Saturday, October 4, 2008

Paradigm shift on asymmetrical warfare?

Lots of buzz and chatter about a potential break through in Iraq. Some folks, Bob Woodward [one of the reporters who broke the Watergate scandal back in the '70s] are saying that the whole "surge" being responsible for the drop in violence there is crap, and in reality it's a new system that involves remote sensors, drones and special ops.

Theories abound. Clearly, if this is true it's some kind of remote sensing technology, coupled with tracking and essentially a real-time database available to decision makers in-theatre. One thing I've heard over and over is that it can "see through walls," tracking the bad guys inside buildings and vehicles as well as out in the open. Think of it this way: Now, when they get a heat signature of you, it reads the unique properties of your individual heat signature, perhaps coupled with some other data such as physical characteristics or the unique low-power signals being given off by your cell phone. Now you're in the database. If your signature turns up at a bombing, or in a structure or vehicle with other identified nogoodnicks, suddenly you're tagged. Now anytime you show up they set you as a threat level, and at some point they decide that this might be a good time to take you out, either from the air or pick you up and take you in. And it should be mentioned that everyone you've been hanging out with is now tagged too, and their threat levels are being analyzed as well.

So, let's apply the Outside Context lens here. Ok, this is great for the US in Iraq. Holy crap, we just might come out of this thing with a win, or at least a draw, but not least if we do withdraw, we can keep they system up and running remotely, with drones and aircraft and spec-ops, keeping the National Guard folks back home where they belong. Huge boon to American military resources.

But, bigger than this is the fact that the principle of asymmetrical warfare may have suddenly gone away. How big is that? Well, consider that it's been around since Roman times, if not before: the idea that you could strike at the occupying force then blend back into the crowd where it would be either impractical or seem excessive to strike back effectively. This technique was a mainstay of the 20th century- the American experience in Vietnam, Palestine, the Troubles in Ireland, Armenia, Afghanistan, Much of Latin America and it is the bedrock upon which Al Quaeda's tactics are grounded in. In every case the very nature of this type of warfare is dependent on the fact that the members of cells can be communicated with and yet not identified by the occupying force.

If you suddenly can fly a drone, piloted from an airbase in Nevada, over a remote section of the world and see if anyone from your database is there without them knowing about it, and especially if you can get cell phone ID's at that moment and intercept those communications, the wheels come off terrorism as we know it. Unbelievable, simply unbelievable.

But don't start getting all excited yet- because the potential to misuse this technology is also huge. Sure, it would be great if they could have flown this kind of system over Logan and Newark Airport's before 9/11, but how do I feel about every move made here in the US being monitored? Or even randomly monitored? And once we've screened for terrorists, why not for sexual predators? Why not for other kinds of criminals? Why not for people who might want to buy a burrito, so we can send them a text message that there is a 2 for 1 deal at the Mexi Palace around the corner? Slippery slope? Yes, it is a slippery slope, and it think that is a harbinger of things to come. In the end we will trade our privacy for security.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A qualified neighbor

They're our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska. -Govenor Sarah Palin on her qualifications for dealing with Russia.

Why didn't anybody tell me this new standard for qualification? Man! The whole world has opened up to me! If you only need to be able to see something to be qualified to deal with it, to be its neighbor, I have been selling myself waaaay short.

So, tomorrow I'm replacing a natural gas heating plant in house across town. I know I don't have any training at this stort of thing, nor the tools necessary, and hell if i were to be totally honest here I don't even really know which pipe goes where and can't tell the difference between the ones that have high-pressure hot water and the ones that have explosive natural gas, but I am "focused on the mission" and allow me to be perfectly clear about this: My neighbor Earl (no lie- his name is Earl), who's house I can see if I turn my head slightly to the right while typing this post, is a talented and accomplished plumbing contractor. There you have it. I can see it from where I live and that is obviously enough. Sweet!

Another neighbor of mine is a trawler captain. He grew up fishing, says that he knows his boat better than his wife, has 40 years of experience on the sea, rode out the Perfect Storm all that. Pfffft! Dude, I can SEE HIS HOUSE. Right now, I'm looking at it right now! Bring it on! Sure I have no clue how to strip a diesel, true I am not exactly clear on which species are available at what times, ok, I'll give you that if I were to catch even one fish I'm not sure exactly what I'm supposed to do with it...NO MATTER! I can see both his house AND his truck from my very living room! I am ready to be given the helm. I should probably go buy one of those yellow fishing-guy hats.

