rate he's going. (discuss)
Stardate 20011018.1044 (On Screen): California now permits pharmacists to issue "morning after pills" without a prescription. I think this is a good thing. But predictably, the Right to Life movement hates it.
Christine Thomas, acting executive director of California Right to Life, said the group believes the drug induces abortion and therefore would have opposed the bill even if it had excluded minors.
Beliefs come in different flavors. Thomas believes that abortion is wrong. I happen to think abortion is morally acceptable under some circumstances. But these are ethical choices, not subject to proof, and her opinion on this is just as valid as mine is. On the other hand, if someone says that they believe that the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, then I don't have to respect that belief; it's subject to scientific investigation and it is provably wrong. Equally, Thomas says that her group believes that morning-after pills induce abortion. This is not a belief, this is a false statement. It takes a long time for the egg to travel down the Fallopian tube, and the egg is fertilized in the Fallopian tube. This is, in fact, critical; the fertilized egg has to have divided a certain number of times before it reaches the uterus or it won't be capable of implanting and beginning a pregnancy. What a morning after pill does is to prevent the egg from implanting. That's not an abortion, which is the deliberate termination of a pregnancy already in progress. Pregnancy doesn't begin until after implantation; a pill that prevents implantation is not an abortion.
What's really going on here is that she's using the word "abortion" incorrectly; what she means by it is any deliberate action which prevents a fertilized egg from becoming a baby. In that case, her problem is with the dictionary -- and she loses there, too. (discuss)
Stardate 20011018.1031 (On Screen): Some people have too much spare time on their hands. One problem with being an advertising watch-dog is that you have to find objectionable advertising to complain about even when there isn't any -- otherwise you have no reason to exist (and the contributions which fund you will dry up). I can understand objecting to cigarette ads which target kids, for instance. But this is something different.
Coca Cola is involved in a co-marketing campaign with the upcoming Harry Potter movie, which promises to be a smash hit if it isn't completely putrid (and maybe even if it is). That's OK; it's happened before and it will happen again. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest is bitching that Coke is deliberately trying to sell their product to kids, since of course it's a movie which will strongly appeal to children. Gasp! How dare they! (discuss)
Stardate 20011018.0903 (On Screen): Suppose you go into a war. What do you want enemy soldiers to think of you? Do you want them to think that you'll torture them and kill them if they're captured, or that they'll be treated honorably and be well fed and taken care of until after the war is over? For some, the first reaction is to adopt the former point of view in hopes that it will deter them from fighting by instilling fear. But history shows that it rarely does that; rather what it does is to steel their resolve; and more to the point, makes them know that surrender is not an alternative. Thus if you do fight them, they'll fight to the death. Whereas, if you have a reputation for mercy to the captured, then they will be much more likely to surrender rather than to keep fighting -- and this is something you want. The United States has a clear record of treating its POWs extremely well, for example, and this pays for itself. During the Gulf War, more than 60,000 Iraqi soldiers surrendered, often without a fight, once the ground offensive had begun and this saved many allied lives by reducing the amount of combat which was required to win the war. And German soldiers in WWII were far more likely to surrender on the western front than they were on the eastern front, because of the enormous disparity between how the British and Americans treated prisoners and how the USSR did.
Equally, if you promise to mistreat enemy dead, this does not terrorize their troops; it steels them and makes them hate. You. So this latest threat emanating from Afghanistan is yet another massive miscalculation by our enemies; it can only be carried out if our forces fight theirs, lose some men, and also lose control over the battlefield afterwards so that the enemy gain control over some of the dead. The real feeling it will inspire in our troops is this: They promise to desecrate the corpses of our dead comrades? Well, we'll just have to make sure they don't ever recover any of them, won't we?
