Archive: October 2002

Military peanut butter

You know MREs? The army’s dreaded, tasteless “meals ready to eat”? It seems the army is now trying to develop a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich MRE.

But, you ask, isn’t a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich already ready to eat? Sure, but according to Defense Department food expert Jerry Darsch, a military MRE has to be edible even after enduring some extremely messed up conditions:

Darsch said his sandwiches are designed to be as resilient as the troops they feed. “This bad boy will last a minimum of three years at 80 degrees, six months at 100 degrees. They will travel to the swampiest swamp, the highest mountain, the most arid desert.”

Still, soldiers aren’t likely to take a bite until 2006 because more research is needed — principally, the researchers confessed, on PB&J, the sandwich most demanded by troops in focus groups. Other sandwiches in the works include pizza-flavored and ham and cheese.

Food science takes time, Darsch said — “I don’t even want to tell you how long it took to develop the McNugget.”

I am never going to eat again

Certainly not after reading the real-life restaurant horror stories recounted in this issue of the Philadelphia Weekly.

I am going to throw up right now.

Googlisms is a brilliant new wacky app built on top of Google’s search engine. Punch in your name, and it generates a list of things Google “knows” about you.

Here’s what you get, in part, for “Clive”:

clive is reluctantly happy
clive is a person
clive is better looking and at least your office doesnt smell
clive is so much better than drew
clive is reluctantly happy michael aylwin sunday march 24
clive is better looking and at least your office doesnt smell like gas
clive is currently developing 1
clive is not sure which one he will do first
clive is currently working on the second book of the abarat quartet
clive is filming the oliver stone drama beyond borders in which he will dr
clive is a marmite tester
clive is sensitive to the flow of various forms of energy; he can sense radio waves
clive is looking for a suitable venue for a major one
clive is now taking up a two year research readership funded by the british academy to complete his trilogy of palaeolithic titles
clive is currently employed in the department of geography as a pdra
clive is incredible to work with
clive is rumoured to be joining the cast of young & the restless as a mystery man whom
clive is a graduate of trinity college
clive is blurry

Scientific proof that Tetris is, like, really hard

“This paper is, to the best of our knowledge, the first consideration of the complexity of playing Tetris.”

Thus begins a genuinely excellent piece of academic research: Official proof that Tetris is “NP-complete”. That’s geekspeak for saying there is no way to develop an algorithm to “solve” Tetris, to play it infinitely without losing. You could play it forever just flying by the seat of your pants, but there’s no way to program a system to do this. The search for NP-complete problems is, actually, a very big deal in computational science, which is what makes this paper rock so hard.

That, and the fact that scientists developed all these truly excellent terms to describe problematic Tetris brick layouts — like “Unfillable Buckets”, “Unapproachable Buckets”, “Spurned Notches”, and “Balconied Buckets”.

A good discussion of this is currently ongoing at Plastic, from whence I got this item. One poster pointed to other bits of Tetris science, including a friend who put an experimental version of Tetris online — it just throws the same brick at you, one after another, to see how long you can survive.

Even cooler Tetris science: You know how, if you play it for hours and hours, you can see the bricks falling when you close your eyes at night in bed? (That nearly drove me insane in college.) Anyway, some doctors did an experiment where they had amnesiacs play Tetris. Later, the amnesiacs reported dreams about falling Tetris bricks — even though they could not conciously remember ever having played the game. (More proof, apparently, that memory happens in unpredictable parts of our brains.)

Bra technology

I really had no idea bra engineering was so complex.

But as this piece in the New York Times — devoted to recent bra-technology patents — points out:

Bodies differ vastly. Breasts can be pear-shaped, apple-shaped or melon-shaped. They can be asymmetrical. They can be spaced close together or far apart. And breast tissue can range from as little as 8 ounces in one woman to as much as 10 pounds in another.

And so a bra design can pose engineering challenges as formidable as those encountered in building a bridge or a skyscraper. This is why the bra continues to benefit from small, incremental improvements, Professor Farrell-Beck said.

Last week, for example, S & S Industries, a Bronx company, received United States patent 6,468,130 for a new type of underwire — one that is supposed not to poke through fabric, even under stress from laundering. S & S, which says it is the largest supplier of underwire for the brassiere industry, has solved that problem by designing a plastic tip for the ends of the underwire that sits on a little spring, according to Ajit Thakur, a vice president at the company who is a co-inventor of the tip, along with Joseph Horta.

“Poke-through has been a problem forever,” Mr. Thakur said. “Everyone has been trying to solve this. We may have found the holy grail.”

Water circuitry!

This guy at MIT has created a combination X/OR and AND gate — using water. This guy rules.

And dig this:

In fact, Fluidics is a very important field of study that is widely used in aerospace or mission-critical applications, where eletcronic control devices don’t offer the reliability or cannot support the environment. Also, military technologies use Fluidics in order to prevent malfunction in a nuclear war, when eletric devices cease to work.

(This item comes courtesy the folks at Slashdot, and a great discussion is ongoing. “Should have great floating point performance.” Geek humor.)

Super-creepy “exquisite corpse”

This site is freaking me out big-time. The photographer Eric Myer has created an amazing Exquisite Corpse application — you mix and match parts of different people’s faces together, to create new faces. Really just super-weird and compelling.

(This comes to you via the magic of’s fine online Filter.)

I spy with my little eye

Here’s what I want to know. What crack were they smoking over at the P.R. department of the London police, when they decided to plaster the city with these posters?

Given that London has installed 1.5 million public-surveillance cameras — one for every 5.3 residents of the city — I suppose the police are beginning to get paranoid about their Big Brother image. They should be, particularly because, what do you know, these cameras aren’t even preventing crime. As the United Press recently noted, “murder is going on at a record pace,” and “street robbery, the very crime that CCTV is supposed to be best at deterring, will reach 50,000 this year.” Even more hilariously, studies have shown that camera operators tend to enjoy focussing in nice and close on women in tight clothing: One in ten women were scrutinized by male operators for “entirely voyeuristic reasons” that had nothing to do with law enforcement. Nice stuff.

Mind you, this hasn’t stopped the London police from pushing ahead with even more demented surveillance devices — including “Cromatica” software that will attempt to predict when a crime is about to take place, by analyzing the activity on screen.

But who in god’s name thought this “Watchful Eyes” poster would make the public feel better? As Corey Doctorow at boing boing wrote about them, “It’s like the cover of an old Ace Double paperback about watchful, tyrannical aliens.”

Save Firefly

The new Fox sci-fi show Firefly is apparently fairly embattled. Though it rocks the house with furious vengeance, it was released on the Friday night “death slot”, and apparently Fox execs are already gunning for its dismissal. The show is a Western-style space soap-opera with very neat and subtle philosophical underpinnings; Fox, I’m afraid, is more enamored of its car-tastic chix-and-drag-racing fare like Fast Lane.

Help stop the madness by signing the petition to keep Firely on the air! Then, why not download a Fox-approved skin of your favorite Firefly cast member for Unreal, and show up after tonight’s episode and have some fun killing other fans in a deathmatch?

