Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Dogs of War

The New York Times Magazine is running Peter Maass' article on Iraq's General Adnan Thabit who commands 5,000 commandos in the new Iraqi army and is the driving force behind Iraq's newest reality show: Terrorism in the Grip of Justice.

The commandos cultivate a vaguely menacing look. They wear camouflage uniforms, but also irregular clothing, like black leather gloves and balaclavas -- not to hide their identities but to inspire fear among the enemy. It is a look I saw among the Serbian paramilitaries who terrorized Croatia and Bosnia during the Balkan wars in the 90's, and it is the look of the paramilitaries that operated in Latin America a decade earlier....

Though the commandos and their American advisers were working together in Samarra, their approaches were decidedly different. The American way of combat is heavily planned, with satellite maps, G.P.S. coordinates and reconnaissance drones. The Iraqi way is improvisational, relying less on honed skills and high-tech than gut instinct and (literally) bare knuckles. It is the Americans who are learning to adapt. At the bottom of printed briefings that American soldiers receive at the bases in Samarra, a quotation from T.E. Lawrence is appended: ''Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.'' |Link|

It's worth a read if you have the time.

Friday, April 29, 2005

RFID in Passports: Encryption is a Good Thing

[T]he U.S. State Department [has decided] to drop a requirement for additional security measures in next-generation U.S. passports. The specifications have yet to be finalized.

Neville Pattinson, director of technology development and government affairs for smart card provider Axalto Americas, said Friday (April 29) that adding security measures such as "Basic Access Control" and a metallic shield cover to U.S. passports could "completely make the information [stored in the e-passport] undetectable."

Pattison originally disclosed the results of a National Institute of Standards and Technology e-passport trial held last summer in which he said NIST testers were able to lift "an exact copy of digitally signed private data" from a contactless e-passport chip 30 feet away.

* * * *

Bruce Schneier, a security technology expert, noted in his online blog, "The devil is in the details, but this [Basic Access Control] is a great idea. It means that only readers that know a secret data string can query the RFID chip inside the passport." |Link|


What the fuck are they thinking? We should demand encryption. I'm writing my Senators again. I recently wrote them to oppose John Bolton's nomination. He'd be a disaster as Ambassador to the UN.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

10 Greenest Cities in America

The Green Guide's list to the greenest cities in America lists Austin, Texas first because the cities are in alphabetical order. I have many friends living in Austin and it's a very nice town. However, one must not forget that Texas is the heart of darkness when it comes to environmentalism and progressive politics. The reason Austin is so cool is that anyone with a liberal outlook living anywhere in Texas moves to Austin as fast as possible.

International Development: Literacy and Computing

Nicholas Negroponte's idea for a $100 laptop for the developing is a great idea. Negroponte is part of MIT's Media Lab. The idea certainly has promise and I agree that economies of scale will make a huge difference.

"Can it be done? Yes, definitely," says Michael Best, a professor at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. "The question is, what's to be done and why.... We're better at designing technology than we are at understanding what technologies should be designed. So the challenge with creating a $100 useful Internet appliance is understanding how people will use it, how they will be empowered by it."

Not everyone shares Professor Best's conviction that it's possible to overcome the technological challenges - let alone financial, environmental, and cultural obstacles. |Link|

However, this proposed solution for the global digital divide does not address the basic issue of literacy. If you cannot read, then the Internet can still be cool, but it's more entertainment than education. And if there is no content available in a person's language, then the Internet is pretty damned useless.

Lessons for Small Planet: Global Warming and Rising Sea Levels

Good article on global warming in the New Yorker. Thanks to Media Girl.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A Toast to FDR

Thanks to Istvan the Mad for the link to Truthout and Bob Herbert's essay on FDR's politics. I like to think of myself as a moderate libertarian and I think there is a role for the government in providing for the common defense, providing for education, providing employment and using the tools of public policy to create a better society. So let us toast FDR and plan the return to power of progressive politics.

Rent-A-German

For all your social needs, there's now Rent-A-German.

