Friday, November 27, 2009

In the Land of Custer

Normally I don't talk about US policy except through the lens of tech but the perceptive article from the NY Times titled Taliban Open Northern Front in Afghanistan compells me to say something about futility, George Armstrong Custer and why Afghanistan is a loss leader along the lines of 'Nam.

For starters, the Taliban don't have to win, just persevere. The US will not be in Afghanistan forever so just showing up is enough. Afghanistan is a huge country, inhospitable to occupiers as seen throughout history via defeats placed on Alexander the Great, the British and the Russians. Now it's our turn and Obama and the military just don't get it. To top it off, we are contemplating negotiating with the Taliban while trying to root out e-Qaeda, the terrorist organization which may or not be even a force in this war torn nation and who may be supporting the Taliban, the erstwhile enemy/collaborator? that we may or may not be fighting against in Afghanistan as both organizations consist of fanatical Sunni Muslim operatives. Note: We haven't even discussed the corrupt US backed Karzi government which is distrusted by a large segment of Afghans, a situation eerily reminiscent of the distrusted South Vietnam government backed by the US during the Vietnam war. Note II: We won't discuss the economic impact either as the defense budget already is almost 700 billion this year and counting while the US shuffles toward bankruptcy and Wall Street takes in 13 trillion of tax payer money. Same as it ever was - Talking Heads.

Alice in Wonderland
has nothing on this hall of mirrors which includes the ongoing undeclared war with Pakistan designed to 1. minimize the influence of the Taliban in that nation while negotiating with the same entity in Afghanistan and 2, destroy e-Qaeda base camps located in the hinterlands of West Pakistan through the use of remote control Predator Drone attacks that often kill innocent civilians in the process. Makes sense doesn't it?

Bill Moyers' seminal piece Johnson's Escalation of Vietnam: A Timeline, says it all but maybe Obama doesn't see or realize the fact that "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." - Sir Winston Churchill

After reading the Washington Post piece titled Newly deployed Marines to target Taliban bastion, it appears Obama has little problem with Churchill's comment.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Through a Glass Darkly

Bill Moyers, a national treasure, does it again by looking back at US policy in the 60's regarding Southeast Asia titled Johnson's Escalation of Vietnam: A Timeline, something eerily akin to what Obama is doing regarding Afghanistan. Read Danny Schecter's perceptive article titled Bill Moyers' Message to Obama: Study History or Repeat its Mistakes to see why,

On his Journal, Moyers went back to the historical record, to selected but revealing tapes of Johnson's own phone calls with his colleagues and appointees-yes he wiretapped himself the way Nixon did years later-and those calls showed how he agonized over whether to escalate the war, a course of action he knew could not succeed. The parallels with the present day, and the upcoming decision by President Obama to escalate the war in Afghanistan are unmistakable and undeniable.

There was the cunning LBJ boiling down the options to getting out or going in deeper, or perhaps "neutralizing" the situation with trainers and economic aid. He, of course opted for the third choice at first-just as Obama has-until it was clear it was not working and we and that our corrupt client state was losing. As his perceived options narrowed, so did his course of action.

As Republicans then demanded "victory," as the military (The Joint Chiefs) clamored for a higher draft and more troops, LBJ began to fear being accused of tucking tail and running, a big no-no in a culture in which Americans see themselves as perpetual winners, the toughest guys on the block. He could not, in his view, be the President who "lost" Vietnam the way his predecessors were accused of losing China-as if those countries were ours to lose!

And so slowly-as we saw, or rather hear, Johnson escalated, stage by stage, often on the basis of false "intelligence" as in the Tonkin Gulf incident that wasn't. Step by step, the third option was abandoned and the military option was embraced. One infusion of troops was followed by another as the war worsened with tens of thousands of US deaths and casualties and millions of Asian victims.

Trapped by his own limited logic, and cautiously pragmatic style. LBJ gave up his principles, compromised on his convictions, and his "Great Society" and Presidency became a disaster. He later quit politics, a broken man.