Reach out and touch someone … with overseas labor

Like I said in that post a while ago about Cybracero, telepresence work is already here — with foreign workers effectively “existing” on national soil. When you call customer-service for American Express or General Electric, chances are you’re talking to somebody in Mumbai, India. And, according to this lovely story at Wired online, those workers are told to pretend they’re calling from a U.S. city. For the customer, anyway, the illusion is entirely of work being done on U.S. soil — since part of service work takes place, as it were, in the the mind of the customer.

The call-center companies are so keen to appear American that they’ve begun using Ally McBeal episodes and Sylvester Stallone movies to instruct their Indian employees:

Their training includes a smattering of U.S. history and geography, along with speech therapy so that they will sound “American.” Some call centers are adorned with American flags to give a cultural feel to the place.

Along the way, these employees are exposed to a way of life that can come into direct conflict with their conservative values and, sometimes, their sanity.

Partho Banerjee, a 24-year-old employee at a call center in Mumbai for TransWorks, a computer outsourcing company, blushes when he recalls a sales pitch that he made to a 45-year-old American woman.

“She asked me to marry her,” he said.

On another occasion, Partho let his accent slip and had to confess after being pointedly questioned that he was, in fact, an Indian sitting next to a telephone in Mumbai.

“The man told me, ‘You guys blew up the WTC,’” he said. “I tried to explain India had nothing to do with it, but he just banged the phone down.”

It’s a grand old flag.

Spinal Transfers

I love the fact that in the latest edition of the Tony Hawk Pro Skater video game, the hot new tweak is the addition of a new ability … the “Spinal Transfer”.

The main gameplay change is the addition of spine transfers. This lets you reorient your skater in midair so that you can go up one side of a quarterpipe and down the other. It also works for getting out of pools and halfpipes, getting up onto high ledges, and, much like the bail button in Aggressive Inline, saving yourself from wrecking when you accidentally fly off the side of a ramp.

No wonder most parents haven’t got the vaguest clue what the hell their teenage kids are talking about.

I am the king of Cliveland

Apparently, a bunch of libertarian geeks are now so angry at the U.S. government — mostly over gun-control and anti-marijuana laws — that they’ve decided to secede. They’ve started the Free State Project, where they’re trying to get 20,000 people to agree to move to a state in the U.S., then use their voting-bloc power to overtake the state government and leave the U.S. There’s a great discussion of this going on over at Slashdot (which is where I found the item), and interestingly, given Slashdot’s geekoid audience, only about 20% are in favor of the scheme.

What’s really weird is not how far-out this idea is, but how common it is. Poke around online a bit, and you’ll soon realize that just about every libertarian headcase on the planet has, at some point, tried to form a sovereign state. Remember those guys who founded Sealand on an abandoned oil rig off the coast of Britain, planning to turn it into a superencrypted shelter for the rich? Or how about that Eric Klien dude who kept on threatening to build a floating ship-island called Oceania, where the rich could escape taxes? (That failed, so he’s working on a space station called The Lifeboat Foundation, now.)

But the granddaddy of all these, apparently, is the Hutt River Province in Australia. It was founded in 1970 by a farmer named Leonard Casley, after the Australian government slapped him with a wheat quota that would have starved him. So he seceded, temporarily declared war on Australia, “accepted” their surrender, and ever since has run his province — with a living population of 150, and another 13,000 worldwide who’ve become official citizens of the 75-square-mile “country.” (You can apply for citizenship yourself by emailing Hutt River here.)

Australia has never recognized Hutt River, but that hasn’t stopped Casley from officially proclaiming himself “Prince Leonard” and minting a crapload of stamps; apparently, Hutt River stamps comprise the bulk of the revenues for the, ah, nation. According to at least one academic, Hutt River might actually quality for state status under U.N. rules. And dig the totally berserk outfits the founders use on ceremonial occasions.

Mind you, when you consider what a hack job the establishment of the United States was in the first place, this doesn’t seem quite as loony as it might, I suppose.

I am so getting one of these

iRobot has finally released its new vacuum-cleaning droid — the Roomba. I could not imagine a finer addition to my home. Dig: Not only does it clean your room, but it cleans it using an algorithm originally developed to sweep minefields.

That is possibly the most demented “technology transfer” from the military I’ve ever heard of in my life. I can just imagine the gorgeous Republican logic the Roomba could provoke. “Hell, men, we need to pay for secret black-ops counterinsurgency forces in North Korea, so that they’ll lay tons of mines all over the place, so that we’ll have to develop minesweeping technology for humanitarian reasons, so that we can have eventually port it over to vacuuming robots.”

Heh. Whatever. I am just totally going to get one of these things. I mean, I’ve owned a very nice regular Hoover since 1998, and how many times have I vacuumed my apartment? Like, maybe seven times? So the idea of a little robot scurrying around doing my vacuuming and freaking the shit out of my cats is perfect.

I love living in the future.

(This piece comes courtesy of Plastic, where there is a nice little discussion going on about it as we speak. “Not only does it clean carpets, but it can also beat your ass at chess.”)

Counterstrike is almost as big as Friends

According to a story in Business 2.0, the Half-Life game mod Counterstrike has 1.7 million players, who collectively spend 2.4 billion minutes playing it each month. In comparison, Friends generates 2.9 billion viewer minutes each month.

Wifi that knows where you’re standing

Location-based tech takes another big leap forward: The folks at Ekahau have released software that lets Wifi networks triangulate your location down to one-meter precision. As they told Cnet:

Petri Virsunen, Ekahau’s senior strategic business development director, outlined several ways the location-based software can be used. For example, in a supermarket shoppers could use network-connected baskets which notify them of aisles with special offers, or shop assistants and warehouse staff could be shown the nearest person able to carry out a task.

(This item comes to you via the fine folks of slashdot.)

Teensy battery that runs for 50 years

Dig this — some skull-kings at Cornell have created a tiny battery that could run for 50 years off a small piece of Nickel-63.

The decaying Nickel-63 shoots a stream of electrons up at a strip of copper, giving it a negative charge. After a while, the negative charge is so strong the copper strip bends downwards to touch the Nickel-63 — discharging a tiny current. The copper strip bends back upwards again, and the whole process repeats itself. The result? A battery that could be made as small as one cubic millimeter, perfect for powering tiny robots. Tiny robots, people!!

Check out the way-kewl comic-strip illustrating the process here.

This is what it sounds like, when memes die

The phrase “trip hop” appears twice, in two separate stories, on a single page of today’s New York Times — B13.

In the Internet age, all art is now “live”

There’s a piece in the New York Times today about online fan culture — and how it’s started to actually affect how TV is made. It profiles, a site that where TV producers regularly, and rather nervously, check what their audience has to say — and then often adapt their shows to the critiques. (My girlfriend Emily Nussbaum also had an excellent piece about this on Slate.) This is, as the Times points out, a rather new relationship between TV and its audience:

J.J. Abrams, show runner of the very Net-friendly spy show ”Alias,” sees the boards as a real measure of the audience’s pulse and rates their members as nothing less than ”an integral part of the process.” That could never have been said five years ago.

”If the Internet is your audience, TV is quite like a play,” Abrams says. ”Movies are a done deal — there’s no give and take — but in a play, you listen to the applause, the missing laughs, the boos. It’s the same with the Internet. If you ignore that sort of response, you probably shouldn’t be working in TV right now.”

