Friday, May 14, 2004

A few decades ago, there was much worrying when JFK ran for President. Because he was a Catholic, people wondered if the Catholic Church would try to exercise undue influence on our government. Eventually, he announced that he did not speak for the Church - and the Church did not speak for him.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) -- The bishop of Colorado's second-largest Roman Catholic diocese issued a stark warning Friday, saying voters should not receive Communion if they back politicians who support abortion rights, stem-cell research, euthanasia and gay marriage.

It is now officially an act of courage for a Catholic to support any politician who supports any of those, and I want to say how proud I am to live in a democracy where there are so many who do so.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

This essay on anger and war by Armed Liberal of Winds of Change is even more topical now than when I bookmarked it a couple of months ago intending to blog about it. I've been deleting many such bookmarks unblogged, but this doesn't deserve to be one of them.

He discussed the danger of acting out of anger - or fear - in Iraq. Unlike me, he doesn't believe those two emotions were in fact the driving force behind this war - and its' Achilles heel. This is the only writing I've found about the effects our collective emotions have been having on us though.

One of the reasons I call this blog the Art of Peace is because I consider peace an art. You can't sustain it merely by not hurting anyone, or even being so powerful no rational actor would attack. As Sun Tsu recommended in another case, you must understand both yourself and any potential enemy.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

The emergent result may well be that some will exhibit behavior indicating intelligence at a level beyond that of individual humans, capable of "thinking" thoughts no single human could conceive of. Even with industrial-level technology, that's already happened. Science, in particular, is such a thing, as is modern engineering. Engineering at a primitive level has been with us since the creation of the first stone tools. But science as we now know it is very recent, only going back about 500 years (though one can identify predecessors extending back millennia before that).

I've already commented on this USS Clueless post, but I'm going to do so again. Partly this is because one of the major focuses of this weblog is about how we can help catalyze the self organization of such a mind, and there aren't that many posts in the blogosphere on this subject. This particular one interests me especially because it is from an engineering rather than a new age perspective. The point here is not that I'm convinced all new age ideas are wrong, but that none of them provide concrete approaches we can pursue insofar as I know. Engineering after all is about designing and builiding, which is close to what I am interested in. Unlike Steven, I tend to think it makes more sense to think of the whole memeosphere as a single mind, (also here). I'd like to think more about how that mind works. In many ways it's still embryonic, but as Steven has pointed out, it has already begun to successfully explore and manipulate the physical world. In my opinion it is still not functioning effectively in most ways - all the more reason to examine the ways in which it is, and think about what might be going wrong.

The emergent result may well be that some will exhibit behavior indicating intelligence at a level beyond that of individual humans, capable of "thinking" thoughts no single human could conceive of.. In some sense it should, or what's so special about it? On the other hand, the brain has trillions of neurons, and the world only has billions of humans. It seems very unlikely an individual neuron can have a concept of a brain or even a neuron, but a human can think about a global hive mind. Perhaps we can come close to understanding those thoughts by thinking about the trends, practice, and history of science - and perhaps attempting to do so will even contribute a tiny bit towrds crystallizing and clarifying the thoughts of the nascent global brain.

What Steven Johnson refers to as emergent intelligence seems to operate by huge number of low level systems obeying a set of mechanical laws. This may not be quite the case with the Global Brain, so perhaps quasi-emergent intelligence is a better name for it. Scientists are largely concerned about their own prestige, security, and income. To the extent they are driven by the love of knowledge, it is probably more often a specific type of knowledge than science in the abstract. Yet scientists also have opinions about science in general, how it should be done and where it is going. Since fame and prestige (even after their death) is one of the major payoffs for being a truly great discoverer, it is harder to 'game the system'. An economic system may be designed to reward those who contribute to the economic well being of the community, but once the rules are set in stone it is inevitable some people will find ways to profit which don't produce a net benefit for the group which made the laws but follow the laws as they are encoded. But if you care what people will think in one hundred years about how you got your data and how you gave credit to prior work, it is by definition impossible to exploit loopholes. The people who write histories of science and the people who read them are all part of the system.

Also needed is a consensus that progress is possible and necessary. This may seem too obvious to state, but many religions consider it sacriligious to suppose that gifted individuals can improve on received dogma short of a singular revelation, and many consider it unpatriotic to suggest there is something fundamentally wrong with the way their government works. It is hard enough for someone with an idea that contradicts the established orthodoxy to get a hearing, even though many of the members of that established orthodoxy established their reputation by proving that an older accepted idea was in fact wrong. Yet the idea that evidence and argument can and should be enough to prove that what the entire establishment believes is wrong is very deeply built into science. Irony of ironies, students of the history of science have with careful research asked questions about the received story of Galileo - yet even as a founding myth, it is a very good one for science.

