The ATLAS Robot by Boston Dynamics is unboxed. The robot is part of the DARPA-sponsored Robotics Challenge set for later this year. Somewhat disappointed that the robot needed human help to unpackage itself…

TODAY’S MUST READS, AUGUST 27, 2013

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NEWS


Architect of Syria War Plan Doubts Surgical Strikes Will Work" (John Hudson, Foreign Policy)

"Now, a former U.S. Navy planner responsible for outlining an influential and highly-detailed proposal for surgical strikes tells The Cable he has serious misgivings about the plan. He says too much faith is being put into the effectiveness of surgical strikes on Assad’s forces with little discussion of what wider goals such attacks are supposed to achieve. ‘Tactical actions in the absence of strategic objectives is usually pointless and often counterproductive,’ Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said. ‘I never intended my analysis of a cruise missile strike option to be advocacy even though some people took it as that.’

Harmer doubted that any surgical strikes would produce the desired results — especially if the goal is to punish the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons. ‘Punitive action is the dumbest of all actions,’ he said. ‘The Assad regime has shown an incredible capacity to endure pain and I don’t think we have the stomach to deploy enough punitive action that would serve as a deterrent.’ He also doubted the effectiveness of taking out Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities. ‘If we start picking off chemical weapons targets in Syria, the logical response is if any weapons are left in the warehouses, he’s going to start dispersing them among his forces if he hasn’t already,’ he continued. ‘So you’re too late to the fight.’”

City Limits: Military Urbanism from Baghdad to Brooklyn" (J Steiner, Tanqeed

"In recent years, plenty of media coverage and scholarly analyses of urban wars in the Global South have been produced in the West. Karachi gets a handful of Foreign Policy articles each year; Aleppo has become the new Grozny, and battles over Baghdad or Mogadishu have made it to the cinema a number of times already. In these representations and in popular culture in general, urban war is perceived as bloody, happening there, in other countries far away, and with little relation to the increased attention to homeland security here. When violent attacks do rock a western city—New York, London, Madrid, and recently Boston—the popular narrative portrays these events as an intrusion from outside into the homeland.

But borders don’t simply exist along the geographies of nation-states. They are internal to the city itself.”

OTHERWISE, WHAT I’M READING TODAY


R Elridge (1996) “From Representation to Poiesis,” in Beyond Representation: Philosophy and the Poetic Imagination, (New York, Cambridge University Press), 1-34

TODAY’S MUST READS, AUGUST 26, 2013

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NEWS

CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran" (Shane Harris and Matthew Aid, Foreign Policy)

“In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq’s war with Iran, the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses. U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent.

The intelligence included imagery and maps about Iranian troop movements, as well as the locations of Iranian logistics facilities and details about Iranian air defenses. The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on U.S. satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence. These attacks helped to tilt the war in Iraq’s favor and bring Iran to the negotiating table, and they ensured that the Reagan administration’s long-standing policy of securing an Iraqi victory would succeed. But they were also the last in a series of chemical strikes stretching back several years that the Reagan administration knew about and didn’t disclose.”

Years Later, a Flattened Afghan Village Reflects on U.S. Bombardment" (Kevin Sieff, The Washington Post)

“Three years later, the village is a sandy ruin, symbolizing the gains and losses of America’s longest war. A handful of villagers, among them Mohammad, have trickled back. The U.S. Army withdrew this summer from the valley where Tarok Kolache is located. The Taliban has mostly fled to other districts. Relative peace came to Tarok Kolache, but only after it was demolished…

Flynn watched as the airstrike was carried out, knowing it would weaken the enemy but infuriate many locals. He thinks his decision, supported by top American commanders, was the right one.’Leadership isn’t about being the most popular guy on the street,” he said. “It’s about getting the job done and improving a bad environment.’”

Arab Springs, Arab Falls" (Ian Black review of Toby Matthiesen’s Sectarian GulfThe Guardian)

"Toby Matthiesen’s new study of the Gulf counter-revolutions demonstrates how the Saudis, Bahrain and Kuwait have all combined repression and cash handouts with an almost instinctive sectarianism to keep demands for reform at bay.