That's one of two things about this announcement which are noteworthy. Even more interesting is this: Why was it made by a representative of al Qaeda? Could it be that we really are hurting al Qaeda itself, as is indeed the point of all this? (discuss)
Stardate 20011018.0601 (On Screen via long range sensors): With the start of hostilities, there is a sudden increase in the number of active-duty military personnel asking for honorable discharges on the grounds that they are conscientious objectors. I am having an extremely hard time being sympathetic with this: many are arguing that they were deceived by the advertising which promised training and money for college, and thus didn't realize that they were signing up to actually fight in a war if need be. Yup, they joined the army and didn't know that the army sometimes actually fights wars. If they had been drafted, there might conceivably be some justification for this, but the US hasn't drafted anyone for the military since 1972. All the people we're discussing here were volunteers.
One of the more troubling aspects of this is that most of them are asking for honorable discharges. If granted, it means these people would be entitled to veterans benefits for the rest of their lives. Life imitates art: this sounds uncannily like a Monty Python sketch between Eric Idle and Graham Chapman. While it is probably not desirable to keep these people in, there is no way they should be given honorable discharges. There's nothing honorable about any of this. (discuss)
Stardate 20011018.0528 (On Screen): Yet more evidence of the breakdown of control by the Taliban: Medecins Sans Frontieres reports that two of its compounds in Afghanistan were looted by armed men. Men associated with the Taliban have seized warehouses full of food which was shipped in by the World Food Program to help ameliorate the threat of starvation. The goals of MSF and the WFP are noble and worthy of praise, but ultimately they can only succeed if everyone nearby agrees to let them, and it's clear that no longer is the case. It is ironic that it appears the best way to help the sick and starving in Afghanistan is to keep the military pressure on and hope that the Taliban fall apart soon, leading to a rapid end to hostilities. (discuss)
Stardate 20011018.0518 (On Screen): Yet another article bemoaning the rising toll on Afghan civilians. It is unfortunate, it is regrettable -- and it is inevitable -- that they will be hurt or will be killed. But I suppose it needs to be repeated: if we were deliberately targeting Afghan civilians and trying to kill as many of them as we could, the death toll would be in the hundreds of thousands, not in the hundreds. (discuss)
Stardate 20011018.0506 (On Screen): Diane Pretty is a 42 year old British woman who has an advanced case of motor neurone disease. At this point she can hardly move, and she can only communicate using a computer voice. She finds life in such a condition to be intolerable and doesn't want to wait for the disease to kill her naturally (as it inevitably will). She is no longer capable of committing suicide on her own but she wants to die, and her husband is willing to help. But if he did so, under British law he'd potentially face up to 14 years in prison, and for obvious reasons she doesn't want him to make that sacrifice. She has brought suit in the UK claiming that the law preventing her from dying violates the human rights provisions of the EU charter.
Her case was just dismissed; her only hope now is an appeal to the House of Lords. There's two aspects of this, the legal and the moral. On a legal basis, her lawsuit was probably pretty weak. Strictly speaking, ignoring the humanitarian aspects of it and concentrating strictly on the letter of the law, the judges probably did rule correctly on this, and I'm afraid that an appeal to the House of Lords will either be denied or will yield the same decision.
On an ethical basis, however, I believe that this was the wrong outcome. The fundamental issue in right-to-die cases is whether this should be an individual or a collective decision. The fact that someone else has a hysterical fear of death shouldn't give them the right to impose that fear on me. None of the arguments against this brought up by its opponents made any sense at all. This woman's life is a living hell, and she has steadfastly affirmed many times over a long period of time that she no longer wants to live. Her death is inevitable; the only choice now is how long she should be made to suffer. It would be unfortunate if the only way she could get what she wants is for her and her husband to move to the Netherlands, whose laws are much more enlightened. There it wouldn't even be necessary for her husband to assist; it would be done by doctors, as it should be. (discuss)
Stardate 20011017.2248 (On Screen): President Putin of Russia has been doing a good job of advancing the Russian cause in this crisis; he's using it as a means of making friends with the west, especially with the United States. It's been quite an impressive performance, and a welcome one to this American. As part of that process, he's decided to remove the last remaining military presence Russia has in Cuba -- and Castro is pissed. Russia and Cuba have been negoatiating about it for a while; Russia said it wanted to pull out and Cuba demanded that Russia "study other alternatives". It's hard to see what alternative there would be to "we all want to go home", but there you have it. So finally Putin got impatient and simply announced unilaterally that Russia was leaving.