Precisely. What digital culture is doing is turning all art into live art: You throw out a riff, see what the response is like, and respond accordingly. TV producers are going to have to start operating more like DJs, whose entire act consists of running small Skinnerian experiments on the audience — tossing out a beat for a few seconds, seeing if it gets any action, then either discarding it or mixing in.

Indeed, this whole cybernetic loop is becoming more and more powerful online. Anyone who’s done culture online — blogs, online columns, games, animation — has known for years what the folks in TV, movies and other sealed-off art are just now slowly finding out. Back when I wrote a column for Shift online in 1997, I covered anti-spam activists; at one point, when they mistakenly thought the magazine itself was issuing spam, they complained to our ISP and nearly got our T1 line shut down. How’s that for a flame war? Today’s Internet technologies — from Google’s Pagerank (ranking sites by popularity) to Trackback in Movable Type (which instantly alerts me when someone links to my blog) to Ebay’s reputation rankings — are moving increasingly in this direction. You can’t avoid scrutiny, and you shouldn’t want to; in the online world, the scrutiny is partly why you do things. Rep is everything.

Indeed, this idea is the governing metaphor in Corey Doctorow’s extremely cool sci-fi novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. In his book, citizens have constant, head-chip-implanted Net connections, and they each have a ranking of “Whuffie” — a sort of Trackback-like or Google-like score that rises or falls based on whether other people admire or despise them. Everyone is constantly pinging everyone else’s Whuffie, and there are the inevitable amplication effects: People who are really admired become more admirable because, well, people admire them.

For good or ill, that’s precisely what happens these days with Google, and with the neatly incestuous interlinking of blogs. So it’s probably no surprise that Doctorow, a blogger extraordinaire, hit upon this terrific and thought-provoking metaphor. The book is, among other things, a fantastic meditation on the pros and cons of constant reputation scrutiny — which is beginning to happen all around us.

TV better get used to it.

The case against war in Iraq, part 26

There’s an excellent debate today in the New York Times over waging war against Iraq. It’s a review of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq; written by Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA operative who oversaw intelligence in the Persian Gulf, the book is a straight-ahead endorsement of war. Pollack argues that there are only three things to do with Saddam Hussein: containment (sanctions, weapons inspections), deterrence (threatening him with retaliation), and regime change. He argues that containment hasn’t worked, and deterrence won’t either because Hussein is power-mad and will stop at nothing to dominate his neighboring countries. That, of course, leaves invasion — spending billions on a land war to topple Hussein — as the only option.

The reviewer disagrees — and since he’s Jack Matlock, who used to be the United States ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991, the guy knows a fair bit about totalitarian states with access to nukes:

As I was reading Pollack’s dismissal of deterrence as a viable strategy, I could not help reflecting that in 1947 a stronger case than his could have been made that the least risky course for dealing with Stalin following World War II would have been to invade the Soviet Union and depose the tyrant before he could acquire nuclear weapons. Yet deterrence worked, even though the danger to the United States from a nuclear-armed Soviet Union was incomparably greater than the one that could be posed by a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein may be more inclined to risk taking than the Soviet leaders were, but his means for making mischief in the world are much more limited. His passion is to stay in power and, if possible, to dominate the region. If he had nuclear weapons, he would step up blackmail attempts against his neighbors. But his bluff could be called, since he would avoid using nuclear weapons or supplying them to terrorists unless he was attacked directly and was convinced that his end was imminent. Soviet leaders before Gorbachev also would probably have used nuclear weapons if they had faced military defeat. This is one of several reasons the United States avoided making ”regime change” an avowed element of cold war deterrence.

I love these dogs

Okay, enough dour stuff about the war and international racism. It’s time for some upbeat stuff here at Collision Detection.

Here’s a photo of a pomeranian. I love these silly little dogs. My grandmother used to have one on her farm, for some reason. I got the photos from this site.

John Perry Barlow masters the 180

John Perry Barlow has just written a set of excellent, superb essays decrying the impending war. It’s terrific, fantastic rhetoric — he’s an amazing writer when he feels strongly about something, and he’s bang on. Everyone should read these pieces.

But then read a bit further down, because Barlow writes something remarkable:

It pains me deeply to say this, but I think that part of the problem may be the Internet.

A lot of what’s wrong may be the very sort of thing you’re reading right now.

The Internet, has, as expected, provided a global podium to everyone with an opinion. Cyberspace has become an infinite set of street corners, each with its lonely pamphleteer, howling his rage to a multitude all too busy howling their own to listen.

All of our energy goes into things like this BarlowSpam, energies that might be better spent in creating traditional blocs like the NRA, or the AARP, or some large group capable of either buying Congress or scaring the shit out of them. This screed won’t scare an elected official anywhere. And it wouldn’t generate enough money to elect or defeat a dogcatcher.

As much as I loathe organizations, we need to organize.

Bingo. I couldn’t have said it better myself. As any professional writer knows, and as millions of bloggers are now finding out, words aren’t really that powerful. At best, they’re catalytic — inspiring people to action. But it’s the action that matters, when it comes to politics. We can scribble all our brilliant ideas all we want, but the world is truly changed by people in grey suits faxing documents for like 17 hours on end. Hell, that’s how the Christian Coalition does it. And that’s how the progressive, left-wing groups I’ve been supporting for years do it.

But you know, I can’t resist a big, juicy “I told you so”. Because though it’s great for Barlow to come to this realization … remember his fierce dismissal of government back in 1996, when Barlow wrote the “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”? Remember how ludicrous and naive it was? How he went on and on about how government was slow, government was weak, nuthin’ ever gets done in Washington, how all the kewl stuff was happening online and nobody should bother paying attention to this boring old industrial-age government stuff? And how everyone, including otherwise smart people like Declan McCullagh lapped it up?


As I wrote in Shift magazine last month (which I’ll quote, just so I can even more smugly shove the knife in deeper here) Barlow’s Declaration helped prove “the grim law of cyberpolitics: Smart coders can make idiotic citizens.”

Racist nukes

Most people in America agree on one thing: Nuclear weapons are most dangerous when they’re in the hands of Third World leaders.

The paradigm goes like this: Western countries are reasonably stable, responsible, rational, respectful of human life, and secular; Third World countries are unstable, irresponsible, irrational, bloodthirsty, and governed by crazed religiosity. Even otherwise liberal people who disapprove of American foreign policy seem to pretty much agree with this worldview, when it comes to nukes.

Which is why I enjoyed reading a fantastic essay by Hugh Gusterson, an MIT anthropologist, that soundly debunks these ideas about Third World nuclear powers. It’s not, he suggests, that Third World leaders and military bigwigs are not frequently stupid, irrational, governed by passions, willing to abuse their power, and quite frankly incompetent. That’s sometimes true, for sure. But it’s equally as true for Western countries that have bombs.

Indeed, the more you learn about the U.S.’s history of maintaining its own “weapons of mass destruction,” the more we seem like the global Keystone Kops:

There have, for example, been at least twenty-four occasions when U.S. aircraft have accidentally released nuclear weapons and at least eight incidents in which U.S. nuclear weapons were involved in plane crashes or fires. In 1980s, during routine maintenance of a Titan II missile in Arkansas, an accident with a wrench caused a conventional explosion that sent the nuclear warhead 600 feet through the air. In another incident an H-bomb was accidentally dropped over North Carolina; only one safety switch worked, preventing the bomb from detonating. In 1966 two U.S. planes collided over Palomares, Spain, and four nuclear weapons fell to the ground, causing a conventional explosion that contaminated a large, populated area with plutonium. One hydrogen bomb was lost for three months. In 1968 a U.S. plane carrying four H-bombs caught fire over Greenland. The crew ejected, and there was a conventional explosion that scattered plutonium over a wide area.