The Saudis had long fretted about unrest in their predominantly Shia eastern province — the heartland of the kingdom’s oil industry. But when republican dictators were being toppled in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli and revolution was in the air just across the Gulf in Manama, anti-Shia feeling was ratcheted up with the mass arrests of local activists who were accused of being part of a “foreign conspiracy.” It was supposedly led by Iran, but beyond shrill propaganda from Tehran and dark hints about “sleeper cells,” there is no evidence of that.

‘Social media are a good way to organize revolution, sometimes. But guns and tanks are very effective tools to stop revolutions, particularly if…the soldiers are loyal to the regime and international pressure on the regime is limited.’”

JOURNAL ARTICLES


J Lindsay (2013) “Reinventing the Revolution: Technological Visions, Counteinsurgent Criticism, and the Rise of Special OperationsJournal of Strategic Studies 36(3), 422-453

OTHERWISE, WHAT I’M READING TODAY


R Elridge (1996) “From Representation to Poiesis,” in Beyond Representation: Philosophy and the Poetic Imagination, (New York, Cambridge University Press), 1-34

Jacob Appelbaum’s eloquent defense of democracy and the dangers NSA-type surveillance poses

(Source: youtube.com)

TODAY’S MUST READS: AUGUST 23, 2013

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NEWS

The Pentagon as Silicon Valley’s Incubator" (Somini Sengupta, The New York Times)

“In the last year, former Department of Defense and intelligence agency operatives have headed to Silicon Valley to create technology start-ups specializing in tools aimed at thwarting online threats. Frequent reports of cyberattacks have expanded the demand for security tools, in both the public and private sectors, and venture capital money has followed. In 2012, more than $1 billion in venture financing poured into security start-ups, more than double the amount in 2010, according to the National Venture Capital Association…

Though Silicon Valley sees itself as an industry far removed from the Beltway, the two power centers have had a longstanding symbiotic relationship. And some say the cozy personal connections of ex-intelligence operatives to the military could invite abuse, like the divulging of private information to former colleagues in the agencies.”

The BLM: a Wholly-Owned Subsidiary of ExxonMobil" (David Correia, Counterpunch)

"In the rule the BLM takes pains to define fracking as inherently safe: fracking, is according to the rule, “a common and accepted practice, and has been in oil and gas production for decades.” Moreover, as with nearly all federal regulations regarding resource extraction, it is written in the interests of industry (if not actually written by industry lawyers and lobbyist). Indeed the new rule is, admits its authors, “generally consistent with the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) guidelines.” The API is an oil and gas trade association with an average annual lobbying budget of nearly $10 million. It has spent millions of dollars spreading lies in support of the Keystone XL pipeline and, apparently, its employees moonlight as rule writers for the BLM.

Despite the fact that the BLM last updated its regulations regarding fracking in the late 1980s—before hydraulic fracturing existed as a commercially viable practice—it today “seeks to create less of an administrative burden” for industry with its new rule.”

Egypt’s Dirty War" (Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker)

"Today’s Islamists can be yesterday’s Marxists, it seems: killable on behalf of notional constructs of law and order. In Egypt, a self-aggrandizing military that has mostly known defeat in foreign battle, and has served as an instrument of domestic repression, is running the show, two and a half years after acceding to an ostensible “people’s revolution” demand to displace the country’s (or, rather, the military) dictator, Hosni Mubarak. Now, only seven weeks after the military forcibly removed from office the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi—who was democratically elected a little more than a year ago—Mubarak’s lawyers have said that he has been acquitted of corruption charges and may be released from custody as early as this week.

The generals, meanwhile, are justifying an ever-widening bloody crackdown on the constituents of the former ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood, by accusing them all of being terrorists.”

Mapped: Every Protest on the Planet Since 1979" (J. Dana Stuster, Foreign Policy

"The map also shows some of the limits of Big Data — and trying to reduce major global events to coded variables…. While the scale of GDELT’s database is impressive, it’s influenced by its source: international news reporting. Kalev Leetaru, the Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University working on the GDELT project, told FP by email that the apparent uptick in protests around the world starting in the mid-1990s may be misleading. “In some other work we are doing right now, preliminary results suggest that as a percentage of all events captured in GDELT, protests have not become more common overall,” he explained. “So, the majority of that increase in protest events over time stems from the increase in available digital media,” especially news.”