The agreement for the Lourdes radio-electronic center is not canceled, as Cuba has not given its approval, and Russia will need to continue negotiating with the Cuban government given the important issues left to resolve.
If all the people running the base have left, what's to resolve? An interesting question. Despite the claim that this is about Cuba's security, the real issue seems to be the $200 million per year that Russia was paying Cuba, which presumably would now end. For a nation like Cuba, that's going to be a pretty big economic blow. But short of refusing to let them leave (which would be an act of war), it's hard to see just what Cuba has to negotiate with here. If all the Russians are gone and they refuse to pay any more money, what else is there to say? (discuss)
Stardate 20011017.1717 (On Screen): The allies are finally gathering around, with actions and not words. A few days ago Australia committed to send ships and men to the Arabian Sea to join our forces there, and today Canada did the same. By far the most welcome and useful commitment in each case is their special forces units; the ships are more of a political gesture than a practical one (except for the fact that until they're committed, the Canadian special forces will probably bunk on the Canadian ships). I can't say I'm really surprised at Canada's response here; there's no closer alliance on earth than that between Canada and the United States, and no two nations whose economies are more closely intertwined. We share the longest unguarded border on the planet. Any delays were more likely due to preparations than to reticence. I'm somewhat more susprised (and pleased) by Australia's response. But all of this makes the inaction by the continental European NATO powers all the more obvious. (discussion in progress)
Update 20011018: Even the Japanese are going to provide what help they can without violating their constitution.
Stardate 20011017.1643 (On Screen): A preliminary test on the anthrax received by NBC in New York and that received by American Media in Florida indicates that they're the same strain. Meanwhile, there's good reason to believe that the letters sent to NBC and to Senator Daschle were addressed by the same person.
I'm no handwriting expert, but if you look at them it seems as if the envelopes were addressed by the same person. The use of two sizes of capital block letters instead of upper and lower case letters is unusual, but not conclusive. However, note the smaller Rs in the words "Brokaw" and "Rockefeller" on one envelope, and "Senator" and "Hart" (and four other places) on the other. They are clearly identical, with the right hand branch at the bottom extending down lower than it should. Which means we can probably forget, for the moment, about the idea of this being two attacks by two unrelated groups of people. It's looking very likely that there's only one source. Which makes the choice of targets extremely confusing: what have Tom Brokaw, Senator Daschle and American Media got in common? Who is it that would put those three on top of their "hate" list? (discuss)
Update: also, the "2"s are distinctive and identical.
Update: Have you wondered why it is that so much biowarfare research concentrated on anthrax? According to Jane's, it's because the disease is non-transmissible. They were looking for a biowarfare weapon which wouldn't set off a world wide plague.