How precisely we managed to have nuclear weapons for so long and not kill massive amounts of people, not by malice, but merely by fucking up really badly, I have no idea.

Gusterson published this essay (“Nuclear Weapons and the Other in the Western Imagination”) back in 1999 in the journal Cultural Anthropology, and apparently it caused an enormous brouhaha. In a way, the analysis reminds of the way economists apply ruthless double standards to Third World countries — as Paul Krugman has pointed out multiple times, the IMF (and Washington) won’t let developing countries protect their currencies, impose basic controls on the flow of capital, or subsidize growing industries … precisely the same stuff that every Western nation did to help its economy grow to sustainability in the 19th and 20th centuries.

I hardly believe that it’s a good idea for Third World nations to have nuclear weapons; but then again, I hardly believe it’s a good idea for First World ones to have them either, and I don’t buy the idea that “our” having them is helping deter the rest of the world from doing singularly nasty stuff. Our attitudes towards those uppity foreigners in India and Pakistan and Iraq who want their own bombs reveals more about our disdain for the rest of the world than we’d imagine. I wish to hell this essay of Gusterson’s was online for general reading, but it’s not.

Mobile pornography

I could have seen this one coming a mile away. Someone’s made a pornographic web site designed specifically for the new geek mobile-phone-and-data tool, the Danger Hiptop.

Welcome to DangerPorn!

This is the world’s first and only (as far as I know) site made exclusively for the Danger Sidekick.

And, yeah — no, I’m not gonna post any sample pictures.

(This item courtesy the fine folks at Metafilter.)

Can video-games train you to kill? I found out

I was just on the BBC, talking about a story I wrote — in which I shot a gun for the first time, to find out whether all my years of playing shoot-em-up video games has trained me to be a killer. In case you were listening and wanted to read the piece, here it is! (Click “more” when you get to the bottom to see the rest of the piece …)


I’ve played videogames all my life. And for just as long, I’ve defended their merits against the public outcry over everything from maladjusted teens to the killings at Columbine. Then I met Dave Grossman, an army lieutenant-colonel with a psychology degree. In the backwoods of Mississippi, he handed me a gun. This is what happened next.

by Clive Thompson
Originally in Shift magazine

The sun beats down like a hammer on the Mississippi firing range as Lt.-Col. Dave Grossman crouches on the ground. The heat is furious and he’s beginning to sweat a bit, his army crew cut glistening as he punches in the combination to open his safety box. Inside are two guns. Grossman pulls out a .22-caliber pistol.

This, he tells me, is the same model that fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal stole from his neighbor’s house in Paducah, Kentucky, on December 1, 1997. Carneal took the gun to a high-school prayer meeting and opened fire on the group. “He fired eight shots and got eight hits on eight different kids. He killed three and paralyzed one for life,” Grossman notes grimly in his slight Arkansas accent. It was an astonishing piece of marksmanship—a hit ratio that many highly trained police officers can’t achieve. Last year, for example, four experienced New York City cops shot at unarmed Amadou Diallo, firing forty-one bullets from barely fifteen feet away; fewer than half hit their mark.

But perhaps more startling about Carneal is another salient fact: He’d never shot a handgun before. “So how did he get such incredible aim?” Grossman asks. “Where did he get that killing ability?”

His answer: videogames. In his controversial book, “Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill,” Grossman details how Carneal had trained for hours and hours on point-and-shoot games. The teenager had practiced killing literally thousands of people virtually; he’d learned to aim for the head in order to dispatch each victim with just one shot.

Videogames have long been blamed for provoking violence, but rarely by someone of Grossman’s background and expertise. A military man and Pulitzer-nominated authority on the psychology of killing, Grossman shot to prominence after the Columbine school massacre. In countless media appearances, he has argued that modern videogames are eerily similar to the training tools that military and law enforcement agencies use to teach soldiers and officers to kill. Kids learn these skills, he writes in his book, “much the same way as the astronauts on Apollo 11 learned how to fly to the moon without ever leaving the ground.” The proof, he argues, is in the profusion of mass high-school shootings in recent years, where kids with limited experience in using guns have displayed excellent aim and tactical maneuvers, not to mention a view of murder as fun.

I am here to test Grossman’s theory. I have never even held a gun, let alone fired one. But for two decades, I’ve been avidly playing videogames, including the wickedly violent arcade shooters that Grossman considers the most military-like “murder simulators.” I’m particularly good at these—I can usually finish Area 51 or Time Crisis for only about three bucks in quarters. If Grossman is right, I should be as deadly as Michael Carneal.

I look down the range at my target, a human-shaped silhouette. It’s twenty feet away, roughly the same distance from which Carneal shot his victims. In the blazing heat sweat drips slowly down the small of my back.

I raise the barrel of the gun.

» MORE...

Telepresence mexican labor

You know how service-sector work is vanishing offshores — with call centers in India or Indonesia answering the line for companies here in the U.S.? When you call or email Amazon asking for help, odds are you’re not talking to someone in Iowa or Washington. Two years ago they relocated a chunk of their help services to labor in New Delhi, at one-tenth the cost of American labor.

But what if we extended this idea to manual labor — by having remote workers operate robots on American soil? That’s the so-crazy-it’s-probably-going-to-happen idea behind Cybracero, this new company run by a guy named Roger Buck. He quite adroitly realized that Amazon’s far-flung email answerers are, in essence, telepresence workers: They do work offshore that effectively “happens” here — insofar as the customer is receiving the assistance in America.

So Cyberacero’s trying to do this in the physical world. Their goal: To create an army of telepresence robots controlled remotely by dirt-cheap workers in foreign lands. A super-cheap Mexican or Indonesian worker would sit down at a computer, take control of a robot in California, and guide it around to pick fruit.

In a strictly capitalist sense, it could work. For years, American fruit-growers have tried to highly automate their fruit-picking operations. But they’ve failed. Robots aren’t good enough. You can’t yet get robots to do sophisticated tasks — like visual recognition, as in identifying randomly located, oddly shaped pieces of fruit hanging in 3D on trees. That’s why farmers are still relying on often-illegal Mexican workers to pick it.

But who says the Mexican workers actually have to physically be on American soil? Only the robots need to be here. In essence, it’s a paradigm like the one I outlined in last month’s Wired, where a human becomes a mere chip in a robotic machine. In this case, companies would be using inexpensive foreign workers to provide a uniquely human ability — shape recognition and terrain management — to robots here in the U.S.

But still, this idea is just seething with potential for nightmarish abuse of labor. One of the problems with offloading work onto foreign soil is that workers there can’t unionize, have horrifically bad health care, and virtually no workplace health and safety standards. I can only imagine the gruesome workplaces that would emerge in the Phillippines from telepresence. I suppose it could provide better jobs than currently exist in sweatshops — you could argue that a foreign worker might get paid better for this telepresence stuff, or that it would allow them to work in a more highly scrutinized situation, etc. But you know, judging by how the marketplace has been treating the lowest workers in the planet of late, I’m betting nope: It’d just be an even grimmer labor situation than currently exists. I gather this Cyberacero dude is suggesting this because he honestly hopes it could make things better for far-off workers, but global capitalism has a way of doing innovatively nasty shit with even the best of ideas.

