Saturday, March 12, 2011

Books Yay!: Wired for War, by P.W. Singer

NB: This review was originally drafted for a course I am taking at Boston University called "Ethics and Force" with Prof. Neta Crawford. 

P.W. Singer has created a remarkable book about the future of wartime technology and technological warfare. In the process, he has also provided an overview of modern robotics and an accompanying cautionary tale for us all. As we rush towards an electronic future, we must take care to consider the ramifications of ceding control to robots. We must do our best to consider the many ways that increased reliance on robots may affect our lives. Singer’s book, with its heady blend of statistics, personal interviews, and technical research, does not leave the discussion of robots at utility, but tackles the ethical concerns that surround robot use and how it changes human behavior as well. Though his ethical discussion is somewhat limited to the rules that must govern robots in order to maintain an ethical standard that war theorists have hovered around for the better part of the modern era, this book provides a solid foundation from which we can explore these concerns ourselves. After all, centuries of war theory have unfolded without an authoritative answer to the questions of ethics in combat; indeed, to answer these questions may in some ways be the end of war all together. P.W. Singer may not have all the answers, but he has a lot of them, and Wired for War clearly shows the need for active consideration of those that remain.

Singer begins with an examination of technological development and its deployment in the war theatre. In many ways, robotics have taken over the “accidental benefits” role once dominated by NASA, where the demands of space travel and existence resulted in startlingly useful objects and technologies for earthbound life. Singer points out that defense contractor iRobot is also the creator of the Roomba and its helpful cousins. In this way, he shows us that robotics are edging into all of our lives and not just into war, drawing in the reader and demonstrating that the need to consider the ethics of robots is not limited to military leaders. There are clear benefits to allowing robots to do the work of soldiers – the book opens with a heartwrenching account of an IED explosion that kills a soldier…who turns out to be a robot – but there are also problems of adaptation, best practices, and malfunction that come along with the territory. Generally, though, the brilliant minds of robotics techs are creating machines that dramatically reduce the human casualties of war.

There are a variety of social factors that guide both the development and the application of robotics. Science fiction has made us as a society both better at imagining wild capabilities for robots and worse at taking their impact seriously. To a certain extent, this means we’re willing and able to imagine a friendly facsimile of the Jetson’s Rosie the Robot toodling around our home, but never consider the possibility that she could break, turn against us, or malfunction in a way that causes accidental harm. We also assume that some of the larger conventions of robots in science fiction provide the same safeguards in real life; Singer cites Asimov’s Three Laws, which limit robots’ capacity to harm humans, and immediately follows it up with a bevy of engineers explaining that not only do those laws not get programmed into robots, but that they would be nearly impossible to program. The military programs also guide robotics development through funding, tailoring much of robotics research to military products, and this is in part whence the title came. Singer’s suggestion is that we as humans are in fact “wired for war” and because of this, our forays into robotics (and other technologies) will necessarily turn to military use. Singer provides a concise yet awfully chilling account of how easy it is to adjust one’s description of their non-military research to military terms when government funding is the only way to keep your program funded. He compares those who reject funding from DARPA and other government agencies to those who stood against the atomic bomb. These social forces direct the progress and speed of robotics, and they do so without concerted effort to consider the ethical demands of using these new machines.

Perhaps the most worrying section of the book is when Singer looks at attitudes from military leaders towards robotics. There is a distinct tendency amongst military officials to look at upside and brush off the idea of malfunction, loss of control, or even the idea that robots may not provide a true substitute for a human soldier. Singer references Clausewitz’s “fog of war” and updates it with an example from the Iraq war to show that even with robotics, that fog persists. In his example, the US force was identified with “blue trackers,” so soldiers could see each other in the midst of a sandstorm at dusk, but the enemy – untracked for the obvious reasons – remained at best elusive and at worst invisible. It gets worse than simply not having robotics help as you hoped they would, too. During one of the largest infusions of robots into the Iraq War, the US military immediately and comprehensively ran out of...batteries. They had failed to account for the power requirements necessary to operating all of the robots. There have also been problems of malfunction, breakdown from environmental factors like sand in the war theatre, and extensive problems with control signals, which can be scrambled and interrupted by any number of factors. Moreover, Singer points out that with the enthusiastic embrace of many of these technologies has come a certain assumption that the entire war is being fought with the same weapons, leaving troops less than prepared for the low-tech menace of their opponents. These robots are being integrated with little thought for the worst case scenario. This is all, of course, before one gets to questions raised by scientists about the possibility of hostile Artificial Intelligence or a Singularity that would produce sentient machines which have very little concern for humans.