Sample Testimonial:

Samantha F., 27 (London):
“I had such a lovely evening with the German and my mates: After the pub, we went dancing. My friends were thoroughly impressed by the German moves. I was gobsmacked when the German even cleaned my house the next day, before I was awake! Will definitely rent again.”
Thanks to Apophenia for the link.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Rumsfeld Responsible for Torture Scandal

Human Rights Watch has called for an investigation of Donald Rumsfeld and those under his control for human rights abuses perpetrated by the U.S. Military. No surprises here, but it's worth noting all the same.

The humanitarian organization Human Rights Watch has issued a report to coincide with the first anniversary of the publication of the first Abu Ghraib photographs, which showed the most horrendous and shocking scenes of torture and disrespect for the human condition since the Nazi concentration camps of WW2.

In the report "Getting away with torture? Command responsibility for the US abuse of detainees", the report states that there is "substantial evidence warranting criminal investigations" of Rumsfeld, Tenet (ex-CIA Director), General Ricardo Sanchez (US commander in Iraq) and General Geoffrey Miller (Commander of the Abu Ghraib concentration camp).

The report claims that there is also evidence that Abu Ghraib is the tip of the iceberg and that torture of detainees also took place in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and at other secret locations around the world. The report quotes special counselor Reed Brody, who claims that "This pattern of abuse across several countries did not result from the acts of individual soldiers who broke the rules. It resulted from decisions made by senior US officials to bend, ignore or cast rules aside".

The report examines the legal principle of "command responsibility", under which a superior is liable for crimes committed by subordinates where he either knew or should have known that these crimes were being committed and did not take reasonable action to prevent them.

HRW goes on to claim that Rumsfeld himself signed documents authorizing the use of dogs to frighten prisoners, or forcing detainees into "stress positions", in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the Convention against Torture.|Link|
(emphasis added)

The Individual in Society

Saw this over at Mindjack:


[Y]our most recent book, "Get Back in the Box" [by Douglas Rushkoff]. What's it about?...On a deeper level, the book is about renaissance, and the unique moment we're in as a society. A renaissance allows for a profound shift in perspective. While the original Renaissance invented the individual, as well as competition, this renaissance has really brought us new possibilities for collaborative action - networked collectivism and a society of authorship. We've been wrestling since the Renaissance - and some would say since high Greek culture - with the seeming contradiction between the agency of individuals and their power as a collective. I mean to show that we have new ways of contending with dimension that let us see how individuality is itself defined by connections to other people, and that agency is really a group activity.|Link|

The rights of the individual and how they interact with the good of society is a topic that I keep running across in my privacy research. Maybe I should check out Rushkoff's book when it comes out.

Robot Surgeons

Margaret Steen has an article on the development of robot surgeons who would scoop up wounded from the battlefield and allow surgeons to operate on the wounded via remote control.|Link|

The American Inquisition

I have had about all I can take of right-wing lunatics, like Bill Frist and James Dobson.

The Republican leadership is threatening to change Senate rules to stop filibusters on judicial nominations, stripping the Democrats of one of their last remaining powers in Republican-dominated Washington.

Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, made a videotaped appearance at the Justice Sun day church meeting, advocating the rule change. He was careful not to use religious language; but other speakers at the rally were less restrained.

James Dobson, the founder of the ultra-conservative group Focus on the Family, denounced the supreme court for what he called "a campaign to limit religious liberty".

Seven out of the nine judges in the supreme court were appointed by Republican presidents, but it has angered the religious right by failing to intervene in issues such as that of Terri Schiavo.

Mr Dobson said supreme court judges were "unelected and unaccountable and arrogant and imperious, and determined to redesign the culture according to their own biases and values - and they're out of control." |Link|

Monday, April 25, 2005

Dying to be beautiful

The Associated Press has an article on the rise of steroid use by young women.

"There's been a substantial increase for girls during the 1990s, and it's at an all-time high right now," said Charles Yesalis, a professor of health and human development at Pennsylvania State University.

Lloyd Johnston, a University of Michigan professor who heads an annual government-sponsored survey on risky behavior by young people, said: "Other than pedophilia, this is the most secret behavior I've ever encountered."