Stardate 20011017.1314 (On Screen): Even as Motorola's chip business continues its implosion, IBM is juicing its own PPC line and has now announced that it will soon have a version of PPC which not only runs 1 GHz (at last!) but also consumes extremely little power. Which presents Apple with an interesting dilemma: if they offer Macs running these chips, they'll have a higher clock rate, but since they won't support Altivec, they'll run Steve Jobs' legendary carefully selected Photoshop filters slower, leaving Apple with a computer which can't actually beat the fastest PCs in any important benchmark, even a rigged one. What to do, what to do? (discuss)
Stardate 20011017.0723 (On Screen): The biggest unanswered question behind the mailed anthrax letter attacks is who might be behind it. One possibility is that it is the Taliban or some other foreign terrorist group. I don't have any answers, but I'm going to go out on a limb here. I don't think that's it. What I suspect is that we have a lone American nut-case doing it. The reason I think that is because the only politician targeted was Senator Daschle. If the Taliban had been responsible, I believe they would have sent it to the White House or to ranking Republicans; why pick on the most powerful Democrat in Congress, when the Democrats are the minority party in the US government? The one thing I haven't been able to figure out is why anyone would want to send such a thing to American Media, the publisher in Florida. I can't come up with a rational explanation for that for any reasonable source; I'm forced to conclude that the source is unreasonable. It is extremely puzzling. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20011017.0707 (On Screen): Take a good look at those Ikonos satellite images I linked to yesterday, because you won't be seeing any more of them for the forseeable future. The US government has purchased all rights to all Ikonos photographs of the Afghanistan region. (Fortunately, I archived copies of all the ones I linked to.) (discuss)
Stardate 20011017.0639 (On Screen): Mullah Omar may still be alive, or someone may be trying to pretend that he is. Another speech was issued by him, this time not broadcast by VOA. Rather, it was distributed using military surface radios, which is not very effective. It exhorts the Taliban troops to not fear death, to die like Muslims, and indicates that Omar is still confident of victory.
It's the speech of a loser. It is uncannily like what Tokyo radioed to its troops in WWII when the situation was beginning to go very badly against the Japanese. You find announcements which say that insufficiency of materiel was no excuse for losing, and that spiritual superiority and the warrior spirit would conquer all. And the Japanese front line soldiers obeyed these orders, went out and died in droves -- and lost anyway; they just lost with a horrific body count. They wanted to die in combat rather than to surrender, and the American troops were willing to accomodate them.
If you read between the lines, Omar's speech indicates that things are going very badly; it's an attempt to shore up morale as the situation deteriorates. It acknowledges that US air power has been and will continue to inflict serious casualties on Taliban forces. It says that the Taliban will be victorious but doesn't say how; there is no concrete plan for victory, simply confidence in it. It means that the Taliban leadership are in deep trouble, and know it. (discuss)
Update: Taliban discipline is breaking down. I think the end is near. This kind of thing can start to cascade.
Stardate 20011017.0624 (On Screen via long range sensors): According to this report, the Taliban foreign minister has defected. It's reported by Knight-Ridder news service. You'd think that this story would be picked up by everyone else, wouldn't you? But I can't find any other report of it. I found this which includes a denial by the Taliban (which doesn't prove anything) and I found this which mentions it and dismisses it as being disinformation. There was a report a couple of days ago about the foreign minister travelling to Pakistan without saying what he was there for, and that also wasn't heavily covered.
There's two possibilities here. First, he really did defect, but they're trying to keep it quiet because he provided a lot of valuable strategic information, and second that it really is disinformation and Knight-Ridder got conned. I'm leaning towards the second position. If he did actually defect then the Taliban leadership would know even if it wasn't publicized, and anything critically important he would be able to tell us (like where Mullah Omar was hiding) would become obsolete in hours. On the other hand, the propaganda value of the defection if it was publicized would be enormous; I simply can't see why they'd keep it secret. (discuss)
Update: Of course, I could be wrong. There's another possibility: he didn't defect, he just fled. If that's the case, once it becomes clear that it's true it will indeed be a propaganda victory. I don't understand why it hasn't been publicized more, though. Maybe they're just waiting until they're certain of it.
Update: Yet another theory: he's making an unauthorized trip to try to negotiate an end to the war. This strikes me as being one of the most likely possibilities.
Stardate 20011016.2235 (On Screen): There's a different kind of "social engineering" than the one which will be needed for a habitat in space. That's the kind used by worm writers to entice people to run attached programs so as to infect their machines. You'd think that at this point, what with such high profile examples as the Kournikova worm (no, there really weren't any topless pictures of her) that at this point people would learn: never execute a program that "a friend" mails you. But the "social engineers" working on the worms have no shame at all. In the wake of the WTC bombing, a worm went around masquerading as a program to let you vote on whether the US should go to war. Now there's one going around which pretends to offer you information about anthrax, and it's spreading fast. If every computer user had common sense, none of these worms would ever spread at all -- which is why we're going to be stuck with them forever. (discuss)
Stardate 20011016.1517 (Crew, this is the Captain): Amway is an interesting company. It skirts the law (and has gotten into trouble a few times) because it's running a Ponzi scheme. It's not illegal because it's not a zero-sum game; it is theoretically possible for everyone to win because money flows into the system via sales of products. In practice, the majority of Amway representatives make little or nothing, and because nearly everyone in the system purchases and uses Amway products themselves, the net flow of money might actually be negative.
