DAILY PHOTO: Memorials under Autumn Skies, Andersonville

Taken in December of 2011 at Andersonville National Historic Site / Andersonville National Cemetery

BOOK REVIEW: The End of Killing by Rick Smith

The End of Killing: How Our Newest Technologies Can Solve Humanity’s Oldest ProblemThe End of Killing: How Our Newest Technologies Can Solve Humanity’s Oldest Problem by Rick Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Before one dismisses this book based on its seemingly pollyanna title, I’d suggest one think of it as an opening volley in what promises to be a series of crucial debates that will play out — one way or another — in the years to come. I believe Smith, founder and CEO of TASER and Axon, did a great job of presenting an argument for the pursuit of a range of technologies and policies intended to curb violence, as well as anticipating, presenting, and debating many of the opposing arguments. The book’s tone is more pragmatic than its bold and controversial title might suggest. That said, I don’t agree with all of the author’s conclusions by any means; though I do agree these questions need to be thoughtfully considered and debated.

I’d put the technologies and policies Smith advocates for into three basic categories. First, those that are nearly inevitable given societal winds of change and the nature of technological development (e.g. nonlethals becoming the primary weapons of the law enforcement community, automated systems being deployed to curb violence in schools, and ending the war on drugs.) Second, those which may be laudable, but which are hard to imagine coming to fruition in the world we live in [or are likely to see in the foreseeable future] (e.g. nonlethals becoming the primary [or exclusive] weapons of the military.) Third, those which are so full of the peril of unintended consequences as to be, frankly, terrifying – if not dystopian (i.e. the use of surveillance and profiling technologies to ACTIVELY attempt to prevent crimes that haven’t yet happened.)

Instead of describing the contents of the book chapter by chapter, I’ll discuss its ideas through the lens presented in the preceding paragraph – starting with the seemingly inevitable technologies. The central thrust of this book is that nonlethal technology needs to be developed / improved such that nonlethals can take up a progressively greater portion of weapons deployment and usage, with the aim of ultimately replacing firearms (and other lethal weapons) with nonlethal weapons. It’s important to note that Smith doesn’t suggest such a replacement could happen at present. He acknowledges that nonlethals are currently not as effective and reliable at incapacitating a threat as are firearms, and he isn’t advocating that people be put at risk by having to defend themselves with an inferior weapon. However, it seems reasonable, given the tremendous technological advances that have occurred, that nonlethal weaponry could become as or more effective than firearms.

If that doesn’t seem reasonable, I would remind one that firearms aren’t – as a rule — as instantaneously and definitively incapacitating as Hollywood portrays. One can find numerous cases of individuals still moving with a magazine’s worth of bullets in — or having passed through — them. (And that’s not to mention the lack of precision that tends to come with throwing a projectile via a controlled explosion.) The point being, one isn’t competing with perfection – so one doesn’t need to be perfect, only better than an existing [flawed] system.

Smith addresses the many dividends of nonlethal weapon usage over that of the lethal counterparts, and there are many. For one thing, killing isn’t easy on anyone (anyone who’s right in the head any way.) Even when a killing is legally justifiable and morally defensible (or even state-sanctioned) it often still results in traumatic stress. For another, there is the reduced cost of getting it wrong, and the adverse societal impacts (e.g. revenge killings) that result from wrongful deaths. Long story short, if one can produce a nonlethal that’s consistently as effective at incapacitating threat, it’s hard to make a rational argument for not fielding said weapon. The example of an automated system to respond to school shootings is an extension of the nonlethal weapons argument, as it’s ultimately based on nonlethals deployed by drone (or robotic system.) The chapter on the war on drugs (ch. 15) bears little discussion as it’s no news that that “war” has been a failure and a phenomenally ineffective way of addressing a societal problem.

That brings us to the laudable but unlikely category in which I put military use of nonlethals as primary (or exclusive) weapons. I’m not saying that military nonlethal weapon systems won’t continue to be developed, improved, and deployed. Given the degree to which war of late features non-state actors and unconventional warfare, it’s possible to imagine such weapons playing a dominant role in specific operations. After all, military members aren’t exempt from the psychological costs of killing. However, military forces deploying into a war zone with nonlethals as their primary weapons is almost impossible to imagine, especially considering the diversity of conditions and opponents for which a military needs to be ready.

In warfare, there is something called the “force multiplier” effect of wounding an enemy over killing an enemy. That is, if you wound someone, it takes two people to carry him or her, plus a chunk of a medic’s time. So, one can imagine four people being out of the fight because one person is severely wounded, versus the one person who would be out of commission (the dead person) if the individual were wounded. To be fair, Smith imagines technology (drones and robots) doing the heavy lifting. Still, it’s hard to imagine how one side in a conflict wins if they have to transport, warehouse, feed, and care for every enemy that is incapacitated while the other side is just killing away. Even if that one side is much more automated, it seems tremendously expensive – even for a relatively small-scale war.