Overall, up to about 5 percent of high school girls and 7 percent of middle-school girls admit trying anabolic steroids at least once, with use of rising steadily since 1991, various government and university studies have shown.|Link|
I think this is the tip of the iceberg and that this country has a massive problem with steroid use by teens that is not even on the public's radar screen. I remember several guys on my high school football team who were totally 'roided out by the time they were seniors. I wonder if they're still alive now.

The Coming Sensor Revolution

Stephanie Neil has an interesting review of The Real-Time Enterprise: Competing on Time with the Revolutionary Business SEx Machine,

Bellini and Fingar [write about] the Strategy Execution (SEx) engine, which couples business processes with real-time technology. When applied, this combination will enable a company to plan instantly around demand...."We talk a lot about the strategy execution engine in this book. That is where I believe the market will go. We can't really rely on forecasts. ... What if you were able to define all of the assumptions that were made when generating the initial plan?" For instance, if a company could monitor the actual data in the market that proved or disproved its sales assumptions, it could have a trigger that allows it to react quickly. "If you have a real-time way to react to this significant event, it lets you immediately make a different decision and regenerate a different sales and operation plan based on new insight on how the market is moving. The technology is now available to do that."|Link|
I'm a sucker for any book with Business Sex in the title.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Neal's Weekend of Carnage

I have to admit that I wasn't very productive this weekend. Friday I went out to dinner with my friend David. After getting all liquored up we settled in for an orgy of mass murder and destruction and tested the limits of Grand Theft Auto's two player mode. David picked up the mechanics of Grand Theft Auto very quickly, although he was generally content to let me do all the driving.

Then last night I went over to my friend Doug's. Doug and I are going camping in the Los Padres National Forest over Memorial Day so we ate pizza, compared camping gear, and watching Kill Bill. I hadn't seen it before, but it definitely continued the orgy of mass murder and destruction motif for the weekend.

Kill Bill struck me as a comic book turned into a movie. I think I am now totally desensitized to gallons of blood geysering out of severed heads.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

America at the Crossroads: War and Empire

Flaming Banjo has a post about the future of warfare and the rise of warbots.

Finkelstein, a leading proponent of the automation of combat represented by the [Future Combat Systems] program, is echoing an often-repeated promise of the modernized military, the promise of combat with no casualties. Recognizing that the loss of soldier’s lives is the single greatest factor making the American public reluctant to wage war, many military strategists see automating the most dangerous battlefield tasks as holding tremendous promise in the ongoing PR battle to justify overseas engagements, along with the more obvious benefits to life and limb.

Unfortunately, the scenario painted by Finkelstein and others leaves out a crucial point: When he says there will be no people on the battlefield, what he actually means is no American people on the battlefield. |Link|(Emphasis added)


Flaming Banjo's discussion of the rise of warbots and the power of the military-industrial complex reminded me of the interview at TomPaine.com with Chris Hedges, the author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.

The defeat in Vietnam made us a better nation and a better people. We were forced to step outside our own borders and see how other people saw us. We were forced to accept very unpleasant truths about ourselves -- our own capacity for evil. I think that that process [of self-reflection], especially during the Reagan years...began to disintegrate. War once again became fun: Grenada; Panama, culminating in the Persian Gulf War.

...Freud argues that all of life, both for the individual and within human society, is a battle between Eros, or love, and Thanatos, or the death instinct. And that one of these instincts is always ascendant, at one time or another.

I think after the Vietnam war, because of the terrible costs that we paid, because of the tragedy that Vietnam was, Eros was ascendant. I think after the Persian Gulf war, where we fell in love with war -- and what is war, war is death -- Thanatos is ascendant. It will, unfortunately, take that grim harvest of dead, that ultimately those that are intoxicated with war must always swallow, for us to wake up again.|Link|


This struggle between Eros and Thanatos is crystal clear with Bush in office. Our government continues to cut social spending and scientific programs while fully funding programs for high-tech killing toys and occupying Iraq. How much weaponry do we really need? We are a nation awash in small arms and in control of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons...how many warbots do we need?

I guess it depends upon our aim. If our goal is to establish a globe-spanning empire that disempowers and enslaves billions, maybe there is no limit to the need for self-propelled implements of destruction.