JOURNAL ARTICLES


K Meehan, I Shaw, and S Marston (2013) “Political Geographies of the Object,” Political Geography, 33, 1-10

Abstract: This paper examines the role of objects in the constitution and exercise of state power, drawing on a close reading of the acclaimed HBO television series The Wire, an unconventional crime drama set and shot in Baltimore, Maryland. While political geography increasingly recognizes the prosaic and intimate practices of stateness, we argue that objects themselves are central to the production, organization, and performance of state power. Specifically, we analyze how three prominent objects on The Wire – wiretaps, cameras, and standardized tests – arrange and produce the conditions we understand as ‘stateness’. Drawing on object-oriented philosophy, we offer a methodology of power that suggests it is generalized force relations rather than specifically social relations that police a population – without, of course, ever being able to fully capture it. We conclude by suggesting The Wire itself is an object of force, and explore the implications of an object-oriented approach for understanding the nature of power, and for political geography more broadly.

T Greentree (2013), “Bureaucracy Does Its Thing: US Performance and the Institutional Dimension of Strategy in Afghanistan,” The Journal of Strategic Studies 36(3) 325-356

Abstract: It is not too soon to draw cautionary lessons from the inconclusive results of US performance during more than 11 years of Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ in Afghanistan. As in Vietnam, fundamental difficulties persist in adapting enduring institutions to the requirements of strategy. At the heart of the matter is tension between the assumptions that underlie counterinsurgency as practiced in Afghanistan and organization of the US Armed Forces, State Department, and Agency for International Development. Knowledge of basic principles and necessary changes is available to answer the question, could the US have done better?

OTHERWISE, WHAT I’M READING TODAY


N Thrift (1996) “‘Strange Country’: Meaning, Use and Style in Non-Representational Theories” in Spatial FormationsLondon: Sage Publications, 1-50

Why? Background research on theories of practice within and without geography for my upcoming book project, The Art of War in the Age of Digital Producibility, for University of Minnesota Press. 

Lately, I have been doing some research on cybernetics, and James Watt’s centrifugal governor keeps coming up. In my pursuit to see how the governor works, I found this gem produced by the Department of Navy, Bureau of Aeronautics (c. 1942) explaining the intricacies of engines. The relation of Watt’s governor to cybernetics is that the steam engine (also Watt’s invention) was frequently used as concept to organize social and labor relations in the nineteenth century, serving as an early precursor for the dissolved the distinction between machines and social organization. In the 1950s, cybernetics questioned whether the distinction between machines and self-organizing biological organisms should be maintained. Computers and self-generating “big data” suggest that such distinctions may now remain forever anachronistic. 

The forgotten Kabul, circa 1981 (source: Nadeem Khan)

The forgotten Kabul, circa 1981 (source: Nadeem Khan)

My good friend Patrick Bigger from University of Kentucky sent this over, a surprisingly blunt reappropriation/fusion of military intelligence into financial wizardry. Patrick also put me on to this outline of a recent speech given by former Secretary of Defense at a TD Ameritrade Conference in Orlando, Florida. In short, Gates sees no hope. We agree.

Full disclosure: I bank with TD in Canada. 

Necrophilia’s Delight. A year in photos of U.S. soldiers posing with Afghan corpses.  

Why I Write

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Far too often writers and academics focus on how to write, searching for formulas and best practices to overcome the tyranny of the blank page. To be sure, I’m guilty of this myself. It’s rare, however, that one comes by reasons for why one writes. I thought I would outline some of mine:

I write for John Brown, Gabriel Prosser, George Boxley, and Denmark Vesey.

I write for Kate Mullaney, William Sylvis, Eugene Debs, Big Bill Haywood, and Lucy Parsons.

I write for Cesar Chavez, Ricardo, Enrique and Jesús Flores Magón, Helen Keller, Joe Hill, Lala Hardayal, Roger Nash Baldwin, James Cannon, and Harry Bridges.

I write for Élisée Reclus, Charles Malato, Errico Malatesta, Anselmo Lorenzo, and Fernando Tarrida del Mármol.

I write for Emma Goldmann, Ralph Chaplin and Upton Sinclair.

I write for Dorothy Day, Ammon Hennacy, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

I write for Fannie Lou Hamer, David Walker, Myles Horton, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. 

I write for J.L. Chestnut, Howard Zinn, and Marie Foster. 

I write for Sun Ra and Gil Scott Heron.

Whither Disciplines?

