Thursday, February 24, 2005

"I'm perfectly comfortable in telling you..."

"I'm perfectly comfortable in telling you, our country is one that safeguards human rights and human dignity, and we resolve our disputes in a peaceful way."

One of many wonderful statements from Bush's European trip, this from today's meeting with Russian president Putin. The transcript is available here. US concerns with Russia have elevated lately, mostly because of Russia's apparent support for Iran's nuclear proliferation as well as a series of 'democracy reducing' steps Putin is engaged in, including the abandonment of popular election replaced by regional regional governers electing as well as shutting down independent media outlets.

Bush must be happy to hear Putin promise to aid his agenda regarding terrorism and nuclear advancements in the middle eastern countries that US considers threats:
Putin:"We should put an end to the proliferation of missile and missile technology. The proliferation of such weapons is not in the interest specific of countries or in the international community in general. " Note that this refers to these countries and not Russia and the US who actively pursue missle technology of all sorts.

The most interesting part of the statement comes in regards to the original quote. This is in response to a question that basically equated the US governmental policies post 9/11 to the very lessening democracy that is occuring within Russia. Bush response is telling:
"I live in a transparent country. I live in a country where decisions made by government are wide open and people are able to call people to me to account, which many out here do on a regular basis. Our laws and the reasons why we have laws on the books are perfectly explained to people. Every decision we have made is within the Constitution of the United States. We have a constitution that we uphold. "
Unfortunately this comes days after evidence confirming high level planning and execution of the internation 'ghost' prison system and the trasporting prisoners to countries where torture is not outlawed.

Finally, the issue of a free press was discussed, with Bush making perhaps his most poignant point: that the US media is not free, even if the government cannot fire journalists:
"And he wanted to know about our press. It's a nice bunch of folks. And he wanted to know about, as you mentioned, the subject of somebody getting fired. People do get fired in American press. They don't get fired by government, however. They get fired by their editors or they get fired by their producers or they get fired by the owners of a particular outlet or network. "
Although inadvertant, bush's point that corporations control the media and as such control the journalists is well taken, and perhaps will lead to government reconsidering it's hands off approach to media companies and corporate interests.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

More military stuff

Confirming a long held suspicion, Newsweek confirms that the US military has been shuttling political prisoners to other countries for 'questioning' and 'interrogation' (read: torture).

"NEWSWEEK has obtained previously unpublished flight plans indicating the agency has been operating a Boeing 737 as part of a top-secret global charter servicing clandestine interrogation facilities used in the war on terror."

Clearly much creativity has been employed to determine how to do this undetected. Instead of using military planes to shuttle them around they use commercial jets. Those who are looking for military injustice would assume the use of military planes, allowing the practice to go unconfirmed. As it turns out, the testimony of many now released political prisioners of the US has been confirmed, that there is apparently a vast network of international 'ghost' prisons opperated by the US that makes it possible for the prisoners to be treated in manners that violate the laws within the US. Imagine Guantanimo but even more hidden. Speaking of..

"The Boeing flights are part of a detailed two-year itinerary for the 737 obtained by NEWSWEEK. The jet's record dates to December 2002 and shows flights up until Feb. 7 of this year. The Boeing 737 may have served as a general CIA transport plane for equipment and supplies as well. Among the stops recorded are Libya, where the U.S. government has been dismantling Muammar Kaddafi's clandestine nuclear program, and Jordan, where the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported that high-level Qaeda detainees, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, were being held. (A Jordanian spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.) The Boeing also landed at Guantanamo."

Because the original 'overwhelming' moral outrage at the Iraqi prison tortures rendered little to know pressure by US citizens regarding the international policies of the US military, I do not suspect that people will respond too strongly to these same practices being directly ordered by the CIA and perhaps DOD. Unfortunately, US citizens appear to have accepted a certain relinquishing of moral obligation and personal liberty to perpetuate a narrative of security that requires a subservience of all other principles. One can only guess how far this will go.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

I go berserk with boredom

While you guys were talking about robots, I was embarrassing myself over on Live Journal arguing about God and Christianity. I thought you might find it amusing....

More Great Ideas From Our Military...

From Slate

The army is using an online war video game to recruit young soldiers. More than four million users have registered at America's Army, which includes mock battles. Red smoke marks each wounding; bodies are never blown apart. Army's spin: "We have a Teen rating that allows 13-year-olds to play, and in order to maintain that rating we have to adhere to certain standards." Critique: 13? We'd rather let you have the gore.

It's kind of remeniciant of On-line poker. "Hook 'em while their young and it doesn't hurt anyone, then rope them into the real thing because they can't get enough." God Bless America.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

I didn't know Huntington faculty wrote for the chronicle...

This is the latest Chronicle of Higher Ed. posting regarding John Sanders being dismissed from Huntington. Apparently Burton Bollag is a psuedonym for Jack Heller or David Woodruff. The sarcasm in the last line is the basis for this argument.

