Friday, September 10, 2004

Acts of Gord is now available in comic form. These are the annals of a simple game shop owner, assailed by thieves, vandals, deadbeats, and fools of all description, who confronts his foes and metes out justice. Love the Gord. Fear the Gord.
The Israeli government gets an awful lot of flak from Europeans for the actions it takes in dealing with the Palestinians. They say stuff like this, stuff which would never pass muster in American politics:

The item was just another routine report: an update from the war of attrition Israel and the Palestinians are conducting in the occupied territories. Haaretz correspondent Nir Hason reported on Sunday that the IDF demolished a packing house in Beit Hanun in northern Gaza. Worse things have happened during the four year war: last week, as happens almost every week, Palestinians, including children, were killed in IDF operations. On Sunday night, Border Police killed six Palestinians in Tul Karm. Apparently, only three of them were armed. In Beit Hanun, at least, nobody was killed. ...

While in Jerusalem, in a decision about the route of the separation fence, the High Court of Justice is emphasizing the importance of proportionality of the harm done to Palestinian human rights as a basic principle for consideration of military actions, the IDF repeatedly violates the principle over and over in Gaza. There is no proportion between the limited military purpose of demolitions to the damage done to the farmers, who had nothing to do with the rocket launches. By destroying the packing plant, the IDF also violated another, far more ancient principle. Apparently, the army commanders forgot the Biblical principle from Deuteronomy 20, verse 19: "When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it, thou shalt not destroy the trees ... for the tree of the field is man's life."

A few months before the beginning of the implementation of the disengagement plan, it is difficult to shake the impression that the IDF has undertaken a "scorched earth" policy in the Strip. The army is supposed to defend Israeli citizenry under difficult circumstances and in light of a growing threat. But when it is swept into actions such as these, the danger is not merely the loss of trees, homes or livelihood. The IDF is also uprooting the last shreds of hope that the withdrawal will also be the beginning of repairing relations between the two peoples.

Any American politician who said things like this would be quickly attacked for his anti-Semitic ravings, no matter how acceptable this sort of thing might be in Europe. Sentiments like these just won't pass muster as civilized discourse here -- even though what I quoted wasn't actually a European politician at all -- it was a recent editorial in a major Israel daily newspaper in Israel, where major political figures routinely describe the government's policies in very harsh terms -- describing Sharon's planned withdrawal from Gaza, for instance, as a part of a complete package which is cynically designed to prevent a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.

As with our policy towards Cuba, dominated by a blockade which has proven for decades to be totally ineffectual at changing anything on the island, honest debate is impossible; anyone who challenges the policy is accused of being soft on Communism, or terrorism, or something -- or maybe just a bigot. A Congressman who just read that editorial into the Congressional Record without saying where it came from might well wind up being called an anti-Semite, and would almost certainly be accused of gross indifference to Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism. Would anyone care to say the same of the actual author?

Juan Cole is feeling the heat...

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Ad peeve du jour: The radio ads for Earthlink's new broadband service, which tell you over and over that it's $15.00 a month. Once again, that's just $15.00 a month. They even have someone in the ad saying that they just can't repeat enough that it's $15.00 a month. Because if they just keep repeating, over and over, that it's $15.00 a month, you might miss the part where they tell you that it's only the first few months that are $15.00 a month -- after which the price doubles.
It seems like the new Kitty Kelly book, and the renewed attention towards Dubya's debatable attendance at National Guard drills, are only the beginning of the mud slinging from Dubya's opponents. The Poor Man reveals that there are more allegations of scandal flying around.

Among these shocking rumors:

3. The economy is not strong, and it's not getting stronger! In less than four years, George W. Bush has lost 2 million jobs, taken the United States from record budget surplus to record deficit, saddled the American taxpayer with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of federal boondoggles, and transferred the tax burden of the ultra rich to the poor and middle class! Indeed, his former chief economic advisor, Paul O'Neill, wrote a book which charged the President neither understood nor cared to understand anything about economics!

4. The reputation of the United States has been demolished over the last four years! We have alienated allies, embarrassed ourselves in front of the UN, and undermined the struggle for human rights around the world by holding secret prisoners, sending innocent people abroad to be tortured, and torturing prisoners to death in Iraq and Afghanistan!

5. George W. Bush is an idiot! Really! He can't form a coherent sentence, he shows no aptitude for or interest in any intellectual pursuit, and he routinely embarrasses himself and the country with his shocking displays of ignorance! He falls down constantly, and he almost died eating a pretzel!

6. George W. Bush is a horrible President! When given a daily briefing entitled "Bin Laden determined to attack in the United States", he took no action, went on vacation, and a few weeks later 3,000 people were dead! Then he failed to get the guy behind the attacks because he had to invade another country which had nothing to do with anything! Now, North Korea and Iran are well on their way to developing nuclear weapons, view us as an immediate threat to their survival, and we lack the diplomatic clout or ability to organize the world against them! Meanwhile, Bush's major concerns are gay people getting married, putting a man on Mars so we can say we did, and getting steroids out of sports! America is weaker, poorer, less safe, less respected, and less sane than it was before George W. Bush became President, it's pretty much all his fault, and he just isn't interested!

Fortunately, even this degraded age, propriety imposes certain limits. You won't be reading any of that stuff in the mainstream media.