TinyURL

Mun sent me a link to TinyURL which allows you to make hideously long URL's into something bite-sized.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Neal the Firebug

So I was having coffee with my friend Bob yesterday. I call him Danger Bob only half in jest. Bob's a cop here in LA. Bob was in uniform and while we were flapping our gums a woman came up to let us know that there was a trash can on fire. Someone probably threw a half extinguished cigarette butt away.

Danger Bob's a smoker. Of course. Anyway, Bob called the FD and they arrived on the scene in minutes. I suggested a fire extinguisher, following my nature. But it really was excessive. The trash can was made out of pebbles cemented together. It was pretty fireproof.

So, tonight I was walking my dog when I smelled ozone. As Halle and I approached the intersection I saw that an old Mercedes had stalled at the corner. The owner was trying to get it to turn over and start again. I know that ozone smell from past experience as an electrical fire. I could also see smoke starting to billow out in the beam of the headlights. I waved the guy off and when he got out of his car I told him about the electrical fire. He had a cell phone and called AAA, so everything worked out fine.

That's twice in two days I've been within twenty feet of a fire. Surely that's a coincidence. I'm not superstitious. After all, superstition brings bad luck.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Canada Watch: New Elections on the Horizon

Corruption in Canada has created a scandal and may bring down the government of Paul Martin according to Anne McIlroy. Exciting times in Ottawa!

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Sovereignty of the Soul

My wife just had an article published in the Suffolk Law Review titled Sovereignty of the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Rape Law Reform and Federal Indian Law, which is available as a pdf.

Sarah informs me that the student editors made some changes to her paper that she isn't thrilled about, and some of the changes aren't even grammatically correct. *sigh*

The Homeless Industrial Complex

CSM has an interesting article by Daniel B. Wood on LA's new $17 million homeless facility. Selected quote:

The loss of affordable housing has been driving up the country's homeless numbers since the 1980s. The gentrification of many dilapidated downtown districts where homeless people often congregate has been creating more social tension between new residents and those on the streets. As homeless populations grow, social-service alternatives such as vouchers for apartments and healthcare that many feel can offer aid without creating dependency are being stretched thin.

"Every city is grappling with the pressures of urban renewal and condo conversions that are impacting areas where homeless gather," says Roman. "They are trying to find a balance between building an infrastructure that makes it too easy to remain homeless [and finding] ways to respond to the increasing appearance of homeless on their streets."|Link|

The Feral Cat Problem as a Symptom of Human Overpopulation

Following up on Zwichenzug's post on cat hunting being voted down in Wisconsin, I think it's interesting that Minnesota and South Dakota allow people to deal with the local feral cat problem using firearms, even if Wisconsin is too civilized for such things.

I've read about Australia's problems with feral cats before and so I wondered if something could be learned about the merits of shooting cats in America from the Australian experience. The debate over killing cats is so polemical, that it's hard to get good data, however, this article by Sarah Hartwell provides a nuanced view of the issues around cat control.

In Hartwell's survey of the data, she finds that cars probably kill more wildlife each year than feral cats.

Concerned about unrealistic figures, other parties have put Dr Paton's figures in perspective. Wildlife Information and Rescue Service (WIRES) in Dubbo, New South Wales applied his methods to a survey of road-killed wildlife along a single stretch of road over several days. They counted road-killed animals ranging from 'Roos to Rosellas (budgie-like birds) along this stretch of road. Using this equally unrepresentative sample they arrived at a figure of 19 road-killed animals per km of road annually. Multiplying that by the amount of road in the whole of Australia, the final figure demonstrated that cars were far more effective predators than cats!

WIRES Central Coast Branch statistics revealed 33% of wildlife deaths due to cats, 36% due to man, with the remainder due to natural causes, disease and other predators. The Central Coast area contains more pet cats which took prey home, while Dubbo has more ferals whose hunting activities cannot easily be monitored. Yet rather than blaming cats, WIRES encourages owners to keep cats indoors overnight.