That brings to me chapter five, which I found chilling. That chapter considers how artificial intelligence and surveillance programs (albeit with judicial oversight and other protections) could be used to anticipate crimes so that law enforcement could actively go forth to try to prevent them. (If this sounds a lot like the Tom Cruise movie loosely based on a PKD story, “Minority Report,” it’s because it essentially replaces the three pasty precognitives with computers and offers a bit more oversight. While Smith cautions against taking fictional stories too seriously, he employs some fictional scenarios that I believe might be as a pollyanna as the Spielberg film is dark.) At any rate, the word “actively” is crucial to my concern. I’m all in favor of what has historically been known as “preventive law enforcement” — activities such as putting more patrols in high crime areas, youth mentoring programs, and programs that inform people and businesses about how to be harder targets. However, the idea of police going out and engaging people as though a crime has been committed when none has been conjures images of cities on fire.

First, such an approach is predicated on watching everybody – at least everybody’s online activity – all the time. Which seems both dystopian and of limited effectiveness. [What percentage of people who post on FB that they want to shoot someone are likely to do so?] What about the judicial oversight and related protections? When is a warrant issued to surveil or arrest a person? The warrant is issued based on something an artificial intelligence system already flagged, meaning a government entity is watching everybody’s behavior on a constant fishing expedition. I’m not fond of that idea at all.

Second, we aren’t nearly as good at forecasting the future as we think. Violent crimes are rare and often spontaneous events, and that puts them in classes of behavior we are particularly bad at making predictions about. And, we haven’t eliminated the trade-off between type I and type II error. Imagine there is a question about whether individual X is to be detained based on what the AI spit out. X either was or wasn’t going to commit a crime. We can imagine a four-way matrix in which two of the solutions are correct (i.e. 1.) X was detained and was going to commit a crime; 2.) X wasn’t detained and he wasn’t going to commit a crime.) However, since we can’t know the future [like, at all] the potential remains for mis-estimating whether X was going to commit a crime. So, we have two potential errors (i.e. 1.) X wasn’t detained but he was going to commit a crime [and thus did]; 2.) X was detained but he wasn’t going to commit a crime [wrongful detention].) So, we want to minimize the first error because any violent crime is unacceptable? We go out and shake down more high risk individuals. While we succeed in preventing crimes, we also end up with more wrongful detention. Our legal system’s requirements with regards evidence suggest that as a society we are averse to wrongful disruption of a person’s freedom. Hence, while a “preponderance of evidence” is sufficient for cases where one might lose money in a civil case, if one might be imprisoned, the standard becomes “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Wrongfully detaining an individual when a crime was committed may be sad, but doing it when there is only a suspicion that a crime might likely be committed is tragic.

Of course, under present standards one can’t detain a person for very long. So you let them go, and maybe they do the crime – whether or not they intended to in the first place (ever heard someone say, “if you’re going to treat me like _______, I’m going to act like _______?” I’ll admit that it’s a bit far-fetched but if the system spurs one crime in a million subjects detained that wasn’t going to happen, is that acceptable?) Alternatively, one could place surveillance on the individual. In which case, one is essentially living in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Congratulations. It seems to me this approach offers either huge costs for a marginal gain, or you go full dystopia and knock out crime at a horrifying cost. Neither way seems appealing, but – then again – I am not willing to pay any price to keep anything bad from ever happening to anyone.

I found this book to have some fascinating ideas and to spur my thinking on subjects I might not otherwise have considered. While there was a significant bit that I found unsavory, I also discovered some ideas that were intriguing and worth pursuing. I would highly recommend this book for those interested in issues of technology and policy.

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BOOK REVIEW: Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig

Miss BurmaMiss Burma by Charmaine Craig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel tells the story of a mixed-race family and their trials and tribulations in Burma / Myanmar from the colonial period (before the Second World War) through the early 1960’s when a civil war was in progress. The father / husband, Benny, is ethnically Indian, religiously Jewish, works for the British, but was born and spent his early childhood in Burma. He marries a Karen woman (i.e. of the Karen tribe.) The central (and titular) character is the couple’s first child, Louisa. Louisa is a beauty, and for various reasons – none of which reflect her own preferences – she ends up a beauty queen and national celebrity.

What is fascinating about this book is how the many levels of humanity – from the individual level (e.g.Louisa / Miss Burma) to the international level – play into each other. At an individual level, each member of the family finds his or her life intruded upon by the nation’s conflicts. Benny ends up a prisoner of war of the Japanese and then later a prisoner of the Burman ruling regime. He feels beholden to the Karens because of a combination of factors involving repaying of debt, familial obligation, and friendship. Louisa ends up in the pageant – in part — because of the question of whether the leaders and Burman citizens are really serious enough about unity to allow a non-Burman into that high-status role.