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Last month, Colin McGinn, a philosophy professor at the University of Miami, penned a provocative editorial titled “Philosophy By Another Name” for the New York Times. McGinn’s argument was two-fold. First, the work of institutionalized philosophers today hardly ever touches on the questions, or more precisely the question that is romantically perceived to be the ambit of philosophy: explicating the “meaning of life” and “what the ultimate human goods are.” 

There are a host of reasons for why the trajectory of philosophy changed, but one need not look much further than, on the one hand, the rise and decline of neo-Kantian thinking, and, on the other, the abundance of pioneering fin de siecle works (Husserl, Pierce, Wittgenstein, Bergson) that forever changed the orientation of philosophical thought.

The real death knell for traditional philosophy, however, was at the turn of the twentieth century when nineteenth century “Idealism” was superseded by more refined forms of epistemology cultivated through what Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison call “mechanical objectivity.” It was with the proliferation of a whole host of technologies (photography, the microscope, communication devices) that the formally privileged observing eye of philosophy was forever changed. As the scope and depth of the scientific objects changed — including even the very meaning of “subjects” and “objects" — so did the tacit ontologies of philosophical inquiry. Indeed, by the middle of the twentieth century, Teddy Adorno was already lamenting the loss of philosophy’s traditional pursuit of its central question of the meaning of life.

Over the course of the twentieth century, as the physical and social sciences underwent profound revolutions which shook their foundations—first with quantum theory, and later with chaos/complexity theory, giving rise to all sorts of new ways of thinking about networks and graphical representations of nature and society—the “epistemologies of the eye” transformed even further, coming to constitute a new kinds of scientific selves and practices, what Daston and Galison call the emergence of “trained, expert judgment.” 

Although McGinn does not mention these transformations in epistemology, they nevertheless weave between the lines of his editorial, and lead to his second argument: that philosophers should ditch the disciplinary title of “Philosophy,” and instead adopt the self-description of “Ontical Sciences.” As McGinn writes:

"So we study the fundamental nature of what is—being. To load the dice, we might also wish to describe ourselves as doing ‘ontical science,’ at least until our affinity with the sciences sinks in — then we might abbreviate to ‘ontics’… We can then leave the word ‘philosophy’ to those practical sages, reputable or disreputable, that tell people how best to live, proudly calling ourselves by a name far more appropriate to what we actually do."

Whether or not one agrees with McGinn’s identification of contemporary philosophy with science, it is hard to deny that his argument is symptomatic of the times.

Over the past decade and a half, there have been numerous calls for restructuring academic disciplines, involving the merging of disciplines, the creation of new interdisciplinary studies, and even of getting rid of certain disciplines all together. 

Within my own formal discipline, geography, there has been a recent stir around an editorial written by University of Victoria Geology Professor Stephen Johnston. Appearing in the most recent newsletter of the Geological Association of Canada With the title “Get Rid of Geography Departments,” Johnston’s editorial has set off a minor firestorm on various listserves over the utility of having geography departments separated from other earth sciences.

Without rehearsing Johnston’s argument (which can be read here), his main point is, I think, sound: in the face of real catastrophic consequences associated with anthropogenically-driven climate change, there needs to be scientific unification to confront a very real problem — especially one that is either denied or largely ignored by policy-makers in the world’s biggest economies. His question is whether it makes sense to have Balkanized departments where, at best, Earth scientists are speaking at cross purposes for interested students; or, at worst, are redundant. He is particularly speaking of the questionable separation between physical geographers and geologists.

Geographers always seem to react bitterly when a proposal is made to subsume the discipline within another, and for good reason: most of the proposals are very bad ideas. In this particular instance, the acerbic reaction to Johnston has been due to his odd refusal to acknowledge that human geography even exists, apparently believing that geography is wholly comprised by physical geographers. Even in his apparent apology to offended geographers that has circulated over listserves over the past two days, Johnston never acknowledges the existence of human geographers.  

Nevertheless, I still find myself agreeing with Johnston on the issue of physical geography. In terms of methodology and objects of analysis, it is hard to deny that physical geography is much closer to geology, forestry and other earth sciences than contemporary human geography.