Once Singer has shown us the potential hazards posed by the rise of robotics, he works to address some of the ethical challenges that surround the machines. In many ways, he is leading from Asimov’s Three Laws, trying to establish a way we should govern our robots in a way that uses them best while protecting our intent and safety. This discussion brings into sharp relief something that has been assumed in our course reading: that judgment is an essential part of wartime ethics. Singer explains the possibility of programming the Geneva Convention and other war rules and standards into robots, but we can see even in his fairly short discussion that this would not solve the problems of ethics as applied to robot actors. Justice is about more than setting rules and following them precisely at all times; this is why we distinguish between the letter and the spirit of laws and often give primacy to the latter rather than the former. Rather than programming robots with legal texts, Singer suggests that the best way to avoid ethical violations with robots is to limit and strictly proscribe their application, putting the onus on the human operators rather than investing the robots with the responsibility of navigating the complex ethics of war.

Singer mentions in passing and in his conclusion that the development of robotics makes it “easier” to go to war. Wired for War would have been stronger had this been explored more completely – which is not to say that this book is in any way a lightweight – particularly since the title and premise are based on the idea that we, as humans, are wired for war. It may be that Singer thought that his examination of the ethics directly surrounding the deployment of robots covered more ground on this front than it actually does. That discussion is important and certainly connected, but it does not go as far in parsing out the development of “traditional war” into this new robotic war and how that changes the ethical constructs that have been built up around the old method of war.

Singer does point out that an essential part of war has been soldiers’ willingness to lay down their lives for whatever cause prompted their participation, and notes that robotics eliminate that sense of honor that permeates the battlefield. Without this, he argues, war ethics have the legs cut out from beneath them. Much of just war theory is either predicated or directed by this honor. When war theory is rooted in honor, it is easily parlayed into concerns for ethical behavior before and after war, and we can apply the inverse to the decay of necessary honor in war. Much as we saw with the example of the troops assuming that everyone would be fighting a technological battle, it becomes easy to simply “send out the robots” and forget the human costs of the war. Singer points out that war is about more than having the biggest stick, that it is about using all of your resources to engage, resolve and move past a conflict. If robotics turn our military policy into a matter of engagement alone, it is easy to see that wars, once started, may never end, but merely roll on into ever more comprehensive struggles. On the one hand, this would be an odd kind of peace, were everyone to attain a commensurate level of technology – robots off on a limited battlefield, waging sterile wars with little to no human casualties. Still, nations would know they were fighting, and would take sides, producing a "peace" in which people would still be at odds and engaged in a fight. It would maintain a basic level of hostility that would look nothing like the peace aimed for by the great just war theorists, and it has the potential to change almost everything we know about politics by returning us to a sort of modernized state of nature.

In sum, Singer’s book is a remarkably comprehensive look at the dramatic change promised by robotics development and its military application. Though there are some areas of ethical concern that could be been more deeply examined, the work still provides a sound foundation from which to develop a new ethical framework for a robotic military. The value of such a book is evident in Singer’s interviews with military leaders, politicians, and scientists who seem to have given the matter little thought in the face of the utility and “cool factor” of these technological advancements. As Singer also mentions some of the more comprehensive ethical questions that relate to humans as well as the robots themselves, one may hold out hope that he will include a more probing examination of these matters in future editions.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Books Yay!: Room, by Emma Donohue

There are two levels upon which we can judge Room: on its success as a piece of black box theatre and as a story as a whole. There is a secondary criterion we can examine, that being the success of its linguistic device of childlike narrative. As a whole, Room succeeds, but it does not do so on the merits of its performance as black box theatre nor the interest of its linguistic device.

Room's first act takes place entirely in a small shed, here a mother and child are held captive by a mysterious, abusive man who kidnapped the mother when she was in her late teens. The mother has gone to great lengths not only to normalize the life she shares with her son, but to imbue their existence with the most health and education possible considering the inadequate resources with which she can work. After giving us a thorough view of their life, the subject of escape comes up in earnest.

The second act of the book follows the discussion of escape, and I think it would be best if I skipped telling you whether or not it amounts to anything. This is such a quick read that it's worth it to pick it up to find out what happens.

For me, the weakest part of Room was the first act. The account of every routine activity in their lives was important but poorly handled. It either should have been relayed in a shorter or in a more monotonous manner, to emphasize how stultifying the experience must have been. Instead, the author overplays her child narrator's curiosity, and as a result, it seems like the captive environment is little more than occasionally boring. The problem is not that the environment seems "too normal" - even with TV, it makes sense that a child raised in such an environment would take it as reasonably normal, particularly with a parent invested in maintaining that illusion - but rather that the child seems generally content and amused by toys and games that he has been playing for years.

Room really comes into its own in the second act, where circumstances allow a deeper commentary on interpersonal relationships and particularly the tension between the role of a woman as an individual and as a mother. Were the first act showed a woman seemingly in complete command of her environment (but for the obvious captivity; within the confines of the shed she has created a resourceful life moving towards the hope of escape), we now are able to see some of the obvious fear and confusion we knew from the outset MUST have existed, and see how that resonates through her life and that of her child. This is where Room changes from being an "all right" book to a good one.