Dudes, I have a neighbor who is a nurse, her husband is an engineer at a high-tech company, I have a neighbor who is a management consultant, a roofer, a firefighter, like three or four contractors, a couple more fishermen, a mechanic and a daycare provider. Why has no one told me that as long as I live close to these people knowledge of their unique realities is instantly transferred to me?

But we have to remember that Palin's argument is that she's qualified to take on the second largest collection of hydrogen bombs on the planet, a country with hundreds of years of complex internal and external relations, that spurned worldwide political movements shaping the 20th century, one that's changing economic and political role on the global stage is a total wild card based on the fact that from a far-flung island in the Bering Straits one can see an island belonging to a distant autonomous Russian province best known for being the brunt of bawdy canibal jokes. She never said that she's actually seen it, but that you CAN see it.

So, people, from my roof, when the leaves are gone, you CAN see down to the helipad of our local Coast Guard small boat station. They regularly land H-60 rescue helicopters there. They are the Coast Guard version of the Army's Blackhawk helicopter, with extended fuel capability, advanced sensors and a rescue hoist. You can totally see it, right from my roof if you stand next to the chimney.

Yup, Yessir, I am ready. I will not blink. Sure there are people who've spent their entire careers preparing for that particular job. But that's not what I think people want in their rescue pilots. I think, when you're trapped on a roof and the floodwaters are rising or your stricken vessel is being pushed by the storm surge into the rocks, rather than have some nerdy wonk who spent his life studying esoteric topics like the so-called "Coriolis Effect," which I am incapable of articulating effectively and I'm not sure I even believe exists, I think people would rather have a helo pilot who reflects their everyday concerns and values. Someone who brings to the table not a working knowledge of how variable wind shear loads caused by Cat 3 weather conditions will effect a fully articulated rotor hub, but someone with a good gut instinct and horse-sense brought by being a "regular person." Certainly there would be no desire for someone sequestered away in the ivory towers of flight schools, spending time in the walled gardens of USCG air stations and who demonstrates a practiced ability to, say land safely on the decks of a cutter at night in rough conditions like they are some kind of hot-shot. What does that prove? That would be the last thing someone in dire need of rescue-at-sea would want.

I am ready to start on day one. Give me the keys [question: do they have keys? Need an answer on this by January!]

Monday, June 30, 2008

Chew on this for a minute:

From the LA Times:

Nationwide, $200 [a barrel] oil and $7 gasoline would force Americans to take 10 million vehicles off the roads over the next four years, Jeff Rubin, chief economist at CIBC World Markets, wrote in a recent report.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

An open letter to the people calling me concerned about Gloucester

Let me begin by saying thank you to all the people who've called and
sent emails over the past week expressing their heartfelt concern
regarding the media stories swirling around about the number of girls
in Gloucester High School who have become pregnant. Many of our friends and family took the time to remind us that our daughter is in the Gloucester public schools, which are obviously a hotbed of uncontrolled behavior based on what they have read in the New York Times and that they were worried for us. I would like to remind people that Rebecca is seven and that the biggest behavioral issue facing her first grade class last year was when two boys were saying the word "poop" during the pledge of allegiance. I blame the media, Reverend Wright and all that.

All this comes quickly on the heels of a more minor local media storm
after an intoxicated Gloucester resident smashed her Subaru head-on
into the SUV carrying America's Sweetheart Sandra Bullock and her
husband celebrity motorcycle builder Jesse James as they returned from a dinner. Add onto all of this the book and film "The Perfect Storm" which portrays Gloucester as home to hard-living fishermen who go out to sea and are have to fight a comically bad series of special effects until their boat sinks and you have a media impression of our town that is not exactly positive. We look like a bunch of drunken fishermen with out of control teens in the eyes of the nation. And you want to know the truth? Well, ok, you know what? That is the truth.

At least it's part of the truth, and maybe the interesting part to the rest of America in a slow news week when we're not winning the war and other countries are buying up all the oil we should be putting into our SUVs and house values are sinking like an Iowa cornfield. I guess it's comforting for some to know that there are people out they can feel superior to. Fine, if we can provide that catharsis that for our country, then so be it. But since we're pretty good at taking it, allow me to spend a couple of minutes dishing it back out. So, here are the top reasons why Gloucester, with in all its boat sinking, drunk-driving pregnant teen glory, is still way better than your joke of a town.