Honestly, I have never understood why physical and human geographers, as well as GIS folks (who are increasingly seen as a bridge between the gulf), are housed in the same department. While the co-habitation of physical and human geographers is obviously due to the inertia of the discipline’s roots, I have yet to hear a good argument on why they need to be together; the most recent attempts to combine the two are fraught with the lingering desires to finally meld culture with nature, as if one can unproblematically speak of both in the same cosmological breath. Of course, I don’t want to be misunderstood: I think that most of the research programmes associated with physical and human geography are important, but not necessarily under the same disciplinary umbrella.

I’m saying this as a person whose own work is hard to define on disciplinary terms. While I’m reminded of my happiness to call myself a geographer every time I receive an email alert for a new issue of the American Journal of Political Science, its hard to explain to myself and others how my own research is “geographical.” My research tarries the line between geography, history of science/science studies, film studies, military history, literature, critical legal studies, postcolonial studies, American studies, not to mention philosophy. On a day to day basis, its hard to tell whether I’m writing my dissertation on counterinsurgency doctrine, or the birth of digital optics, or Foucault, Benjamin, Schmitt, Derrida, and/or Heidegger. My intended audience falls somewhere between critical human geographers and readers of the London Review of Books. 

In other words, I constantly find myself asking the same question that hip hop artists began to ask in the late-90s and early 2000s in the midst of grand pronouncements that “hip hop is dead”: what are we saving, honestly? What’s wrong with merging physical geography with geology, honestly? What’s wrong with thinking of human geography as an important perspective/approach within “ontical sciences,” or what have you? The goal is to do provocative research that is ultimately transdisciplinary. It was because of a transdisciplinary mindset among geographers in the late 1980s and 1990s that made the discipline so rich beyond its own borders, earning the famous praise by literary critic Terry Eagleton that it was no longer a discipline of “maps and chaps” but poised to be “the sexiest discipline of all.”

In my view, the road to sexiness lies not in policing the integrity of the discipline, but in conducting the type of research that makes conventional disciplinary boundaries irrelevant, while preserving the critical lens that gets us there; that is, until the critical lens is no longer useful.  

PETMAN prototype. Danger Room and Hizook.com are reporting that there will be a new DARPA Grand Challenge, pending announcement in the coming weeks, to build bipedal humanoid robots. Hizook quotes DARPA scientist Dr. Gill Pratt that the contest will be seeking “ a humanoid robot that can be used in rough terrain and industrial disasters.”

"Alabama Negro to Die for a Robbery of $1.95."
Randomly found this while doing research today in the August 17, 1958 edition of the New York Times. The text reads:
"A 55-year-old Perry County Negro is being held at Atmore Prison under death sentence for robbing a white housewife of $1.95 at Marion, Ala., last summer. Unless the State Supreme Court, which upheld the sentence June 12, grants a rehearing, or Gov. James E. Folsom commutes the sentence, Jimmy Wilson is scheduled to die at Sept. 5. There is a possibility that the execution will be postponed if the court, now in recess, does not act on his petition before Sept. 5. Wilson was sentenced to death for taking the money from Mrs. Estelle Barker at Marion, Ala., on July 27, 1957. The woman testified that Wilson tried to rape her, but he was not indicted on that charge. Robbery is a capital offense in Alabama."

"Alabama Negro to Die for a Robbery of $1.95."

Randomly found this while doing research today in the August 17, 1958 edition of the New York Times. The text reads:

"A 55-year-old Perry County Negro is being held at Atmore Prison under death sentence for robbing a white housewife of $1.95 at Marion, Ala., last summer. Unless the State Supreme Court, which upheld the sentence June 12, grants a rehearing, or Gov. James E. Folsom commutes the sentence, Jimmy Wilson is scheduled to die at Sept. 5. There is a possibility that the execution will be postponed if the court, now in recess, does not act on his petition before Sept. 5. Wilson was sentenced to death for taking the money from Mrs. Estelle Barker at Marion, Ala., on July 27, 1957. The woman testified that Wilson tried to rape her, but he was not indicted on that charge. Robbery is a capital offense in Alabama."

Excellent in-depth reporting on the Kandahar massacre of 17 innocent Afghans by the first Western journalist allowed to investigate the area, Yalda Hakim, on Australia’s SBS Dateline.

The massacre increasingly looks like an Afghan My Lai, where Robert Bales was not alone.

The creepiest Office of Naval Research video ever produced? The first youtube comment seems apt: “That robot looks stoned as shit…”