Monday, January 24, 2005

What's in a name?

An Economist article discusses the strange turns the term "liberal" has taken. In the US, it has become an insult against the left. As a result, the left seeks to use the term "progressive." The Economist wants to restore it to its orginal meaning, something akin to "libertarian."

Meanwhile, a Reason article describes how some egalitarian types are using that term, calling themselves "left libertarians." The ideas described in the article don't sound very coherent, though.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Amateur Tsunami Warning Systems

Robert X. Cringely has written about the feasibility of decentralized tsunami warning systems. Basically, a personal computer connected to the Internet can continuously monitor relevant seismographs and determine whether its particular location is at risk. Every beach would run its own instance, obviating the need for international coordination. A developer and an earth scientist have started an Open Tsunami Alerting System to develop the software necessary.

Meanwhile, world leaders have pledged to develop a centralized early warning system. It will be interesting to see how these parallel efforts progress. Perhaps this will be another battle in the "pro-am revolution," ushering in what David Brin called in The Transparent Society the "century of amateurs."

Of course, for such a decentralized effort to work, the people at the beaches need to be connected to the rest of the world. They need the seismographs from the Internet and the (rather modest) computer hardware to monitor them. They need local expertise to run the system. Unfortunately, judging by the graph below, they were completely unconnected to us:

Much of this tragedy could have been prevented if they were better connected to the rest of the world.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Geneva Conventions and Torture

The nomination of Alberto Gonzales for attorney general has been quite controversial, despite early comments to the contrary. (For example, CNN had quoted Democratic Senator Chuck Shumer as saying "It's encouraging that the president has chosen someone less polarizing. We will have to review his record very carefully, but I can tell you already he's a better candidate than John Ashcroft.")

After the Abu Ghraib scandal, his 2002 memo calling the Geneva Conventions "quaint" and "obsolete" drew fire for creating a permissive environment for torture. The Geneva Conventions were agreed upon in different, perhaps simpler, times. The Third Geneva Convention specifies how lawful combatants must be treated, essentially a reciprocal agreement between warring states. Lawful combatants must be in uniform, bearing arms, under a chain of command, and following the rules of war. There is some debate whether special forces and snipers are lawful combatants. Terrorists are obviously not. The Geneva Conventions aren't quaint or obsolete, but they do not specify how to treat unlawful combatants.

There are legitimate question as to how to treat terrorists, and whether torture can be justified. Alan Dershowitz thinks torture is necessary in ticking-bomb scenarios, but we should formalize the process with torture warrants. Mark Bowden thinks we should officially denounce torture, but our interrogators should use whatever coercive methods work, short of outright torture. Others believe we should avoid torture altogether, for fear of a slippery slope and losing the moral high ground.

At Abu Ghraib, we certainly did lose moral high ground. However, it doesn't seem like it was the result of the debate over the Geneva Conventions or torture. The current issue of Reason contains a short interview with Seymour Hersh, who wrote Chain of Command, detailing the administration's responsibility for Abu Ghraib. In Reason, he writes:
The idea of using sex, exposing men to shame as part of the breaking down process, photographing them naked in front of women or simulating homosexual acts - it's inconceivable that a bunch of kids from West Virginia knew the most sophisticated way to humiliate Arab men. And the purpose was not really to break down those people - often they had nothing to give - but to photograph them in a compromised position and say: "Go home, find the insurgency, join it, and report back to us or we'll show these to your relatives and people in your village."
Such a plan is beyond Gonzales's discussion of the Geneva Conventions. It is unlikely that the administration was waiting to hear whether their plan fell afoul of the Geneva Conventions, anyway. President Bush must bear the brunt of the blame for Abu Ghraib, not Alberto Gonzales.