Though initally used as a guideline, by August 1994 Dr Paton's survey had been discredited. Observation of hunting cats had shown that they preferred rabbit or feral pigeons. Birds and small lizards are not practical prey for a healthy feral cat. The death of countless native animals as a result of poison laid for mice during a recent mouse plague showed that the impact of cats on wildlife was overshadowed by the impact of indiscriminate killing methods employed by humans.|Link|


Writing on the merits of hunting urban cats, Hartwell points out that the cats often kill introduced pests and that spaying them and returning them to the cityscape may be a better solution than killing them.

While bush cats may pose a far greater risk to wildlife, urban ferals may have less contact with indigenous species and may perform a useful function in controlling introduced vermin such as rats, mice and pigeons. In some circumstances it becomes feasible to manage colonies as the lesser of two evils.

The feral issue was raised at the Australian Veterinary Association conference where a Australian National University spokesman quoted a study into environmental and health effects of cats living on 4 rubbish dumps. Whenever cats were culled (usually six-monthly), rodent numbers increased posing an equal threat to wildlife as well as carrying zoonotic diseases. He noted that feral cats from the surrounding area quickly recolonised the dump, forming breeding colonies, indicating that culling was an ineffective long-term cat-management strategy. In such situations, trap-neuter-return schemes, such as those carried out by Cats Assistance to Sterilise (C.A.T.S.) can provide a workable alternative. Dumps attract rats which attract cats, but rodenticides pose a danger to small native animals. Unneutered cats breed, but culling simply clears room for new cats (vacuum effect). In situations where the cats perform a useful service, the establishment of small stable colonies of neutered ferals (euthanasing diseased cats) deter other (usually unneutered) cats from moving in, do not breed and continue to control rats and mice.|Link|


It appears to this author that cats are but one element of threat introduced into the environment by humans. The real threat to the environment is the whole range of destructive human practices from factory farming to draining wetlands to dumping toxic waste into the air, soil, and water.

I think it's about time we started encouraging people NOT to have children. How about tax breaks for childless couples and HIGHER taxes for having a passel of children. Of course, these proposals should also be combined with programs to encourage voluntary simplicity, sustainable society, and renewable energy.

To think that we can solve these pressing environmental issues with our firearms is indicative of our inability as a group to accept responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

Note: Cross-posted at the Bellman.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Evolution before your eyes

I saw an item on Resurrection Ecology over at Slashdot and those maniacs over at Wikipedia already have a brief page on it.

I feel sorry for those individuals who are so dogmatic and religious that they cannot see the evidence of evolution all around them. I don't suppose resurrection ecology will make any difference to these people and that's why it isn't even worth talking to them about it.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Art-FID: RFID Personal Shopper System

The Sapago system is an interesting design that uses handheld RFID readers to communicate information about paintings.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Reality TV and the Social Fabric

John Plunkett reports that a reality TV show in the Netherlands titled Probleemwijken (Problem Neighborhoods) sparked a riot leading to 40 arrests when a local man admitted to molesting his eight-year-old on camera.

This makes Jerry Springer look pretty tame in comparison. Springer looks ridiculous all by himself, of course.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Bionic Eyes

I saw this post on bionic eyes over at Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends.

Sweet.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Why so angry?

Kurt Vonnegut observed that most evil is unintentional. People do bad things usually because they misunderstand the origin or impact of their actions. Socrates said something similar in the Euthyphro.

I was talking to my friend Mang last night about my anger issues. He suggested the following to me to help deal with my anger.

Accept that you cannot control other people. Try to understand him or her rather than getting angry at your lack of control or the other person's behavior.

What makes this other person react this way? Is it a bad family life, inherent limitations, poor education, something else?

Getting angry is shortcutting the authentic emotions you have to another person.

Process your emotions, don't bottle them up and jump straight to giving back anger to anger. That is the conditioned response, try to overcome the conditioned response and respond in an authentic manner.

Meditation is about dealing with information overload and focusing on the important. It is about centering yourself in the world and not reacting to people's anger with equal anger. What is the most productive response to the anger and trauma of others?

Try to see things clearly rather than through your own mask of insecurities and emotions.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Cyber Soldiers & Cyborgs

One of the interesting developments of the Iraq war is that more soldiers are surviving than in previous wars, but often these soldiers lose limbs in the process. However, many of these soldiers are being given prosthetic limbs to help them become functioning members of society.