Right now, Cyberacero doesn’t even have prototypes up and running, so it’s still just an idea. But I’ll bet someone does this, or something like it, within five to ten years.

And don’t even get me started on the Cartesian mind/body split stuff going on here. Yikes. Multi-million-dollar robots robots safely on American soil, being operated by the brains of 30-cent-an-hour workers in Chiapas: It’s almost some Philip K. Dick parody of north-south relations.

Bonus: Check out the way-nutsoid promotional video for the company. It’s all faked, of course — but when the Mexican worker logs on to do his telepresence work, he uses a Commodore 64 and an Atari 2600 joystick to control the robot. I’m beginning to wonder if this is a Joey Skaggs media prank.

Babysitting, blatant marxism, and Paul Krugman

Monetary policy is so freaking obtuse almost no-one really understands it. I mean, do you understand what the Fed actually does? Of course you don’t. Neither do I, half the time, and I’m a freakin’ business writer.

Which is why I’ve really been enjoying reading Paul Krugman’s book of last year, The Return of Depression Economics. In it, he uses a metaphor he often uses to explain monetary policy: The Washington Babysitting Co-op.

A few years ago, 150 families in Washington decided to start a babysitting co-op that would work kind of like those “green money” barter systems. If a couple babysat for another couple, they’d get a coupon. They could later use that coupon to pay another couple to babysit, in turn, for them. The coupons were, in effect, a type of currency: Upon joining the co-op, a couple would be issued 10 coupons or so to start them off, and would pay them back if they ever left. Since there were 150 couples, one could reasonably assume there’d always be someone willing to pay you coupons for work (i.e. by babysitting for them), or a way to work for your coupons (i.e. to babysit for you.) It was a perfect model of an economy.

Except — one season, everyone decided they want to save coupons. They all decided, for some reason, that they wanted a nest egg of coupons in case of emergencies. As a result, the supply of people willing to hire babysitters slowly dried up. Nobody could get work. “The economy,” Krugman writes, “fell into recession.”

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Unknown words unknown words unknown words

Recently, the Washington police created this composite picture of a white van, which they suspect the sniper is using.

I couldn’t figure out whether to laugh or get creeped out by the text on the side of the truck.

“Sniper Country” web site

You know, life has really got to suck right now for the webmasters of the Sniper Country web site. As the staff noted in a recent “open letter”:

In light of the recent murders in the Metropolitan DC area, Sniper Country has received, as expected, a certain amount of email traffic from those who appear to be misinformed in their understanding of the purpose of this site.

“A certain amount of email traffic.”

The information bullet

Dig this: A corporation has patented a new gun that imprints a tiny barcode on every bullet it fires. The barcode is only 50 microns wide, barely the length of a human hair. But it thus leaves an indelible calling card of who fired the weapons. This is a gun that fires information.

Of course, guns already leave distinct traces on bullets, so forensics experts have for years been mostly successful in matching bullets to a gun. But the inventors say barcodes on guns would massively improve law enforcement:

Except for its beveled tip, the entire girth and length of a bullet fired through a bar-code barrel would be inscribed with several copies of the code. According to Mr. Lawson, this will make it easier to identify bullets even if they fragment into many pieces, as they often do if fired from high-velocity rifles, like the one used by the sniper around Washington.

The weird thing is, the Washington sniper is already in a strange sort of information dance with the media and the police:

Television reporters daily ask police investigators to face the camera and address the sniper personally.

“The message remains the same,” Chief Moose said. “Think about what you’re doing and turn yourself into law enforcement.”

The long-standing, deconstructionist puns about “shooting” and the media here are almost too easy. We use cameras to fire information at the sniper; he does the same thing with bullets.

Meet your “Planetary Protection Officer”

I learned today that NASA has a guy whose actual job title is “Planetary Protection Officer.”

His name is John Rummel, and his task is to make sure that space probes we send to other planets don’t accidentally contaminate them with Earth microbes — and, more freakily, vice versa. After all, it would suck rather badly to finally have a probe discover life on Mars … only to kill the entire planet dead when a flu microbe that accidentally stowed away infects the place. Vice versa: NASA’s working on a probe that will go to Mars, grab some soil, and come back. Here’s hoping it doesn’t come back with some really hideous interplanetary version of Montezuma’s Revenge. NASA dudes delicately refer to these little holocausts as “forward contamination” and “backward contamination”.

Thus, it’s Rummel’s job to carefully inspect every single nut and bolt that goes into a planetary space probe, and make sure somebody hasn’t sneezed on it. Hell, or even touched it with their bare hands! This can involve some pretty intense stuff: To satisfy the dictates of the Planetary Protection Office, NASA had to take the entire 1975 Viking Mars probe and bake it in a 400 degree kiln.

Can you imagine how cool this guy must feel when he’s at a cocktail party and someone asks, “So what do you do for a living?” As he notes in a recent op-ed piece:

There are days when I ask myself, “Is it worth it?” After all, given the heightened awareness about Earth organisms and their newfound capabilities in extreme environments-to say nothing of the troubles that immune-compromised patients face with normally benign microbes-I figure the need for back contamination controls for missions to places possibly harboring life should be obvious. So I sometimes wonder if I, as Planetary Protection Officer, can really make a difference.

Nice, though, that we seemed to have learned something from our last experience of “contact,” back when the Spanish — whoops — liquidated the American indigenous population with European microbes. Rummel’s next big mission is making sure we don’t accidentally give Jupiter’s moon Europa a huge case of the sniffles when we hit it with a probe in the next decade. Apparently, it’s got a really nice juicy atmosphere and icy surface, which is very suitable for life — and, thus, also, for killin’.

Wickedly cool video-game theory site

I just stumbled upon the extremely cool — named after the philosophy of play, and devoted to blogging about video-game theory.

Given that the vast majority of game criticism still hasn’t evolved beyond the precambrian five-stars-rating this-sucks-no-it-doesn’t mode, the blogger here (Gonzales Frasca, a game designer for the Cartoon Network) is doing an incredible service. It collects together the smartest game writing online: Everything from Henry Jenkin’s erudite ideas about narrative game design to a nutzoid British boycott of overly-expensive games (they have apparently declared Dec. 1 to 8 “Don’t Buy Videogames Week”).

This rocks.

He is better than your kids.

You know, I think he actually is.

What’s it like to be virtual?

Sure, it’s fun playing football video games. They’ve got all the major players scanned in, like, say, David Carr of the Houston Texans. So when you boot up your favorite PS2 NFL sim, presto — you can pretend to be David Carr for an evening.

But what’s it actually like for David Carr himself to play the game?

“The first time I saw myself in a video game was in college (at Fresno State) when I walked into a Best Buy store and some kid was playing with me,” says Carr. “That kind of trips you out a little bit.”

Bot cops: The bad lieutenants

Excellent piece by University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds (and Instapundit guy) on how bots are being used increasingly for law enforcement. This ranges from automated speed-trap bots (which take a snapshot of your car if they detect you speeding) to bots created by record companies to crawl the Net looking for supposedly illegal warez and bootlegs.