Finally, there is the matter of the narration. This book is narrated by the child in the book, and many of the Amazon reviews I read whined about it being unrealistic. I don't think that this is fair or accurate. This is not a typical child. Instead, he is a child in a stressful situation with an adult, and this means that he is going to have a different knowledge base and different vocabulary than children who come up in traditional environments. The narration reveals a charming child who is smart but not always confident, and allows for a lot of exposition that might seem out of place otherwise. I think it's a successful choice, but I do think that the second part of the book could have been enhanced by a third person narration.

Monday, March 7, 2011

How to Tell if You Are True Friends

Pretty much every time I get a wedding invitation, I make some stupid joke about being there with bells on when I send in my response card because I am a gigantic dork and can't help myself.  Apparently, the idea of appearing in public with bells on is very appealing to me.  Now that you know this, you can imagine the childlike glee with which I opened the following RSVP card.
This is undeniable proof that the wonderful couple that sent this is indeed a pair of true friends, and will be true friends until we're shriveled, old and ultimately dead. 

"Will not be there because heard there would be people with bells?"  BISH PLEASE.  If you cannot appreciate the joy of being there with bells on, you go ahead and keep your lame self at home.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

San Jose or Worcester Sharks Makeup

There are certain realities I have accepted about my life, many of them involving hockey.  Chief amongst them are the facts that a.) I go to at least 40 hockey games a year, and b.) that this means I will have clothing and makeup that goes with my standard hockey attire.  This usually involves jeans and a jersey, and given the fact that it's usually a Sharks game, this means I'll be wearing black, white or teal based sweaters.  When I wear black or white jerseys, I can use some color on my face (for teal jerseys I like to keep it silver and black, or maybe incorporate a bit of Sharks orange if I'm feeling adventurous).  I did a teal eye today and thought other Sharks fans might be interested in seeing how to put it together. Here's the whole look:
I'm not really sure why I look bored and/or angry but there you have it.  I've got a strong eyebrow over a teal base, silver overlay and white corners.  Here's the closed eye:
I start this look by defining my eyebrows with Anastasia brow powder.  I use an angled brush to apply a core of dark powder through the center of the eyebrow, then use the lighter shade along the edges.  This takes a little practice, but pays off huge.  It adds just enough definition to make your eyes stand out; I often use nothing but brow powder and Guerlain kohl eyeliner (more on that later), and it makes for a fast, put together look.

The next step is an eye primer; I am using Laura Geller Eye Spackle right now because I have it on hand.  It does a good job, but if you're doing something with minimal color and you don't have lily white skin, it does show up.  That said, it's always good to add some light color at the inner corners of your eyes and under the arch of your eyebrow, so it's a decent option for that.  (The best primer on the market is Urban Decay's Primer Potion.)  After I get the primer worked in, I apply the teal eyeliner and wing it out a fair distance.  I've highlighted the actual line of my eye so you can see that I carry the wing of the liner out pretty far.  You can adjust this for your own comfort level.  I use Urban Decay Liquid Liner in Bright Teal because I like the depth of color and the brush.
After the liner has dried, I add a little dibbity dab of white pencil on the inside of my eye and blend it with my finger.  I have a hard time blending this properly with a brush; if you are an advanced makeup person, go for it!  You can use any white liner or shadow you like for this.  I use a cheapie RiteAid pencil...the packaging says it's a Prestige eyeliner in White (E30). 

The next colors are all from Tarina Tarantino's "Starchild" palette, which I heartily recommend for anyone because it has a great selection of colors that stay put all day and night.  Unfortunately, it looks like its season has gone by, but you might be able to snap it up on eBay.  You could use Makeup Forever's eyeshadows for substitutes: Turquoise Shimmer 83 and Silver 82 should do it.  I put the teal over the lid to JUST over the crease so it's visible.  Make sure you blend it right into the liner so it's a smooth transition.  You want an arc to go from the tip of your liner wing over to the white highlight.  Finally, apply some silver over the top of your teal arch and run your finger over the line to blend, blend, blend.  I finished with Givenchy Phenomen'Eyes mascara, which has the little hedgehog brush.  Even if you don't want to shell out for the Givenchy, I recommend any of the mascaras with the hedgehog brush, because they get riiiiiiight into the corners to get all those teensy little hairs usually involve stabbing yourself in the eye or slopping mascara all over your eye AND nose.  I think CoverGirl has one now, but I'm not sure.