What is even more interesting, is that some of these soldiers have been deemed combat ready by the US Army and returned to active duty and even combat duty.

Some commentators have suggested that the calculus of going to war is different with an all-volunteer army than with an army of drafted citizen-soldiers.

How does the calculus change when that Army is composed of volunteers with cybernetic limbs? The army increasingly is using robots and unmanned drones. How long until we weld amputee soldiers into the robots?

A decade ago William Gibson and Walter Jon Williams suggested that the military and corporate quasi-militaries would be the ones pushing the envelope on human-machine hybrids. It appears they were correct.

One final note, a commercially available exoskeleton may be available soon according to Slashdot, for much the price of a motorcycle.

As I mentioned last year, DARPA has been pursuing exoskeletons for military use for quite a while.

Do you ever feel like you're living a dystopian novel?

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Living Large in Minnesota

I'm at the Association of College and Research Libraries conference in Minneapolis today and I attended an interesting keynote speech by William J. Mitchell of MIT. He suggested that the ubiquity of robust, miniature wireless devices has changed the way we live.

This change allows architects to design buildings without the constraints of needing to run wires to create single-purpose workspace and instead and allows architects to design buildings for more basic human needs like the desire for light, air and socialization.

The conference has been fun, but if I hear the phrase information commons one more time, I think I will scream.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Augmented Reality and Auto Repair

Business Week's Olga Kharif article on developments in wearable computers shows how far this technology has come in the last few years. However, the final paragraphs aren't really about wearable computers, but augmented reality.

Wearables are also slowly making their way into the auto-repair market. A company called Microvision (MVIS) recently introduced its Nomad head-mounted display. It covers one eye, but it's see-through, allowing auto technicians to examine the innards of a car and check them against on-screen computer drawings at the same time. It comes as a baseball cap clip-on, to be more unobtrusive.

So far, it's a hit: At Jim Fisher Volvo dealership in Portland, Ore., which has been testing the system for about seven months, productivity of technicians went up 10% to 20%, says Service Manager John Prosser. Better yet, customers talking to technicians who are wearing these contraptions also are more likely to agree to repairs, pushing revenue up 15% to 18%. Says Prosser: "This makes [technicians] want to get involved and to cross this bridge of reluctance" in using a new technology. |Link|

Hunting by Remote Control

I'd read about the concept of hunting online before and it looks like it will be made illegal before it has a chance to take off.

Indeed, the concept of live-action hunting - done over the Internet - is raising the hackles of everyone from animal-rights activists to hunting groups to gun advocates. As a result, lawmakers in 14 states are now trying to ban the practice, including Texas, where the only such online hunting facility exists. |Link|
I was recently reading an unpublished article on how the role frontier mythology and ethos has had on America and the development of the Internet...I wonder what that old liar Fredrick Jackson Turner would think of internet-based live action hunting.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Good news for a change

Scientists have now figured out how to repair defective genes. This isn't as impressive as the sequencing of the human genome, but it's certainly cool.

Do you recall the conversation at the Tyrell Corporation in Bladerunner where the replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) meets with Tyrell? This technique reminds me of their conversation about altering Roy to give him more life. Bladerunner is one of my favorite movies dealing with life in a technocracy. That and Brazil.

According to this article, scientists have figured out how to use grass as a planet-friendly biofuel. A novel solution to the fossil fuel problem.

Of course, I'm an American, so I think technology will solve all of our problems.

Note: Cross-Posted at the Bellman.

Mistaken Impression

The Guardian has a new headline: US relied on 'drunken liar' to justify war.

I had to read the fine print to realize they weren't talking about Dubya.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Safety Neal the Social Hiker

My friend Doug and I are going to the Los Padres National Forest over Memorial Day for three days of epic outdoor adventure. Los Padres is between San Luis Obispo (SLO) and Monterey. We will specifically be visiting the Ventana Wilderness. Ventana is Spanish for window and the area is named for the Ventana pass, a gap in the mountains.

So the little dog and I are both getting in shape for the next couple of months.