The problem is — as almost any AI scientist could tell you — that bot intelligence is still far too crappy to be a basis for law enforcement. Recently, the Internet Service Provider Association filed a brief complaining about bots that the Recording Industry Association of America has turned loose. Some of the stuff these ‘bots have fingered is berserk:

The brief also identifies a file entitled “harry potter book report.rtf” whose name and tiny size (1K) make obvious that it is not an illegal copy of the Harry Potter movie. Obvious to anyone who looks, anyway. But why should the record and movie companies bother to look? They’re unlikely to suffer any damages if ISPs take down the wrong files, and the consumers involved are unlikely to sue them. (In filing with the Internet Service Providers, a company representative even certified in writing “that we have a good faith belief that use of the material … is not authorized by Warner Bros. … or the law.” Puhleez.)

Much like the operators of rigged traffic cameras, they’re relying on their own institutional power — and the hassle of opposing them — to let them get away with near-criminal sloppiness. It’s bad enough that you might lose your Internet connection because of such carelessness — but you could wind up in even worse trouble.

One-button games, pt. 2

For months, I’ve been hunting for video games controlled by only one button — like Pacman, or the other ones I’ve written about before (Loop and the Palm game Hot Snake.) (I’m talking about good games, by the way. There are plenty of lame games with only one controller.)

I found another one — “the helicopter game”, programmed by this British dude named Duncan Donaldo. There is only one button, and only one instruction:

You think it’s easy flying a radio-controlled helicopter into somebody’s head. My hi-score is 2148. See if you can beat it.

I blew like half an hour playing this. Either it’s really fun or I’m really easy to entertain — hard to tell.

Dumb highlighting makes you stupider

You know how penniless students save money by buying used textbooks? And you know how those textbooks are often filled with tons of highlighting — relics of the previous owners?

Researchers have known for a while that highlighting has a strong cognitive effect on readers. People tend to pay attention to highlighting — even when it’s not their own. That’s why pre-owned textbooks can have a certain pedagogical appeal. I remember friends of mine who preferred to buy pre-highlighted textbooks because it would “save them time”; the previous student had already done all the work of identifying the relevant passages, right?

Except — what if the previous owner was a moron?

In that case, reading the textbook turns you into a moron too. According to a study by the academics Vicki Silver and David Kreiner, students who were given textbooks with “inappropriate highlighting” wound up scoring worse on tests than students who were allowed to do the highlighting themselves. (The study isn’t online, but an abstract of it is here, about three-quarters of the way down the page.)

Silver and Kreiner won an Ig Nobel Prize this year for their study. I was at the ceremony, and in her acceptance speech, Silver summed up the results of their research neatly: “Don’t buy textbooks from dumb people.”

Is left-handedness the key to the universe?

Well, Chris McManus thinks so. In his new book Left Hand, Right Hand, he argues that asymmetry is the key to understanding virtually every mystery of the universe — from sub-atomic behavior (the lefthanded spin of neutrinos) to psychology (why most cultures regard “right” as more normal and correct than “left”) to human physiology: Ever wonder what it means that almost everyone’s heart is on the left side of our bodies? (Unless you’re one of the rare people McManus locates who have a heart on their right side; or unless you’re a Time Lord and you have two.)

Most mindblowingly, McManus argues that our preference for right-handedness is a direct result of interstellar lifeforms brought to Earth by crashing meteors about a jillion years ago. I am not making this up. There’s an excellent piece about the book in last weekend’s Ideas section of the Boston Globe, written by my gal Emily Nussbaum, who also writes the Summary Judgment column for Slate:

According to McManus, all life forms possess some variation on handedness, from the molecular level on up. Neutrinos are lefties, DNA twists to the right, and conch shells spin both ways. Mechanical objects from spiral staircases to corkscrews are notable for their asymmetrical swirls, while the human brain’s right and left hemispheres famously work together in a peculiarly lopsided vaudeville act. McManus further suggests that the asymmetry of molecules may trigger asymmetry all the way up the evolutionary ladder. Indeed, the seemingly symmetrical human body is in fact a Rube Goldberg machine of asymmetry, with tiny clockwise swirling cilia triggering the development of our typically left-sided heart, and the heart likewise knocking the rest of the internal organs into their efficient, unbalanced tangle of tubes and sacks. The left testicle, for instance, droops lower not because (as the ancient Greeks suspected) it is heavier, but because the snarl of inner tubes dictated by the heart simply makes that position more efficient.


Google fighting back against Google bombs?

Bloggers are freaking out, it seems. Last week, Google changed some of the weighting in its supermysterious PageRank technology — and it has apparently made many popular blogs less likely to be a search result.

Up until now, blogs had it good. They were the answer to which Google had been a question. Google favors results that are well-linked-to — if you have a lot of links to your site, you’re obviously considered valuable in the online world. Thus, blogs (which are networked with an almost hillybillyesque level of inbreeding) used to pop up very high on Google results.

But for some reason (which no one knows, because Google doesn’t explain its technology in depth), Google’s recent changes seem to have altered that. And bloggers are not happy at all.

I’m slightly torn on this one. On the one hand, I think Google’s ranking style is subtly brilliant. By taking its cues from how we link to one another, it defines “what is a a useful site” in a very human way: If other people like it, it must be useful. That’s a wonderful way out of the maze of automatic-text recognition and half-assed semantic A.I. that has plagued so many other search engines, with their attempts to get robot spiders to accurately “read” the content of web sites. Humans are a good judge of content; machines aren’t, not yet anyway. And since I really like blogs, I’ve always loved the fact that Google has neatly reinforced their importance: They’re what people actually link to and consider important — a nice slap in the face of major corporate media. You could go as far as to say that Google essentially created the popularity of the blog.

But on the other hand, should blogs be that popular on Google?

After all, Google’s method leads to a pretty surreal definition of utility. To wit: Is popularity a good index of utility? On the contrary, it’s almost a high-school definition of what’s important: “Why’s that guy popular?” “Uh, because he’s … popular.” This sort of tautology acts itself out on Google all the time. Once something gets a few links made to it, other people get it as a search result on Google, and thus they figure it’s important and link to it, and pretty soon — bingo, the site is entrenched as important.

But in a way, that’s precisely how we humans determine what’s important: We move as a flock from trend to trend, from site to site. If we — en masse — consider something popular, it is thus almost by definition thus important, or culturally revealing, or whatnot. But popularity can stand in the way of growth. Trends work much like ideology: Once one system is in place, it makes it harder to even recognize any new data or information that violates the system. If everyone is convinced one site is important, one fact is important, one trend or idea is important, then it colors what we look for — and what we find when we go looking. For example, people who are convinced the world is more violent literally do not even seem to notice the constant stream of news stories documenting that North American crime is as low as it’s been in decades. Once we’ve got one thing lodged in our conciousness, we have ever more trouble recognizing evidence that will contradict what we already believe. Google, by emulating the way humans think and network, has also emulated our flaws.

This is, now that I think about it, almost precisely the idea behind Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Video-game version of crack cocaine

I’ve not posted for three days now, and that is partly due to the fact that I have become hopelessly addicted to Bookworm.