Will it happen again?

Moyers clear point in the poorly watched PBS Public Affairs Friday Night Ghetto was clear-it is about to happen again.

"We will never know what would have happened if Lyndon Johnson said no," he concluded. "We do know what happened because he said yes."

It was brilliant television, informative journalism of the kind we rarely see, all driven by the words and voice of the man who was once his own "boss." We saw how the logic of escalation supplanted all other logic and, then, logic itself.

The tragedy of 'Nam was not only the needless deaths it caused but also how it crippled the funding of Johnson's Great Society initiative intended to change America for the better by instituting innovative programs to effectively deal with the problems of racism, poverty, education and health care in the same can do attitude as that of FDR during the Great Depression.

Hopefully Obama will read War is a Racket by Smedley Butler before it's too late.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Pirate Finder General

Copyright in the UK will resemble the dictatorial government V fought against in the V for Vendetta film as this effort to control information can be the start point for dictatorship in England. At the very least, the UK will lose big time in terms of the web because no one will want to do business in a place where surveillance is king and power goes to the unelected. Sounds like 1984 and the Thought Police doesn't it?

A source close to the British Labour Government has just given me reliable information about the most radical copyright proposal I've ever seen. Secretary of State Peter Mandelson is planning to introduce changes to the Digital Economy Bill now under debate in Parliament. These changes will give the Secretary of State (Mandelson -- or his successor in the next government) the power to make "secondary legislation" (legislation that is passed without debate) to amend the provisions of Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (1988).

What that means is that an unelected official would have the power to do anything without Parliamentary oversight or debate, provided it was done in the name of protecting copyright. Mandelson elaborates on this, giving three reasons for his proposal:

1. The Secretary of State would get the power to create new remedies for online infringements (for example, he could create jail terms for file-sharing, or create a "three-strikes" plan that costs entire families their internet access if any member stands accused of infringement)

2. The Secretary of State would get the power to create procedures to "confer rights" for the purposes of protecting rightsholders from online infringement. (for example, record labels and movie studios can be given investigative and enforcement powers that allow them to compel ISPs, libraries, companies and schools to turn over personal information about Internet users, and to order those companies to disconnect users, remove websites, block URLs, etc)

3. The Secretary of State would get the power to "impose such duties, powers or functions on any person as may be specified in connection with facilitating online infringement" (for example, ISPs could be forced to spy on their users, or to have copyright lawyers examine every piece of user-generated content before it goes live; also, copyright "militias" can be formed with the power to police copyright on the web)

Mandelson is also gunning for sites like YouSendIt and other services that allow you to easily transfer large files back and forth privately (I use YouSendIt to send podcasts back and forth to my sound-editor during production). Like Viacom, he's hoping to force them to turn off any feature that allows users to keep their uploads private, since privacy flags can be used to keep infringing files out of sight of copyright enforcers.

The dark side of the Darknet beckons if the Brits actually attempt to control the flow of information by doing something as stupid and scurrilous as this. If people let this happen, V's speech regarding the loss of freedom could come to pass.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Every once in a while an article comes out that answers a question I have had in my mind for years. The question: How can insects think with such power when their brain size is miniscule at best? Now I know thanks to a post on Current Biology titled Are Bigger Brains Better?

Attempts to relate brain size to behaviour and cognition have rarely integrated information from insects with that from vertebrates. Many insects, however, demonstrate that highly differentiated motor repertoires, extensive social structures and cognition are possible with very small brains, emphasising that we need to understand the neural circuits, not just the size of brain regions, which underlie these feats. Neural network analyses show that cognitive features found in insects, such as numerosity, attention and categorisation-like processes, may require only very limited neuron numbers. Thus, brain size may have less of a relationship with behavioural repertoire and cognitive capacity than generally assumed, prompting the question of what large brains are for. Larger brains are, at least partly, a consequence of larger neurons that are necessary in large animals due to basic biophysical constraints. They also contain greater replication of neuronal circuits, adding precision to sensory processes, detail to perception, more parallel processing and enlarged storage capacity. Yet, these advantages are unlikely to produce the qualitative shifts in behaviour that are often assumed to accompany increased brain size. Instead, modularity and interconnectivity may be more important.