I had someone give me the Amway pitch once; it was an interesting experience. It was one-on-one, and the complete emphasis was on recruitment. In fact, it was fully 45 minutes into the presentation before I was even told what product was being sold. (Even though this was more than 20 years ago, "Amway" had already become a dirty word, and my hopeful recruiter knew to steer clear of the name until after he'd hooked me. Needless to say, I wasn't hooked.) He emphasized how much money I could make by recruiting my own downline, so that I'd get a share of all the sales they made, and indeed a share of all the sales from the downline they made. Since the system would grow infinitely far, there was no limit to the wealth I could rake in, if only I signed up and became part of my benefactor's downline.
It occurred to me today that web logging is a form of multi-level marketing, for some people. The currency is hits, the organizational structure is linking. The structure is a cross-branched tree; with people getting a percentage of the traffic of sites which link to them. The object of the game is to get other people to make permanent links to you. The more important the site which does this, the more valuable the link and the higher you rise in the pyramid. When your site begins to get a lot of traffic, you in turn can bestow largesse on those below you with transient or permanent links, and by so doing begin to build your own downline when they link back to you. The grand prize is to get "A-listers" to link to you; then you get a percentage of the huge traffic their sites get. To do this, you suck up. You create a permanent list of links to A-listers on your own page and hope they notice the refers -- and by so doing you become part of their downline, increasing their power. They might reward you with a link in return, usually transient.
Of course, one thing about multi-level marketing (MLM, the charming name for this kind of scam) is that the people who get in early tend to rise the furthest, because they truly do benefit from the expansion of the organization before the market gets saturated. Eventually nearly all the suckers in a given area are recruited, and the new recruitment rate for the organization as a whole slows considerably. And by the same token, there are some web logs which are heavily linked and well known and get a lot of traffic, even though in overt terms they aren't particularly noteworthy judged solely by the content they present. In most cases the reason is simply longevity; nearly invariably such a site has been maintained for a long time. And since them as has, gets, the mere fact that they get a lot of traffic reinforces itself as others below them in the pyramid link to them in hopes of a return link, thus driving more traffic to the A-list site. Other more recent entries feel as if they should get the same attention and wonder why they don't. The reason is that they're the suckers who got into the game late, just like the leaves in the Amway tree who wonder why it is that they can't seem to recruit anyone for their downline.
Of course, some Amway leaves play the game a different way: they forget about recruiting and decide to start selling product instead. It's actually possible to make a reasonable amount of pocket money that way, though you can't make a living; Amway's products are not actually all that bad (if, perhaps, a bit overpriced). These are actually the people who keep the organization working (and out of jail); the equivalent for web loggers is the people who forget about sucking up and just write. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20011016.1355 (On Screen via long range sensors): Global Security has released a series of highlighted Ikonos satellite photos taken in 1999 which show examples of the Afghan cave complexes which we have recently been bombing. Of course, military satellites will produce much better images than these, so it's rather astounding how obvious these are even with civilian satellite technology. Whoever made them doesn't appear to have made any effort to try to hide them; it appears that the goal was defense rather than subterfuge. (I mean, when a bulldozed-road runs right up to a rimmed black hole in the ground and then stops, it's not too difficult to figure out what it is.) In fact, complexes like these would be proof against saturation bombing with conventional high explosives. The assumption is that it didn't occur to them that potential enemies had the ability to actually cause caves to collapse (with weapons such as the GBU-28; these caves are actually quite vulnerable to the kinds of weapons we are deploying. Also, these are capital-intense installations to produce; it's much more expensive and difficult to create a cave than to build an out-door camp. It seems unlikely that they have a huge number of these. I wonder how many of them are left? (Speaking of which, has anyone noticed that there's been no word directly from Mullah Omar for a few days?) (discuss)
Stardate 20011016.1320 (On Screen): A sure sign that an organization or company is in deep trouble is when you start seeing management churn in the top ranks. For example, back in the day one way to tell that IBM's OS/2 operating system was having problems was to observe the number of times over a period of a couple of years that new people were put in charge of the group. By my count, there were six people in charge of that product over a three year period. There are a couple of reasons why this can happen, and they're both bad. For one thing, it can be because higher management or the board of directors is unhappy with how things are going. Or it can be because someone who takes that job finds out what the situation really is and realizes that the job is a career-killer, a black stain on the resume. Also, any time there's a management shakeup, there's a drop in productivity and progress while the new team gets a grip. The ship steams in a circle for a while.