Huntington College Offers a Golden Parachute to Religion Professor; U. of California Creates a Job for Partner of Santa Cruz Chancellor; John Edwards to Lead New Center at U. of North Carolina
PLEASE LEAVE: The Board of Trustees of Huntington College, a United Brethren Church institution in Indiana, wants to get rid of John E. Sanders in the worst way. Mr. Sanders, 48, a research professor of philosophy and religion, has been at the college for seven years.
The board spent much of a three-day retreat in Carefree, Ariz., last month considering the large outpouring of support for Mr. Sanders from Huntington's president, faculty members, and students, before offering him a one-year paid sabbatical next academic year and at least one more year's salary if he agrees to resign.

The problem is that Mr. Sanders is a prominent proponent of Open Theism. That minority approach within evangelical theology maintains that the future, rather than being foreordained, unfolds through a continuous give-and-take between God and humans.

Mr. Sanders, whose books include The God Who Risks (InterVarsity Press, 1998), narrowly escaped being expelled from the Evangelical Theological Society in 2003 following accusations that Open Theism was heretical.

That same year Huntington put Mr. Sanders on a rolling three-year contract, after the board objected to his being granted tenure. In a recent statement, the board said it was committed to maintaining the college's "historic identity, rather than being identified by theological controversy."

But don't blame the board. Mr. Sanders's dismissal may have been planned since before the beginning of time.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Battlebots '05

Keep with the future theme that was such a hot topic last week, I move to a NY Times article about the future of warfare, and this future, that's right Will Smith, is robots. Oh man. (Here is what the new robot looks like)

Here's the broad scope:
"Congress ordered in 2000 that a third of the ground vehicles and a third of deep-strike aircraft in the military must become robotic within a decade. If that mandate is to be met, the United States will spend many billions of dollars on military robots by 2010." Add to this that "by April, an armed version of the bomb-disposal robot will be in Baghdad, capable of firing 1,000 rounds a minute. " The spending alone should would lead one to consider they shut down this program, requiring an addition 127 billion dollars anually for the robot transformation.

The attraction to this is on several levels. Although recent US military activity where the death totals were somewhere around 1 to 1000 (Gulf War, 200 US deaths to 200,000 Iraqi deaths), now we can imagine a war where the totals are even higher, something like 1 to 25,000 (afterall, combat will not be entirely robotic), that is assuming wars will still have humans on one side, and of course this will be the case so long as the US government has any say in it.

There is, moreover, along term crucial financial aspect to this that calls into question our immediate shock about the price tag: "The Pentagon today owes its soldiers $653 billion in future retirement benefits that it cannot presently pay. Robots, unlike old soldiers, do not fade away. The median lifetime cost of a soldier is about $4 million today and growing, according to a Pentagon study. Robot soldiers could cost a tenth of that or less."

Perhaps the best part of this article is this paragraph:
"It's more than just a dream now," Mr. Johnson said. "Today we have an infantry soldier" as the prototype of a military robot, he added. "We give him a set of instructions: if you find the enemy, this is what you do. We give the infantry soldier enough information to recognize the enemy when he's fired upon. He is autonomous, but he has to operate under certain controls. It's supervised autonomy. By 2015, we think we can do many infantry missions."

Specifically, I have no idea until the last sentance that (I think) he is talking about a robot and not a human soldier. Afterall, what's the difference in the way they are viewed and used in warfare except that the machine will be even less likely to deviate from the given mission. Or will they? The end goal is to have decision making robots, ones that can be given the broad agenda but then decide from there who to kill, what to report. This autonomy may, in the eyes of a military faced with the growing global accountability for conduct in warfare, be the most atractive aspect:
""The lawyers tell me there are no prohibitions against robots making life-or-death decisions," said Mr. Johnson, who leads robotics efforts at the Joint Forces Command research center in Suffolk, Va. "I have been asked what happens if the robot destroys a school bus rather than a tank parked nearby. We will not entrust a robot with that decision until we are confident they can make it.""

Right...apparently the robot will have beter decision making abalitites than humans (this is actually probably part of the thinking) But inevitablly, I believe, we can assume errors that would at least match (possibly surpass) the ones made in warfare today. Who do you blame? no one! Instead of the inevitable deaths of civilians being human error, it is system malfunction and thus accountability is inaplicable. You cannot blame a machine (despite what I Robot suggests) and you cannot blame a manufacturer for the fact that they created a machine capable of system errors that were unforseeable prior to the machine's opporation. Put simply, genocide from the hands of robots is different than genocide at the hands of humans because we assume the humans should know better, whereas the machines should not. The article points towards this when it speaks of the temptation of invasion and doing war when the costs are decreased dramatically with robot options, however it does little in the way of discussing how wars with robots would be fought.

Towards this end, their is an attempt, although not by government officials, to establish "robot rules of engagement" that, Dusty correct me if I have this wrong, are the rules of I Robot! "Decades ago, Isaac Asimov posited three rules for robots: Do not hurt humans; obey humans unless that violates Rule 1; defend yourself unless that violates Rules 1 and 2.
Mr. Angle was asked whether the Asimov rules still apply in the dawning age of robot soldiers. "We are a long ways," he said, "from creating a robot that knows what that means.""
Which leads me to ask if the only people who are considering the ethical difficulties of these systems are the crack pots in hollywood and if so, if we shouldn't be doing better at listening to them!