How can our ideas about religion and government be reshaped so we will be on a steady course towards wonders now unimaginable? To ask the question is to deny that we have reached Fukuyama's end of history. For myself, I think it is worth thinking about even in retrospect - are there workable changes in both these institutions which could have kept us from the problems we confront now?

Monday, May 03, 2004

Surreal though it may seem, the time has come to defend the Bush administration against criticism from Steven of USS Clueless.

It feels like the edge is off. There's a certain ruthlessness needed to fight and win a war, and in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks the Bush administration showed that ruthlessness. But now it feels like that's beginning to fade. It feels like the fire is going out.

It feels like the Bush Administration has decided to put the war onto the shelf until after the election. That's what it feels like. And that worries me. This war is much too important to permit such considerations to affect its prosecution.

Iraq is a tinderbox. Whatever illusions they may have had before, they know that now. We could easily bomb Najaf and Fallujah into the ground, but it would not help us rebuild Iraq. We could send large quantities of troops into those cities - but all the evidence is that the result would be a bloodbath. We are capable of making sure most of the blood is Iraqi, but not of making sure that most of it is from people already committed to fighting the United States. That would not help rebuild a stable Iraq either. All other courses of action may seem weak to some. In fact, it will take Machiavellian brilliance to avoid total failure in Iraq. I have suggested some of the things I think would help in previous posts, but I'm under no illusion I could do it if they put me in charge. American military restraint is not sufficient to resolve this problem, but it is a necessary precondition.

This is where I think that the Bush administration has failed. In an SOTU speech, Bush famously (or notoriously) said to the leaders of the world, "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." But he no longer seems to be following through on that.

In particular, it is regarding Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan where I think the Bush administration has failed the worst.

A few paragraphs later:

Unfortunately, what this smells like is old-style "but he's our son-of-a-bitch" cynical realpolitik which is part of how we got into the mess we're in. (There were good reasons to do that in some cases during the Cold War, but the Cold War is now over.) Bush himself made a speech in which he said that we would no longer support despots simply because they were friendly. Why is Mubarek being given a pass?

We are supporting dictatorship in Pakistan because we believe if the Pakistani government falls nukes will fall into the hands of terrorists from Pakistan's arsenal. A democratically elected government might well give tacit support to this, but even if not they would be less willing to step on popular toes to prevent it. Does Bush have a long term plan to prevent it? No. But endangering their government without a careful plan specifying how to prevent the nuke situation from becoming worse will make it become worse in all probability. I believe there are geniuses who could do it, but I don't believe Bush is one. I think Iraq has brought us a couple of steps closer to the brink, and in that respect he has made it worse, but I myself don't know how he could do better in his dealings with Pakistan so I won't criticize those.

In Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in particular, Steven is demanding that Bush carry through on two contradictory policies. Of course Bush has in fact enunciated both halves of this contradiction, but not at the same time. At times I have been in sympathy with attacks on his family ties to the Saudi's, but in truth they are no deeper than the rest of the country. The Saudi's have been supporting terror abroad for short term ease at home. We have been supporting the Saudi's for pretty much the same reason. This is not good, but if we plan to stop, the first thing we have to do is stop pretending democracy will not mean higher oil prices. This is an American pretense more than a Bush pretense. As in Iraq, it may now be too late to stop the Wahibi juggernaut. The Saudi's may be overthrown whether we want it or not, but the result will not automatically be decreased terrorism - or a step back from the brink.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Jason Van Steenwyk writes about the terrible things discovered at Abu Gharaib, which don't involve only low ranking officers, or even only the military. CIA and DIA officers encouraged behaviors they considered 'condusive to interrogation'.

The soldiers involved should see time in Leavenworth. And that's not just the soldiers in the photos. We need to look very hard at whether and which members of the chain of command ought to see prison time, too.

Here's yet another critical idea, obvious in retrospect but occuring to nobody before hand, especially not me. All this time, even those of us who opposed Guantanamo bay indefinite detentions under conditions we didn't want to know about (considered condusive to interrogation) did not speak loudly enough or with enough conviction. How could we answer those who said that some of these people might have information which might help us prevent another terrorist attack? The end result was that those who interrogate prisoners developed the mindset that anything which might do the job was OK. This training eventually leaked into Iraq. I don't know if we can still succeed in Iraq, but this has made it much harder, and made the consequences of failure worse.