Friday, April 01, 2005

The Ontology of Vice: Guns, Guts, and Grand Theft Auto

So the other day I was reading Jaza's article on Desire and Suffering. I'm certainly not well enough versed in Buddhism to evaluate the truth of Jaza's claims, but I think it makes for an interesting critique of Buddhism.

I remember learning once about the Eastern philosophy relating to the nature of suffering. It was during a religious studies course that I took during my senior years of high school. Part of the course involved a study of Buddhism, and the Buddhist / Hindu ideas about what causes suffering. Those of you that are somewhat familiar with this, you should already have an idea of what I'm talking about. Those of you that are very familiar with it, you probably know far more than I do (I'm no expert on the matter, I have only a very basic knowledge), so please forgive me for any errors or gross simplifications that I make.


In essence (as I was taught, anyway), Buddhists believe that all suffering is caused by desire. It's really quite a logical concept:

  • we desire what we do not have;

  • we suffer because we desire things and we do not have them;

  • therefore, if we free ourselves from desire (i.e. if we do not desire anything), then we become free of suffering (i.e. we achieve the ultimate level of happiness in life).


The concept is so simple, and when you think about it, it's kind of cool how it just makes sense™. Put it in the perspective of modern Western culture, which is (in stark contrast to this philosophy) totally centred around the consumer and the individual's wants. In Western society, our whole way of thinking is geared towards fulfilling our desires, so that we can then be happy (because we have what we want). But as everyone knows, the whole Western individual-consumer-selfish-driven philosophy is totally flawed in practice, because:

  • as soon as we fulfil one desire, it simply leads to more desires (the old OK, I've bought a Mercedes, now I want a Porsche example comes to mind here);

  • there are heaps of desires that everyone has, that will never be fulfilled (hence you will never truly be happy).


Then there is the great big fat lie of the consumer era: things that we desire aren't really desires, because most of them are actually things that we need, not things that we want. Justifying that we need something has become second nature.

* * * *

But all this got me thinking, what about other things? Sure, it's great to stop desiring material objects, but what of the more abstract desires?

* * * *

Clearly, knowledge and the desire for it cannot be explained with the same logic that we were using earlier. It doesn't follow the rules. With knowldge, desire can lead to no desire, and vice versa. Fulfilment can lead to sadness, or to happiness. So the question that I'm pondering here is basically: is it bad to desire knowledge? Is this one type of desire that it's good to have? Is there any constant effect of attaining knowledge, or does it depend entirely on what the knowledge is and how you process it?

My answer would be that yes, it's always good to desire knowledge. Even if you cannot say with certainty whether the result of attaining knowledge is "good" or "bad" (if such things can even be measured), it's still good to always desire to know more, just for the sake of being a more informed and more knowledgeable human being. Of course, I can't even tell you what exactly knowledge is, and how you can tell knowledge apart from - well, from information that's total rubbish - that would be a whole new topic. But my assertion is that whatever the hell knowledge is, it's good to have, it's good to desire, and it's good to accumulate over the long years of your life.
|Link|

Anyone who knows me, knows that Knowledge is Power is one of my favorite sayings. The example of the Holocaust as unpalatable knowledge is interesting. (There are several other examples if you care to read the whole post.)

The term I prefer is sinister wisdom. I think sinister wisdom is the most interesting type of knowledge. My wife, Sarah, is addicted to true crime novels and I pick them up from time to time. The well-written ones are hard to put down precisely because of the hideous nature of the crimes they describe.

With our sensationalist media, it's easy to lose perspective on the scope and extent of these threats, but nonetheless, the world remains a place of potential peril yet great promise.

I've been playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto recently. I actually prefer Vice City to San Andreas, but both of them are works of art.

The reasons for their success are obvious to anyone who plays the game. It has a very complex ontology of character types that interact with the main character and each other in clever ways. But the ontology of the game is a sinister one. It's a world populated by the Mafia, yakuza, drug dealers, gun runners, bank robbers, pimps, hookers, gangs, crooked cops, Area 51, covert operations, and vendettas. Tommy Vercetti, the main character of Vice City is an ex-con out to take over Miami and Carl Johnson of San Andreas is blackmailed into a life of crime by crooked cops. And the nameless kid from GTA III is driven by a desire for vengeance.