So it's unfortunate to see that happening to Transmeta, though not really all that surprising. For all their technical innovation, their primary products haven't really been competitive. They aren't bad, mind, but they don't make any kind of compelling case that would cause someone to prefer them over the alternatives from AMD or Intel or even from Via. And as an upstart trying to take marketshare, they can't just be as good; they truly have to be substantially better in order to compensate for the natural fear a customer would have of depending on an unknown whose future is insecure. So far they've only had one high profile design win. Sony incorporated a Crusoe into one of its laptops (a version of the "Picturebook"). But that's not enough, and the Transmeta has never been profitable.
The timing of this announcement is particularly revealing: Transmeta's most recent quarter ended 9/30; they should be announcing their financials for that quarter any time now. When the numbers are extremely dismal, a company will often make some sort of dramatic adjustment in the corporate structure just before making the announcement, in hopes of appeasing the stockholders with a "We're aware of the problem but we've done something about it" gesture, even if it's useless. Some companies will announce layoffs or organizational restructurings, but sacking top management is not unknown. I consider it a virtual certainty that Transmeta's numbers, when they're announced, will be dreadful indeed.
With boom times gone and the market for processors shrinking, and Intel and AMD locked in a price war, this is not a time to be small and not to have yet created a viable business; it can only get worse for them. I don't expect Transmeta to survive. (discuss)
Update 20011019: They were a disaster, alright.
Stardate 20011016.1030 (Crew, this is the Captain): Jim Dunnigan knows more about the current state of war and military science than any other writer I know; I have found his books and those he's written with Al Nofi to be endlessly informative and fascinating. His writing style is unpretentious; it's loaded with facts and pithy observations without coming off as stuffy and academic. What with current events, I'm rereading his book How to Make War, so as to come back up to speed on the current and future state of the art in every aspect of modern warmaking capabilities. It has separate chapters on the infantry, armor, artillery, air defense, fighters, bombers, various kinds of naval vessels, and special ops. In each case he describes in details the weapons and tactics each uses, and compares and contrasts how different nations use each one. Once I'm done with that,, I'm going to reread A Quick and Dirty Guide to War, which is a political analysis of every part of the world which identifies the parties who are in conflict or who might be in conflict, and the various aspects of their struggles; it also identifies various outcomes and assigns probabilities to them. One thing he pays attention to in every theater is the chance that nuclear weapons will be used. It's interesting that of all the places in the world where that's a possibility, he identified a future war between Pakistan and India as being the most likely -- and this was before either nation had actually set a bomb off, thus admitting that they had them. Even there he put had a low probability, but it was considerably higher than the chance of it happening in Israel or one of its neighbors. Dunnigan has a web site and it's an excellent source of insight. He and a couple of other people are updating it regularly, and I recommend it highly. Unfortunately, it doesn't have any anchors for links, or I'd be using it as a source. Right now as I look at it there's an article about biowarfare. A couple of days ago there was a briefing on how military factions in Afghanistan operate and what they think war is like; it's much different than what we think of. Oddly enough, they don't tend to have a lot of casualties; it's more like a board game with constantly shifting alliances. (discuss)
Stardate 20011016.0925 (On Screen via long range sensors): Ever play Sim City? You start with a small city and maybe the only infrastructure you put in is a fire station, a police station, a water works, a power grid and one school. Then it grows, and pretty soon you need more. At a certain point the city growth stalls unless you put in a seaport. Then you need museums and parks. The transportation grid gets overloaded and you have to start putting in subways. You need an airport. A large city isn't just a town scaled up; it has unique needs which in a town are served by facilities elsewhere.