Voila!  I finish with Smashbox Photo Finish foundation primer and Makeup Forever's HD Invisible Cover Foundation (which incidentally may be a little pricey but is hands down the best foundation I have ever used).  It's always best to do foundation last, because that way you can "erase" any fallout from your eye makeup.  If you do foundation first - as I used to! - fine particulate from eyeshadow can fall down and get set under your eyes. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Books Yay!: Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

Many of the fairy tales with which people in my age bracket grew up have not aged well. We grew up right in the Disney belt, where most of us got the "child friendly" adaptations of the more gory, scary cautionary tales-cum-child-control-method stories whence those fluffier versions came. I think Disney fairy tales assume that kids can't process more than a simple good/bad binary, where the Grimm fairy tales and their ilk took children more seriously and asked them to make more nuanced decisions. This is not to say that Disney retellings are devoid of realism or are somehow bad, but they lack a certain challenge that other tales do not. This may be a result of movies being a visual medium; there is more call to concern oneself with the visual aspects of a story in film, where a simple "beautiful princess" or "ugly witch" is ample in a spoken or written story, leaving the teller more room to concern themselves with plot.

Neil Gaiman's writing is the clear descendant of the Grimm fairy tale tradition, taking its readers seriously and creating magic that is logical and beautiful in its own unique way. This is true of all of his writing, but particularly so in his books for children and young adults. I have yet to read a Gaiman book that I did not love with my entire heart, and I hope that will always be true. Stardust is no exception. It is a beautiful tale that shows us that love is both ridiculous and gorgeous, and demonstrates that the great divide between good and evil is filled with tricksters, people who are nice enough, people with their own agendas, overly entitled, crafty, and many other delicately shaded personalities.

The weft of Stardust and the way it is created are particularly lovely, so I won't give you all the details of the plot - it's a sweet, short little book, so there's really no reason to skip this one - but the main plot line follows Tristan Thorn's hunt for a fallen star. He has set out for it after promising the loveliest girl in the town of Wall that he will catch it for her. Wall is surrounded by (surprise!) a wall that divides the town and the outside world of Fairie, and the two worlds rarely intermingle. When Tristan crosses over into Fairie, thing get complicated, and continue to do so for the rest of the book.

Though Stardust was specifically written in a pre-Tolkien mode, I cannot help but consider it to be Gaiman's Simarillion, where Tolkien showed us the structure and genesis of Middle-Earth. Gaiman's Sandman series deals explicitly with Fairie, but many of his other writings share the same kind of magical and social structures, even if the characters are not clearly passing in and out of Fairie. The plot of Stardust is complete and well-written, but for me, the plot paled in comparison with the richness of its setting. Not many authors can pull that off and wind up with a great book, but Gaiman has certainly done so here.

Crossposted at The Outpost 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Books Yay!: The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

The Framingham/Worcester commuter rail line has been emitting some kind of sadness ray lately, resulting in me being all depressed and weird as the train pulls into Union Station. I'm not sure what that's about but I can tell you that this book did not help, despite its really being a lovely little work.

The Imperfectionists is a series of peepholes into the lives of the employees of a once-great newspaper. The stories are just connected enough for cohesiveness, and separate enough to avoid repetition. There are stories of editors, reporters, owners, readers and all the people that fall in and out of their respective lives. The connections between characters allow the story of the newspaper itself to wend its way through the book as well, showing us what the paper is and could have been for each person. The stories span a period of several decades and follow the long, slow death of the newspaper. The death throes of newspapers are hardly unfamiliar to most readers of today - the changes in format, content, delivery, etc. that precede an admission that the fight is useless - but are usually considered in a business sense. The Imperfectionists infuses this slow financial crumpling with an unusual pathos, and it is in places quite heartbreaking.

I would be selling the book short if I suggested that all roads led to the newspaper. The relationships in the book are complex and well-developed, which of course adds to the tragedy of the newspaper's - their livelihoods' - trouble. Most authors have a couple key relationship "types" that they return to time and time again, but Rachman refuses to limit himself to anything so simple. While his relationships tend towards the doomed variety, they all have their own unique fingerprint, and are singularly revealing of the primary individual, the other person in the relationship, and the connection itself. This is no small feat; writing compelling relationships is challenging because so much of love, in whatever form, is resonant primarily to those involved and hopelessly dorky to everyone else. I rarely commend books for their love and relationship plots, but in this case I do so enthusiastically.

Perhaps the most trying aspect of the book is seeing the newspaper fail to maintain the vision of its creators. The enterprise is so clearly loved and is vested with such high hopes and the belief that good news can change the world that seeing it slide into irrelevance is almost physically painful. It is, however, the way of many, many businesses, and I appreciate this book for it's insistence that we see business as something forged by humans and steeped in their emotions. For a reasonably short book, The Imperfectionists shows the reader humanity in a wide variety of sometimes startling places, and despite it's sad bent, it is well worth anyone's time.

Crossposted at The Outpost