Sarah doesn't approve of these games. Or the fact that I love nothing more than running around blowing people's heads off with an M-16.

Now, I'm also a gun nut. I have always thought firearms were fascinating and strangely beautiful. I enjoy going shooting as often as I can, which in LA, is usually once or twice per year. But I can fire up GTA and shoot electronic people once or twice a week quite easily.

While violence is quite accepted in our culture, video games are increasingly dealing with issues of drug use and abuse. Stephen Tomtilo's article for the New York Times recently discussed several games coming out deal with narcotics and criminal syndicates.
In Narc, which is rated M, or Mature, for ages 17 and older, players control one of two narcotics officers, partners who were once separated after one became addicted to drugs.

The gameplay primarily involves arresting dealers, whose drugs can be confiscated and used.

A digital puff of marijuana, for example, temporarily slows the action of the game like a sports replay. Taking an Ecstasy tablet creates a mellow atmosphere that can pacify aggressive foes. The use of crack momentarily makes the player a marksman: a ''crack'' shot.

But using each drug also leads to addiction, which can lead to blackouts that cost the player inventory and to demotions or even expulsion from the police force, which halts progress in the game. In measured doses, the substances can make a tough challenge easier, but the makers of the game say it is possible to play without using the drugs at all.

''Should you be able to use them?'' the game's producer, Wayne Cline, 31, said. ''We decided, yeah, if they're part of the life of a cop. Just like in the movie 'Narc' and the movie 'Training Day,' sometimes they use.''

More drug-related games are coming. Take Two Interactive, the publisher of the Grand Theft Auto series, recently announced a title to be released this year called Snow. According to a company news release, the game ''will challenge players to oversee every aspect of the drug trade.''

Vivendi Universal is planning to release a game based on the film ''Scarface,'' which featured extensive cocaine use. The company has also announced Bulletproof, a game starring the likeness of 50 Cent, the rapper and acknowledged former crack dealer, in an adventure set upon ''a bloody path through New York's drug underworld.''

* * * *

Patricia Vance, president of the rating board, said the trend was not so much about drugs as it was a move toward greater realism. Games increasingly include more character development and deeper stories, she said, which lead to a broader range of topics.

But for some, Narc's inclusion of drug use is a reality they feel is unwise for games to reflect. ''Narc was a bad idea,'' said Michael Pachter, an analyst who follows Midway for Wedbush Morgan Securities. ''Violence is embraced in our culture, which is why you see violence in video games. I don't believe society believes drugs are an appropriate thing. I think that alienates consumers.''
(emphasis added) |Link|

Video games are merely simplifications of life. They have a limited ontology and the leave some aspects of life out.

But Grand Theft Auto and other violent games mirror some unpleasant aspects of life. Some fairly sophisticated parties claim that video games lead to violence. So, if one agrees with me that GTA reflects the violence in our society and makes a pleasant, artistic diversion out of it, are these incidents of violence based on GTA a case of life imitating art, or art imitating life, or both?

We live in a society where most adults have easy access to hard drugs, firearms, violent TV and movies as well as copious amounts of porn, from softcore to heavy bondage. To claim that is it video games that turn people into killers strikes me as questionable.

I think it's part of a larger fallacy of seeing technology as arising independently of the culture that creates it. The technology is generated not out of objective science, but out the needs of a social and political milieu. (See also Don Idhe's Technics and Praxis: A Philosophy of Technology, 1979.) Firearms and violent entertainment are products of a violent society. And these two products arguably serve to intensify the violence in society.

The problem is the violence endemic to our culture. I don't know how to solve the problem, but I think the solution must involve dialogue with men, mental health screening and counseling, reasonable regulation of firearms, better police response to domestic violence, equality of opportunity regardless of race. I'm not totally opposed to restrictions on violent video games or movies. But I think children need to be made aware of the fact that there are bad people in the world and that America is a place where access to firearms is the rule, not the exception.

Let me conclude this long, rambling post by suggesting that they can have my PS2 controller when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

* * *
Note: Cross-posted at the Bellman.