So how much harder is it to design a nation? A nation isn't just a large city; it has unique needs of its own. A city has a police force but it doesn't need an army, for instance. A city doesn't have a central bank or a mint. It doesn't need a foreign ministry. And move up one more level: how hard is it to design a world?
People like Professor Hawking, or the National Space Society (descended from the L5 Society), are proposing the idea of creating a self-sustaining habitat in space. The technical challenges involved are immense; it would be an engineering project to dwarf any which the human race has ever contemplated. What you're talking about is creating a working human society in a place where there is nothing, and I mean vacuum. Complete absence of mass; you have to bring everything you need. The engineering challenges boil down to three parts: physical engineering, ecological engineering, and social engineering.
As formidable as it is, the physical engineering problem is the easiest of the lot, because it's the one we understand the best. It's also the one that the National Space Society has spent the most time on. It's necessary to round up enough mass of the proper types, place it into the proper orbit, build powerplants, erect the entire structure in whatever shape it needs to be in, and fill it with gas and soil and water and so on. The quantity of mass involved would be gargantuan, and the physical problem of moving it and getting it into the right orbit is non-trivial. The L5 society originally suggested mining it on the moon and shooting it towards Lagrange Point 5 with mass accelerators on the surface of the moon. To mine and refine millions of tons of mass on the moon would itself require a substantial moon colony. But that whole concept ignores one basic problem: how do you stop those capsules when they reach the L5 point? Momentum is always conserved; you've got to get rid of it some way. For each ton moved to stable orbit, you're going to require a lot of fuel for rocket engines to slow the stuff down and get it into the right orbit. Building immense structures in space is simultaneously easier and harder than on a planet: you don't need scaffolding, which is a blessing, but you do have to work in pressure suits. We don't know how to do it; an entirely new branch of civil engineering would have to be developed to do space construction. How do you fabricate large parts without factories? Can you weld in space? Will welding be sufficiently strong? How do you leak test a structure containing a billion liters of gas?
But once you build it, your problems have only begun. What is involved in creating a self-sustaining ecology which can support 100,000 people? That was the L5 Society's original goal for their space habitat. On earth, most of it is taken care of for us because we were given a working ecology premade before we evolved. We don't by any stretch fully understand how it works, and it is extraordinarily intricate. In particular, the issue of how wastes are processed is still partially unsolved. Even little things can trip you up: what do you do about hair? In nature, it's broken down slowly by fungi; if it were not, over a period of time humans and their animal comrades would eventually be knee deep in the stuff. That's just one of a thousand problems which would have to be solved. We don't know how to create a non-trivial self-sustaining ecology.
But even that is not the biggest problem. We have well-developed physical engineering skills, the beginning of ecological engineering skills, but we don't even have the beginning of any kind of social engineering. You're going to build a habitat with 100,000 people in it. Which 100,000? How do you select them? How many engineers, and what specialties? Which doctors? Which scientists? What other specialties will be required, and how many? How many educators? What kind of government will it have? That is a non-trivial question, because for this to work, freedom must be heavily sacrificed.