After reading this amazing piece, one readily understands that efficiency of brain configuration is often of greater consequence than size, something also seen in the extraordinary intelligence of parrots as seen in a earlier BRT post titled Alex, we hardly knew ye.

Not only was Alex smart, (he understood colors, categories and numbers) he also was easily bored if the experiments he participated in were not up to snuff in challenging his intellect.

Seen below is another graphic from the CB writing showing how body mass is a predictor of brain mass in animals.

As follow up, check out Physorg's perceptive take on the CB posting.

Chittka says: "In bigger brains we often don't find more complexity, just an endless repetition of the same neural circuits over and over. This might add detail to remembered images or sounds, but not add any degree of complexity.

To use a computer analogy, bigger brains might in many cases be bigger hard drives, not necessarily better processors."

This must mean that much 'advanced' thinking can actually be done with very limited neuron numbers. Computer modelling shows that even consciousness can be generated with very small neural circuits, which could in theory easily fit into an insect brain.

In fact, the models suggest that counting could be achieved with only a few hundred nerve cells and only a few thousand could be enough to generate consciousness. Engineers hope that this kind of research will lead to smarter computing with the ability to recognise human facial expressions and emotions.

“Machines take me by surprise with great frequency.” - Alan Turing

Monday, November 16, 2009


Kinda looks like the end scene of the Matrix Reloaded flick (The 2 sequels pale in comparison to the first film but the CG's cool.) where Neo confronts the Architect of the Matrix only to discover he is "The One No. 7", a pawn intended to be used as an agent of deception "to save mankind" in order for the Matrix, a quantum system of unimaginable power, to continue using humanity as prime energy source without interruption or interference. (This is the best part of the movie IMHO.)

Needless to say, we are not there yet in terms of quantum computing and artificial intelligence but we now are seeing, for the first time, a viable emergence of the semantic web in the form of the MESH project, (Multimedia Semantic Syndication for Enhanced News Services) the first search engine capable of using the Media Merge (video, text, images & sound) to enable machines to locate content in ways beyond the present day (dumb) search environments of Google and Bing. (No doubt, both are looking into semantics in a very big way.)

"European researchers have created the first integrated semantic search platform that integrates text, video and audio. The system can 'watch' films, 'listen' to audio and 'read' text to find relevant responses to semantic search terms. At last, computers are able to look for meaning in our multimedia searches...

But European researchers in the MESH project have developed an integrated platform which they say, for the first time, can combine semantic search -- or search by the meaning of the words -- and a host of associated tools to deliver more relevant information, from a wide variety of sources that can be accessed from an individual user.

The platform can search annotated files from any type of media -- photographs, videos, sound recordings, text, document scans -- using a host of techniques including optical character recognition, automated speech recognition and automatic annotation of movies and photographs that track salient concepts."

BRT talked about this from the perspective of OWL and RDF in The Semanatic Web Cometh, a piece discussing how formats and data transparency combined with the aforementioned languages presages an age of computers accessing data as easily as us. Now, the MESH Project is moving this tech into a reality space we are accustomed to, the world of multimedia connected to high end presentation.

If that isn't enough, consider the image based search engine from VizSeek...

VizSeek is one of the first search engines on the Internet to use a photograph, a 2D image, or a 3D model and transform it into a 3D shape. The search can be narrowed with additional information. The image-seeking search engine produces search results in a matter of seconds.

Reality is a web of transactions, the key is to find the appropriate transaction that fits the need of the user. - RM

Sunday, November 15, 2009


There's a terrific New York Times article on Dreaming titled A Dream Interpretation: Tuneups for the Brain that appears to tie in nicely with the theory of sleep, a subject covered by BRT titled, The Meaning of Sleep where researchers likened sleep as a process akin to defragging a disk ...