First and foremost, we don't have a Starbucks, a Wal-Mart, or an Applebees. We've got a McDonalds, a Subway and it seems like about three dozen Dunkin Donuts, but otherwise the businesses are all small and local. People shop downtown, they eat in local places, we know the name of the family that owns the dry cleaners and the breakfast places and the hardware store. It's a real town, unlike yours, rather than just a collection of franchises that could be anywhere.

Also unlike your town, our town is mixed. Your town has all the poor people living in one place, all the blue collar folks living in another place and all the white collar living in yet another place. We are all jumbled together. Our neighborhoods have CEO's, fishermen, carpenters, computer programmers, nurses, cops and unemployed families on WIC. Your town's schools are segregated by economics. Ours are not. College bound kids and kids who won't finish high school are all together. This is how it used to be in America, before your town came along and decided that it would be different, that your kids wouldn't associate with those other kids. We didn't do that in our town.

Our town has some truly eccentric people living in it who are universally celebrated. Your town is all about conformity. We have a guy who picks stuff out of the trash all year and then makes a float for the 4th of July parade on top of his K-Car from it. He also runs for Mayor every election and plays a bugle down at the rotary handing out bumper stickers with his name on them. This guy is a local hero in our town. So are the guys who run out on the greasy pole that we have erected over the harbor. Every summer, during the festival of Saint Peter these guys grease up a horizontal telephone pole thirty feet above the water and try to run across it lengthwise to grab a flag nailed to its end. They don't do that in your town. Your town would never let such a thing occur, it's dangerous and loud and crazy and messy. Your lawyers would stop it in your town, because your lawyers are chickens.

You know what else? In our town, after a fire destroyed an apartment building and the only temple for miles, all the Jews in town were mourning in the Unitarian church nearby for the life lost and for all the memories that were consumed by the flames. The doors opened and the firefighters came in reeking of smoke with icicles hanging off their helmets and with the prayer shawls and other sacred objects they could salvage from the still smoldering wreckage. They walked in a line solemnly down the aisle and the people of the congregation reached out and touched them in their turnout coats and with their radios crackling, as if they were members of the congregation carrying the Torah. These men are not Jews they are Italians and Irishmen and African Americans, but they know loss. Everyone wept, the firefighters, us everybody. This happened in our town, not in your town.

In our town there is teen pregnancy and sometimes children die and there is drug addiction and violence. It's also in your town, but it's hushed up there. Our town is a big loud family where all the problems are out in the open. But, unlike in your town, in our big family there will always be people there who put food on your table if you run into a rough patch. There are people who spend all their time making sure that everyone has health care and can get into the programs they need to get help. In our town people know when you're hurting and they stop to help you. We're used to death, we're used to pain and suffering. In our town we don't expect everything to go right all the time.

In your town people walk down the street talking on cell phones and listening to iPods. You'd never do that in our town. In our town, if you did that you'd miss your friends yelling out your nickname as they passed by in their trucks or on the other side of the street.

Our town is a real place, it's one of the last real places in America. Maybe that is unusual to people from other towns, or maybe the media just likes coming up here on a summer day to cover a non-story because we have some great clam shacks and it beats whatever other "human interest" piffle they could be covering in their cookie-cutter towns, but the one part of the story that they have missed over and over again is that these girls are our kids. They will not be made pariahs out of. That's the kind of crap you pull in your town. Not ours.

Thank you for your attention. You can go back to making fun of us now.

Jim Dowd

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The digitization of "Stuff"

Taking the printed page to the digital changed publishing forever. Suddenly printing, copying, sharing and editing became as easy as typing. Next, audio went digital with major consequences for the recording industry. Just their name, "the recording industry" tells you all you need to know about how behind the curve they were/are. Now, the film/video industry is coming under the same Sword of Damaceles, with You Tube kicking the ass of every other outlet and five kids, a camcorder and a Mac with Final Cut have 80% of the capacity of a major motion picture studio.

So, we're done right? We've digitized everything? Not by a long shot. First, there is services. As most of you know, my company is one of leaders in starting that trend. But even more earth shaking will be the digitzation of stuff. Real, down-to-earth, good 'ole fashioned stuff.