See the Shrill Blog for similar stuff from more far-out leftist kooks, like Dubya's first treasury secretary, his former special mid-east envoy, and those crypto-communist academic loons at The Hoover Institution...

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

More Deep Thought from the right wing blogsphere: Mark Alger argues that it is not "beyond the bounds of reason to consider the possibility of the shunning of all Muslims from the civilizd [sic] world, the forced conversion of Muslim states, or the destruction of all Arab regimes", if that would somehow make it easier to deal with North Korea. I might argue instead that a genocidal war on multiple continents, aimed at eradicating a religion with more than a billion adherents, might actually make it more difficult to simultaneously deal with North Korea -- but then, I'm a mush-headed liberal...

More: In case you missed it the first time, Belle Waring eviscerates this kind of "logic" here...

A lot of people these days believe that government can't do anything right. And so, when they see that something was done right, they just assume that it wasn't the government.

Case in point: At the World Science Fiction Convention this weekend, there was a panel on alternatives to capitalism, at which Cory Doctorow observed that some open source projects seem to be beating Microsoft at their own game -- competing effectively, on a very low budget (measured in any conventional terms), in markets (particularly for web servers) that Microsoft rather badly wants. Another panelist cut in at this point to observe that that's true -- but the open source guys are relying on an infrastructure, the Internet, which was built by capitalism. It would be uncharitable to name her, because she's absolutely dead wrong.

The seeds of the modern Internet are in a research program which a Pentagon bureaucrat named J.C.R. Licklider declared more or less by fiat. (It's perhaps unfair to call Licklider a burueaucrat; like many program officers in what was then the Advanced Research Projects Agency, he was an academic who took a few years out of his career at MIT to work for the government, but when he started the program, his office was in Pentagon ring D). For the next fifteen years at least, what are now the basic protocols of the modern internet were developed entirely with government funding, despite, at best, commercial indifference.

And the environment in which the protocols were developed had lasting effects. It doesn't cost any more to exchange packets with a machine in Iraq than with a machine in Santa Clara because when IP was designed, the people who designed it thought they were designing a protocol for defense networks, and were concerned only with getting data where it needed to go, not with billing. Which is why needn't try -- indeed, it would be difficult for them -- to charge extra. Any protocol which had been designed from the ground up for commercial interests -- and there were several -- would not have made such an obvious omission. (If you need evidence for that, just look at a cell phone contract). And it almost certainly would not have been possible, as a result, for Salam Pax to start his anonymous blog without making traceable payments.

Mind you, capitalism would have served up data services to consumers eventually. In fact, capitalism was providing them on its own before all the customers starting demanding that they support the protocols from Licklider's research project (and a follow-on project at a European, government-funded physics lab of all places, with the astoundingly pretentious name "world wide web"). Before the Internet became popular, 1995 or so, there were several consumer data services -- AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve. They had differences between them, but a few things in common:

  • Data was published only to subscribers of a particular network. They didn't communicate.
  • Publishers, e.g. Time/Warner, were charged serious fees for making data available to subscribers, and they had to use tools and data formats proprietary to each network to do that.
  • The only way for subscribers to make something available for other subscribers to see was to say it in a chat room -- but content in the chat rooms was ephemeral, and they were heavily censored by company employees.

In short, these networks did not allow people to cheaply publish controversial stuff for the general public to read. And that should be no surprise: imagine proposing that to the executives of one of these services. There's real liability there, and it's not likely they'd make much money on it. Why bother? Better by far to try to lock up exclusives on interesting content with demonstrated marketability -- as Microsoft tried to do with its own take on this kind of service, the first version of MSN, which I once saw described as "a vast playground in which everything you do makes Bill money".

Ultimately, this model died, because the Internet was available as an alternative, and it was better for almost everybody. It was better for publishers, who got competition among hosting services, rather than having to deal with AOL as the sole gateway to AOL subscribers. And it was better for users, who get a far greater variety of stuff to read, and who get to publish. The only people it was worse for are network providers like AOL, who found themselves commoditized -- which is why they tried to build their networks differently as long as they had a choice.

But for the internet to be available as an alternative, someone had to build it. In the history we have, it they were paid by the government. And if it wasn't the government, it's not obvious who else it could have been. When content providers were investing in telecom at all, it was in cable TV systems which allowed users to do even less. And users were doing things for each other, but it's hard to describe those as "capitalism at work." There was FIDONET, for instance, an arrangement for exchanging files between dial-in bulletin boards -- but that was largely a hobbyist effort, not commercial. There were also ad hoc networks among various research groups -- BITnet, and various UUCP-based networks -- but the people building those were not, at the time, thinking commercially either. And both of those were hampered severely by the lack of a dedicated, full-time communications backbone which was quick enough for interactive use. The infant internet had that -- paid for entirely by the government.

The internet as it exists now is a commercial proposition, but it took a long time to get that way -- and without the government investment, what we got might well have been a great deal worse.

And if you see any irony in the actions of "big government" enhancing individual rights that were under corporate threat, you've been reading too many libertarians. A couple of good references for this history, by the way, are Janet Abbate's book, "Inventing the Internet", and Mitchell Waldrop's book, "The Dream Machine", on Licklider; both are good for the periods they cover, but I don't know if either is still in print...