As posted online September 11, 2009 by Nature Neuroscience, György Buzsaki, professor at the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers University, Newark, and his co-researchers, Gabrielle Girardeau, Karim Benchenane, Sidney I. Wiener and Michaël B. Zugaro of the Collége de France, have determined that short transient brain events, called “sharp wave ripples,” are responsible for consolidating memory and transferring the learned information from the hippocampus to the neocortex, where long-term memories are stored.

In the Times article ... Dr. J. Allan Hobson, a psychiatrist and longtime sleep researcher at Harvard, argues that the main function of rapid-eye-movement sleep, or REM, when most dreaming occurs, is physiological. The brain is warming its circuits, anticipating the sights and sounds and emotions of waking.

“It helps explain a lot of things, like why people forget so many dreams,” Dr. Hobson said in an interview. “It’s like jogging; the body doesn’t remember every step, but it knows it has exercised. It has been tuned up. It’s the same idea here: dreams are tuning the mind for conscious awareness.”

Sounds like booting up a computer to me.

Addendum: The real importance of this research deals with mental illness and how the diseased brain deals with reality:

"Researchers have a way to go before they can confirm or fill out this working hypothesis. But the payoffs could extend beyond a deeper understanding of the sleeping brain. People who struggle with schizophrenia suffer delusions of unknown origin. Dr. Hobson suggests that these flights of imagination may be related to an abnormal activation of a dreaming consciousness. “Let the dreamer awake, and you will see psychosis,” Jung said."

Visualizing the Invisible

In an earlier articled titled Predator Tech, BRT discussed the potential of invisibility cloaks and how it was becoming science fact and not science fiction. One big problem regarding how this technology would work centered on the question of what would a cloaked object look like. In the past, there was no way of "seeing" this effect but this inconvenient constraint no longer applies.

Scientists and curiosity seekers who want to know what a partially or completely cloaked object would look like in real life can now get their wish -- virtually. A team of researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany has created a new visualization tool that can render a room containing such an object, showing the visual effects of such a cloaking mechanism and its imperfections.

What's interesting about this research is the fact Ray Tracing is the imaging engine used in this software, a technique originally invented by the MAGI corporation in Elmsford NY to track the rays given off by a nuclear explosion. (I learned CG there as Phil Mittleman, a true visionary & CEO of the company, had a very big influence on me regarding tech, fine art and design.)

Note: TRON was the first graphic example of what could be created using Ray Tracing as this imagining technique, combined with Radiosity, is considered to be the most accurate way to depict reality.

Click here to get the PDF detailing this research. It's a good read for sure.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Needle in a Haystack Redefined

LinkFinding stuff on the web, particularly regarding pictures, is an arduous process at best, until now.

"When you search Google Images, you type in a term and it gives you returns from pages that have that text in them. We want to be able to upload an image and use it as a model for finding similar images," Milanfar said.

Milanfar and Seo developed an algorithm that enables automated recognition of both objects in images and actions in videos. The software analyzes an image or short movie and characterizes the most important constituents of the object or action represented. It can then search for those constituents in image and video databases. The researchers presented their new methods at the IEEE International Conference on Computer Vision in September and in a recent paper published by the IEEE Transcripts on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence.

Existing technology can search for and distinguish individual objects in a database of images only after running through a time-consuming training phase. "If you're looking for images of bicycles, for instance, current algorithms have to be shown pictures of hundreds, if not thousands, of bicycles in order to be able to recognize a bicycle," Milanfar said..

With his new software, a single photo of a bicycle at night can be used as a template to locate pictures of bicycles in full sunlight, in the foreground or the background. It works under a wide range of image qualities and lighting discrepancies. The template image or the target image can be sharp or out-of-focus, clean or noisy. To Milanfar's software, a bicycle is a bicycle.

Similarly, a person riding a bicycle is a person riding a bicycle. Video of Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France can be used to find clips of men and women riding along an ordinary street.

The intelligent web is coming.