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The future of the American town

Slate magazine provides this brilliant photo essay into what may be the most interesting community in America today, Celebration, Florida. For those to you, like me, who do not follow the residential developments of suburbia, this is the Disney corporations venture to take "Main Street" from Disney World and have it transform reality. Begun about ten years ago, the Celebration community sought to offer the best of the past and the future into the ideal, albeit manufactured, community.

"The heart of CELEBRATION is a commitment to community, education, health, technology, and a sense of place." So the Celebration website introduces its community section, before going into how it provides "the look and feel of a warm and friendly hometown. " (Quick side note: I can't tell for sure, but it appears as though the actual name of the town is CELEBRATION, not Celebration, at least according to the website.) Take note, all who seek to garner an understanding of the post-modern spirit. This will be how Americans cope with "artificial" relationships and unwelcoming communities. They will be making better artificial communities, build better schools and houses, and recreate the best of the past while anticipating the best of the future. Don't kid yourselves, Americans are not looking to the church to reclaim their authenticity, but rather to the best architects in the world and the instanciation of their idealized memories of the past.

Anyone suspecting me of over reacting, at least consider this ad, which captures the spirit of the CELEBRATION city planners: "The destination your soul has been searching for, Celebration." This is the response to the need of people for what the planners call a "sense of place." Disney allows people to settle in, get comfortable, and relax. And, of course, there are countless advantages to doing this, especially if your the CELEBRATION type of person. Here is the data:
Median resident age: 36.9 years
Median household income: $74,231 (year 2000)
Median house value: $380,900 (year 2000)
White Non-Hispanic (87.3%)
Hispanic (7.6%)
Black (1.7%)
Other race (1.0%)
Two or more races (1.0%)
Asian Indian (0.8%)
Chinese (0.6%)

And, apparently, the right numbers are going up, which leads me to believe the 'wrong' numbers are going down. Against the stated wishes of the planners, property value is sky rocketing, most houses selling for double their original price, leading me to expect both the median household income and house value is getting close to doubled. As is often the case, I suspect that this means the good 'ole 87.3% is probably going up too.

In an article focusing more on the technological commitments of Celebration, Steve Cisler points out some of the more interesting aspects of this project. This is a community we all want to boo and hiss at, one that decided against having a public library or a hardware store, the paying off of the state government to avoid having actual affordable housing, and amazing ability to actually create a place where they could 'forget' the rest of the world, we have to see this in a nuanced way, realizing that we all have something to learn from Celebration. Part of fostering community was "the design of the town encouraged face-to-face contact with neighbors on the block, downtown, and at meetings of affinity groups." These being values shared and necessary for authentic community, it fostered a spirit of democracy that was compounded by "adversity" and has begun to foster a community where the people of Celebration actually started setting a vision for where they want to see the community go, creating tension with their Disney "community planners".

In summing up my experience of reading on this today, I want to point to probably the most interesting and thoughtful response, too long for a summary.
"Unlike utopian communities of the 18th and 19th century, however, Celebration's specialness is not derived from its unique understanding of its relationship with God nor from a revolutionary conception of human relationships. While Celebration claims that it has a dedication to Community unusual in the modern age, the very institutions and organizations that form the bedrock of American community are lacking in it. There is no representative government, no churches, and residents have little control over the policies of the Celebration School, although it is public. What they have in common is commodities, and an agreement to a set of rule that dictate what type of shrubs they can plant in their yards and how high their fences may be."

Where this thesis is wrong is in the absence of churches (a search turns up 5 protestant churches and 1 jewish community), especially ten years into the project. Christian visionaries at the Presbyterian church decided to revolutionize the way to start churches for this revolutionary new town when they opened their downtown sanctuary in 2000. " What they are thinking, however, is entirely atypical for new church developments. As the yet unbuilt church's new pastor, the Rev. Pat Risley, puts it: "We're going to start with the building, then fill it. " Any doubts that this is an uncritical attempt to get to live in the best place on earth, is handled with this quote representing the churches missionary zeal:
"The gospel's been changing lives for centuries ... And it'll be here long after [this] company has been purchased by some other conglomerate ... Disney can't corrupt the gospel. "But the gospel planted right here in the middle of the corporate world -- [think] of the lives it might change. ..." To the elitist charge, Richardson simply says those leveling that kind of critique ought to look more closely at their own neighborhoods. Many PC(USA) churches are built in privileged areas. "But no matter how nice the yards are or how idyllic the setting, the pain of life will not pass by this community," said Richardson. "And these people are gonna need somebody to stand with them in [that] pain."

Now, that living in an obviously artificial world, ultimately based on a lie, is no doubt painful. But Disney has one uped the church again. I believe this is a great example of the difference between church assimilating to culture and church creating culture. I would be lying, however, if I did not admit that I somewhat envy the community that is there, compared to the community of risk, violence, and negativity where I live. What is life in community with the communities of the world for the church going to look like in 20-50 years? Will it be places like Living Water Community church or the Celebration Presbyterian church?