This is so fundamentally disruptive because stuff has always been the foundation of modern economies. Once we, as civilized humans, got food production wired, making things and selling things was the name of the game. This spurned entire economic systems, like capitalism, for instance. And its response, communism.

But how do you digitize stuff? Well, everything that gets made has a blueprint, right? That blueprint tells the person building it what to make and what to make it out of. That can as easily be told to a computer-controlled fabrication machine as it can to an artisan or engineer, and the plan can be sent to any computer and thus to any fabricator that has the capacity to work the materials specified. Think of it as 3D printing.

What this means is that stuff becomes commodity, the same way music and print and video has become commodity. It also means that instead of getting stuff off the shelf designed for everyone, people will be able to modify the plans to their own specifications. Want that tennis racket handle a little bit thicker? No prob, just change the dimensions on the design software.

This future is already being made down in the Fab Lab at MIT. Tons of people are working on desktop fabbers, there is a Fabber Wiki. Right now we're about where we were with computers in 1975- big clunky things that can't do a lot. But the process will move incredibly quickly, as we know, and it won't be long until if you want something, you go to a local shop that has a fabber and get it made in real-time. And it won't be much longer beyond that that anything small you print off the same way you do for a document. This is not wishful thinking. This is all happening today.

So what does this mean? Well, I wouldn't want to be a manufacturer when this technology comes on line. I also wouldn't want my economy to be pegged to mass production. Hello! China! I'm talking to you here! It won't be tomorrow when you can walk down to your local Fab shop and have them print out a Ferarri for you, but you will be able to, and probably within 20 years.

Additionally, the open-source mindset will be already in place when this technology comes online. Just like Linnux, people will have the products they create listed for people to use and modify. Open source stuff, open source everything. No economy is equipped to handle this. Who gets paid? What has value? All that remains are land, services and commodities. Why work 40 hours per week to buy things when you can just print the things you want out? We're going to need to come up with a totally different way of incenting work when this comes to pass.

Anyhoo, enjoy this explanatory video.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The robotic monkey arm

I love this sort of story. The news outlets tell us that there is a new technology [I've been seeing this story since 2002] and that it's good news for some particular group, missing the mind-blowing potential of the tech. This week we're told that the ability to control computer interfaces with our minds is "good news for amputees..."

Yes, it is good news for amputees. In the same way the advent of coal was good news for people who ran out of peat. But there were other things that came from our utilization of coal as a fuel source that changed how we live, such as railroads, steam-powered mills, industrialization, you know. Stuff like that.

See video below

This is classic outside context thinking. Big, huge, giant, game changing technology. Narrow view.

Allow me to name just a few of the things that WILL come of this particular tech, besides the obviously good and well-timed news for amputees: First, anyone in a critical position with a high technical workload will be equipped with this because it could save their lives and the lives of the people they're paid to keep alive. So, pilots, especially military pilots will get this pretty early on. Special Forces, tactical police, anybody who has something they need to do with their hands and also communicate, navigate, and otherwise interface with data.

But the next level is where it gets really interesting. Say goodbye to keyboards, joysticks, steering wheels, buttons, knobs, switches and mouse and trackpads. It's over. It will simply be easier and cheaper to have those things replaced by wireless signals directly from your brain. Yes, from your brain. Look at your cell phone and think how much different it would be if you didn't have to type on it. Where would it be? What would it look like? What shape would it be?

Now imagine text messaging if you didn't have to type. How much does that change, oh, say...taking the SATs? Being at a party? Working on a group project? It's electronic telepathy. Think of it that way and you see the potential this has to change how we live in a profound way. Our hands stop being the interface. Our voices stop being the interface. Our minds become the interface. Where does that path take us, especially with so many people's bodies begining to fail them as the Baby Boomers age. Is the Several-Generation- Away-Second Life Avatar essentially a brain in a jar?

Monkey controls robotic arm with brain computer interface

Monday, May 5, 2008

Outside context problem

Though I am loath to credit Mel Gibson with anything, as the Mel is either despicable or crazy or both (my guess) based on his drunken ramblings, this scene from Apocolypto best illustrates the concept of a challenge that is entierly outside a given group's set of experiences.

The term was coined and perhaps best described by Iaian M Banks in his novel Excision:

An Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilisations would encounter just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop. The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass... when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.