Don’t bother clicking on the link unless you want to lose half your day to this game. I’m serious. It’s insane. This game is so dementedly absorbing that it’s like a UFO abduction, just a total lost-time syndrome: I started playing yesterday at 5 pm and didn’t look up until 10:55 pm. As in, I forgot even to check my freaking watch during that time.

I. Am. Warning. You.

These aren’t the droids you’re looking for

Whoa — the U.N. has released its now-annual World Robotics Survey. Apparently, there are currently 760,000 robots in the workplace right now, slightly over half of which are in Japan. The pace of robotization is declining, though; the huge boom of the 80s and 90s has begun to lag. Which is where this report is sort of creepy, because it quite shamelessly advocates replacing those fickle, expensive human workers with cheap and servile robots:

Why invest in robots? In the last decade the performance of robots has increased radically while at the same time prices have been plummeting. A robot sold in 2001 would have cost less than a fifth of what a robot with the same performance would have cost in 1990. Profitability studies have shown that it is not unusual that robots have a pay-back period as short as 1-2 years.

And not hire people? In Germany, for instance, the price of robots relative to labour costs have fallen from 100 in 1990 to 35 in 2001 and to less than 20 when taking into account the radically improved performance of robots. In North America, the relative price had dropped to 20 and to as low as about 10 if quality improvements are taken into consideration. “Falling or stable robot prices, increasing labour costs and continuously improved technology are major driving forces which speak for continued massive robot investment in industry”, concludes Jan Karlsson. Even in developing countries like Brazil, Mexico and China, robot investments are staring to take off at an impressive rate. (Italics theirs.)


However, I gotta admit, some of the categories of work robots are wonderfully Star Wars: “Demolition robots,” “Underwater work-class robots,” “Courier robots”. Believe it or not, there are currently 20 “robots in marketing” at work, and there’ll be 100,000 by 2005. By then, there will apparently also be at least five “wall-climbing robots” in the workplace.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for pointing out this item!)

World’s funniest joke

The British psychologist Richard Wiseman has finished a long search for the World’s Funniest Joke. He got 40,000 submissions from around the world and had 2 million people vote on them at his web site, LaughLab. The joke is:

A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: ‘My friend is dead! What can I do?’ The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: ‘Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.’ There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: ‘OK, now what?’”

It’s his research that is killer, though: Apparently, Americans and Canadians prefer jokes that make other people look stupid — and worldwide, jokes with ducks in them are considered funniest.

He ranks the jokes most preferred by each nation, which is intriguing. Naturally, the top Canadian joke makes fun of stupid Americans. (Though it isn’t all that funny, and is terribly paced. The one from the U.S. is exceedingly lame too.) In fact, the funniest part of the world, judging by this list of jokes, is Britain, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland — the home of Monty Python. My personal fave is from Scotland:

I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather. Not screaming in terror like his passengers.

Though personally I’d wonder what jokes would come out of India and Pakistan. The comedy I’ve seen in movies from those countries, and their authors and comedians, is just fantastic, bloody-minded stuff.

A virtual cat!

Oh my god, Nekocat is the cutest virtual pet I’ve ever seen in my life!

It’s for the Palm OS, and is programmed by this guy in France. Bonus: He’s also programmed a version of John Conway’s famous cellular-automata Game of Life for the Palm, which blew my mind back in the 1980 when Byte magazine printed a version of it to run in BASIC. And check out the section of his site where he’s done Windows-based emulations of insane 1980s Tandy “pocket computers”.

This guy rules.

The weapons-inspector speaks: Why we shouldn’t bomb Iraq (WARNING: INSANELY LONG POST)

While the military is on my mind, I confess I’m freaking out because of a brilliant speech I heard at MIT last week by Scott Ritter — the former U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq. He gave an absolutely amazing explanation of why we shouldn’t attack Iraq.

In point form, the argument is thus:

a) Iraq is actually not a threat to us. This is because …

b) The nuclear-bomb thing is a red herring. Iraq most likely doesn’t have any fissile material for a nuke. It has missiles capable of delivering fissile material to a target, but without the fissile material, there’s no nuke.

c) Iraq also did not have chemical and biological weapons, back when Ritter was last there with his weapons inspectors. Mind you, the U.S. recalled its inspectors — so in the intervening time, it’s entirely likely that Iraq built them up again, and does have chemical and biological weapons. They’re much easier to build than nuclear material.

d) However, it’s really unlikely that Iraq is going to do anything to threaten the U.S. with these chemical and biological weapons.

e) This is because, contrary to Bush’s statements, Saddam Hussein is not crazy. He’s been in power for 32 years — which is, indeed, a mark of a highly rational guy, if a bloodthirsty and power-mad one. He is vanishingly unlikely to do anything that would give the U.S. legitimate cause to demolish him. He does not want to be demolished. He does not give a flying fuck about his people, clearly, but he himself does not want to die.

f) The best way to prevent Hussein from getting nuke material, BTW, is to have weapons inspectors in there. If there are a few hundred inspectors crawling around the country all the time, Hussein can lie through his teeth all he wants, but we usually find out when he’s building weapons. In the past, Ritter always found stuff Hussein was trying to hide. This is the point: Inspectors are a deterrent to Hussein having really nasty weapons. So long as they’re in there, he has a lot of trouble building weapons. Which is why it’s so scary that the U.S. pulled the inspectors out.

g) Bush has suggested Hussein might give a nuke to Al Qaeda. This is insanely improbable. Hussein and Al Qaeda hate each other. Hussein is a competely secular leader; he only pretends to be hard-core Islamic when it serves his political ends. Al Qaeda, meanwhile, has actually declared war on all secular Muslim leaders, including Hussein. They think he’s as bad as the U.S. There is no way that, if Hussein finally got his hands on nuclear material — which he’s spent 20 years trying, and failing, to get — he would give it to Al Qaeda. As he knows, if Al Qaeda used an Iraqi nuke to attack the U.S., it would be immediately traced to Hussein. The U.S. would thus move in and have good justified cause to demolish him. And he does not want that. He is a despot, but not suicidal.

h) In fact, Hussein knows international politics quite well. He knows that the reason the U.S. cannot legally demolish Iraq is that it violates U.N. law, and the U.N.’s charter calling for the weapons-inspection program. Iraq has, by the way, repeatedly agreed to submit to that weapons-inspection program. It’s not just because they’re losers; it’s out of self-interest. Hussein knows that by (mostly) co-operating with the U.N. and international law, other countries will support him. Or at very least, they will not support U.S. unilateral action.

i) Which is actually really good for our homeland security, because, as noted above, the weapons-inspection program is actually the best possible deterrent to Iraqi building totally awful weapons. How ironic is that? What Hussein wants (i.e. to be safe from being personally killed by the U.S.) also gets us what we want: To be safe from him having, say, a nuke. We both have good reasons for sticking with the weapons-inspection program. It is, as management theorists are fond of saying, a “win win” situation.

j) In fact, the only situation under which Hussein has ever promised to actually use incredibly horrific weapons is if he himself is personally about to die. Recall the Gulf War, when he issued orders that — in the event of his death — the Iraqi army should fire their seven chemical-weapons-tipped missiles at Israel. He made it absolutely clear that, if he himself is personally going down, he’ll take others with him.