Begin with reproductive freedom: it can't be allowed. In a habitat with a limited supply of oxygen to breathe, unregulated breeding can't be permitted. With too many people, everyone will smother. But too few people becomes just as much of a problem; if you can't maintain the worker and knowledge base, the society could break down -- literally; eventually enough machines will fail at one time so that they can't all be repaired at once, and then everyone will die. In fact, breeding would have to be heavily controlled, and it would have to be mandatory. One essential aspect of maintenance of the society would be that a certain number of babies be born each month -- no more and no less. And as the original population ages and dies, the children would have to be trained to replace them. If you required a certain number of thoracic surgeons in the first place, you have to have a plan in place to maintain that number. A certain number of children in each generation would have to specialize in thoracic surgery to maintain the knowledge base. A certain number would have to become atmospheric engineers. A certain number would have to become soil engineers. A certain number would have to specialize in repair and rebuilding of essential power equipment. In fact, it would be necessary to force children into appropriate specialties; the days of "Study what you feel like" would be long gone.
The economic problem is immense. Just identifying all the specialties needed is non-trivial; but making the society work would be worse. It's difficult to see how it could be capitalist; it would have to be a planned economy. Unfortunately, the record for planned economies has been extremely poor; so that would be a problem to be solved. The economy of the US involves 280 million people, of which maybe 200 million are essential people and their children. But the US economy is not self-sustaining; it relies on material from all over the world. Just how small can a self-sustaining high-tech society be? While a goal of a 100,000 citizens makes the physical engineering problem staggering, it may not actually be big enough to solve the social engineering problems. A self-sustaining high-tech society might require 10 million people, or even more.
And there are ethical problems, too. How many non-productive citizens can such a society support before it endangers the ecology? How many handicapped people, or people dying of wasting diseases, or old people no longer capable of working can a society support, who consume resources but produce nothing, when every hand is busy all the time and there's always too much to do? What if you have too many non-productive citizens; what do you do with them? Shoot them?
Putting it on the Moon instead of in orbit only solves some of the problems; it slightly eases the physical and ecological engineering problems but does nothing about the social engineering issues. We don't know even remotely enough yet to solve most of these problems, and it may be centuries before we do. We don't even have the beginnings of a social engineering field, and that would have to be mature for this to even be considered. Professor Hawking suggests that we better get to work on this before biological engineering leads to a catastrophe that kills us all. But that danger will face us long before we have the ability to create a habitat in space capable of surviving beyond the collapse of technological civilization on earth; better to apply ourselves to making sure such a catastrophe doesn't happen in the first place. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20011016.0500 (Crew, this is the Captain): I've got two hit counters on the bottom of this page which I put in place at the end of July (in case you haven't noticed them), and have been logging to a file each day since the end of August. The "daily" count resets each morning at 4:00 AM Pacific time, which is when the daily CRON jobs run on this server. Yesterday, I had 694 hits, a new daily record.
That's more than I had in the entire month of March. Thanks, folks, I couldn't have done it without you. We're nowhere near saturating either the line or the server, though; I figure I could handle ten times that traffic level, so I've got plenty of room to grow. (discuss)
Stardate 20011016.0440 (On Screen): There are news reports that there is an active recruitment campaign going on in Pakistan among Afghan refugees to try to get as many volunteers as possible to go back into Afghanistan to fight in case the US actually puts combat forces on the ground there. They claim to have already recruited 5000. I'm not too concerned about this. First, it's easy to volunteer; but when it really comes down to it, a lot of these men may end up being no-shows. Second is that when the time finally comes, it may not be easy for them to move to anywhere in Afghanistan which could be of any actual tactical use to the Taliban, partly because of our control of the air and partly because it may happen in winter. Our special forces and our 10th Mountain Division are trained and equipped to move and fight in winter conditions. Third and most important, an untrained rabble like this is almost useless in modern warfare. (This ain't the French Revolution, levée en masse is another term for "cannon fodder".) (discuss)
Stardate 20011016.0416 (On Screen): Colin Powell is visiting General Musharraf in Pakistan right now, and Musharraf is worried. About a lot of things, actually, but in particular about what kind of government will run Afghanistan aft