k) Let’s recap: The best way to ensure Iraq does not acquire horrible weaponry is to continue with U.N.-sanctioned weapons inspections, a measure that even Iraq agrees to. However, the precisely best way to ensure incredibly bad shit goes down in the mideast — like, say, Israel getting bombed senseless by Iraq — is for the U.S. to ignore the U.N. and unilaterally attack Iraq with the intention of killing Hussein and having a “regime change.”

l) So why the hell are we doing the latter?

m) Ritter figures it’s because the military hawks, kept so long in the deep freeze during the Clinton administration, have gone totally nonlinear and just do not give a shit about anything other than kicking some Arab ass.

n) Possibly, but I think that’s too simple. It’s also quite clearly about oil. The U.S. would love to have a “regime change” so that it could help instal a new Iraqi leader, one that is more amenable to U.S. influence, and thus more amenable to giving us easy access to that gorgeous Iraqi oil.

o) It’s not much different from how the U.S. has tweaked the Iraqi trade embargoes to get cheap oil. When we lobbied to have big trade embargoes put on Iraq back in the early 90s, it was under the theory that Iraqis would all starve and die and then decide to overthrow Hussein so that the U.S. and U.N. would finally lift the embargo.

p) It didn’t happen that way, of course. Hussein does not give a shit about the Iraqi population starving. They just died and died and died and died because of our embargo. Then after the American population finally clued into this, and realized that our policies were starving and killing totally innocent Iraqi children and babies and old people, we got embarrassed and filled with guilt. And this allowed U.S. politicians to dream up the “food for oil” trade: They get food if we get cheap oil.

q) Interestingly, it can be easily argued that the trade embargo is keeping Hussein in power — because it’s starving and killing the very people who might overthrow him: Everyday Iraqi citizens. Ritter argues — quite reasonably — that the best way to empower everyday Iraqis is to lift the trade embargo. He figures we should embark on tons of trade with Iraq. Over the next few decades (and possibly even sooner) it would create a genuine middle class in that country — people with a nice standard of living to maintain. And people with a nice standard of living to maintain i) do not like the idea of a megalomaniac running their country and getting it into crazy stupid unwinnable wars, and ii) have enough social power to do something about it. You want to have an Iraqi uprising that gets rid of Hussein and creates a democracy? Help the country create a middle class.

r) In fact, the odd thing is that we never really needed to have a wholesale trade embargo on Iraq. Because the U.N. had something more powerful and important — a weaponry embargo, a prohibition for foreign nations selling arms to the country. Of course, many still do sell Hussein guns and missiles, but with the weapons embargo, the U.S. is allowed under international law to kick the living shit out of anyone caught doing so.

s) So let’s recap again. The U.S. has several excellent U.N.-supported tools to help prevent Hussein from becoming a problem: It has the ability to send in gazillions of weapons inspectors (keeping Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction) and it has a great weapons-sale embargo it can enforce. It also could throw lots of trade at Iraq aimed at helping to create a genuine Iraqi middle class, precisely the sort of people most likely to overthrow Hussein in a completely legal and internationally kosher fashion. And in Hussein, the U.S. has — fortunately — an enemy who is actually quite unlikely to launch a mass attack against the U.S. for fear of personal death.

t) Instead, we’ve pulled out the weapons inspectors, essentially letting Hussein build whatever insanely creepy shit he wants without us knowing about it. We’ve openly threatened his life and said we intend to push a regime change on him, which is — as he has said in the past — the only thing that would make him launch really huge attacks against Israel or us or other foreign nations. We’ve lobbied to levy punitive economic sanctions against the country, which have destroyed and decimated the very Iraqi citizens we hoped would overthrow Hussein. Then we’ve cynically used that human loss to extract cheap-oil deals from the country.

u) Our political leaders are either totally on crack or are more expansively and horrifyingly venal than we could ever possibly imagine, and hope to personally profit from this situation.

Military more like a video game every day

Man, I’d heard about DARPA’s new contest — the “Autonomous Ground Vehicle Challenge,” whereby they’re offering a “cash prize” to whoever can build the fastest robot to self-guide itself from L.A. to Las Vegas in 2004. And I knew that it was intended to help foster autonomous-vehicle technology, so that the military has ever more ways to send hunks of deadly metal — instead of real-live soldiers — into Arab nations, so we can kill real live Arabs without endangering ourselves. But whatever, I still think it’s a cool contest.

The thing is, the splash page for the contest looks almost eerily like a video-game box in Wal-Mart. Who designed this thing?

(And now that I think about, what the hell kind of metaphoric import are we supposed to get from a race that has robots fleeing L.A. for Vegas?)

Death by ice-blocks

The signs of global warming have now officially made the transition from “intellectually worrying” to “Book-of-Revelations-style creepy.” According to MSNBC, new layers of colder-than-usual air at superhigh altitudes are taking normal jetstream — trails of ice in the air left by airplanes — and transforming them into plummeting bricks of ice the size and weight of anvils:

Ice clouds made from crystallized vapor trails of aircraft are well-known to pilots, but Martinez-Frias suggests that because global warming involves one level of the atmosphere getting colder while another gets hotter, some ice clouds now remain longer.

Their centers then fall through the atmosphere, bouncing and gathering mass, to end up smashing through a car windshield or, more usually, landing softly in a field, he suggested.

The first megacryometeor found this year in Spain — by a startled farmer riding his tractor in Soria — weighed 35.27 pounds (16 kilograms).

Response to my Wired piece: “Slaves to the Machines”

Rob Toole — a senior majoring in communications at Boston College (and producer of the Sal Arleone awards) — wrote a very cool redaction of the piece I just wrote for Wired, “Slaves to Our Machines” . He sent it to me, and here it is:

Clive Thompson’s article “Slaves to our Machines” which appeared in the October 2002 issue of Wired Magazine can basically be summed up in these four words; Humans are ditch-diggers.

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Nancy Reagan, ew

Turns out that after years of crusading for massive labor beatdowns, a lower minumum wage, a globally apocalyptic and hallucinogenically ill-considered war on drugs, and scores of other issues recited verbotim from hard-right prayerbook, Nancy Reagan has taken a stance in favor of … embryonic stem-cell research.

Well, obviously, it’s because her husband has been so ravaged by Alzheimer’s. And obviously only someone with a heart of tempered steel would not feel pity for her situation. Fortunately, when it comes to Nancy Reagan, I actually do have a heart of tempered steel.

More precisely, her simpering hypocrisy reminds me of the whole reason that socialized health care rocks: Because it forces the rich to care about the quality of a nation’s welfare. Most of the time, of course, the brobdignagianally powerful could not possibly give less of a fuck about the lives of the meritless gnats scrabbling by in the bottom four-fifths of the American economy (to say nothing of the rest of the world). AIDS? Yeah, yeah. Crappy exploitative work? Cry me a river. Huge hydroelectric and oil/lumber concerns shredding the environment? Hippie.

But — whoops — as soon as someone powerful actually has to grapple with one of the horrible problems faced by tons of other people in society face, the hue and cry goes up; something must be done!

Grumble, grumble. Like Nancy Reagan actually gives a shit what I or anyone else says, but whatever. What’s the point of having a blog if you can’t write stuff that doesn’t make a shit’s worth of difference to the known universe?

I feel better now, I suppose.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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