At a national level, there is a rapid succession of changing situations. First, the country needs to thwart the Japanese invasion. Next, they must throw off the British colonial yoke, and, finally, Burma must figure out what kind of nation (or nations) it will become. The Burman leader wants to consolidate the country, while many tribal groups, including the Karen, want independence. Benny’s family is tied up in this conflict, in part, because of their Karen connection, but also the fact that Benny was able to exploit the post-war economy to his advantage and became rich after the war. This makes him, and his family, both important and simultaneously loved and despised.

At the international level, America and other global powers have interests in keeping Burma from disintegrating into tribal sub-states. In the early post-war period, these interests are largely economic, and involve the preference to have a solitary trading partner for Burmese goods. However, later, as “domino theory” takes center stage in American foreign policy, the interest shifts to thwarting the spread of Communism. (“Domino theory” was the idea that if a non-Communist government fell, others would proceed in a chain reaction throughout the region. It was a little simplistic, but reflected the anxiety of the times and was a large part of the justification for the Vietnam War.)

I found this book gripping and fascinating. The international intrigue and family tensions both work together to make an intensely readable work. Without getting into the ending, I will say that it feels a little bit rushed and anti-climactic. However, the events of the book give it plenty of tension overall, and there is a logic to the place the book ends. It is emotionally powerful to see how this family is repeatedly torn apart and must come together again through great difficulties. We also see how obligation and sense of duty play themselves out, often trumping other considerations.

I would highly recommend this book for readers of fiction, particularly those with interests in historical fiction and works that offer insight into a nation and a culture.

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BOOK REVIEW: Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong

Novel Without a NameNovel Without a Name by Dương Thu Hương
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel’s protagonist, Quan, is a North Vietnamese soldier who, after ten years of war-fighting and surviving, has worked his way up to a junior officer position with a small unit under his command. Much of the story describes a road trip in the midst of war. One of Quan’s childhood friends who is now his superior officer, Luong, assigns Quan the task of going to visit a distant medical unit to check on a third common village friend, Bien, who is said to have had a nervous breakdown. Luong, further tells Quan to take some well-earned time off for a home visit, since the junior officer hasn’t been to see his home in a decade. In the latter part of the book, Quan returns to his unit after an uneasy home visit to see the father with whom he has strained relations (his mother ran away with another man), the neighbors he seems closer to than he is his own father, and his childhood sweetheart who has fallen on hard times — having had to accept that the two would never be married. On the way, back to his unit, Quan checks on Bien who he busted out of horrific conditions at a field hospital and got reassigned to a special unit with the non-Infantry, but macabre, task of building coffins. The book ends with another uneasy transition, the war’s end – which sees Quan’s comrades in celebration, but also not sure what to expect after an entire adult life spent at war.

Interspersed with the real-time events that occur as Quan travels through a jungle war-zone, one is shown flashbacks to some of the intense traumas of his years at war. These include friendly-fire incidents and the “only the good die young” effect in which it seems the most kind and virtuous are often the most perishable in times of war. There’s also a very human story that’s told about how war effects lives and transforms relationships – in some cases forging unbreakable bonds and in other cases building impenetrable barriers between loved ones.

I’ve read a few books on the Vietnam War, both fiction and non-fiction, but this may be the first I’ve read from a North Vietnamese perspective. What is interesting about that is that the experiences and themes are often not that different from one sees in works like Karl Marlantes’s “Matterhorn” or Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Soldiers on both sides have similar day-to-day experiences from boredom to horrors, and it has largely the same effect upon the soldier’s psyches. One of the overarching themes this book has in common with its American-centric counterparts is growing disillusionment. Like the American soldiers who often couldn’t comprehend what they were fighting for (other than the survival of their friends and themselves), Quan’s core beliefs become challenged over the course of the novel. It’s often been said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but it seems equally true that there are no ideologues in foxholes. The pragmatic concerns demanded of the war-fighter make it hard to be an impassioned Marxist or an impassioned follower of any ideology. This is seen in one scene in which an older officer is put off by Quan’s lack of enthusiasm for the Marxist message, and then later when the tables are turned and Quan converses with a young subordinate soldier who is even more disillusioned.

Of course, there are differences. Quan is much more at home in the environment of the war – though not exempt from the miseries of the jungle. It’s not like he’s been dropped on a different planet as it was for American soldiers who had no experience of tropical living. On the other hand, an American soldier could at least rest assured that his loved one’s were home in safety, but for Quan and his peers there is no reason to think family is any more safe than they. Of course, the concept of traipsing through the war zone on a home visit after years successively at war represents one important difference that is also fundamental to the story.

I found this book to be gripping and illuminating. It’s highly readable and relatable, even though there are flashbacks that take one out of a linear timeline; they are well done and not confusing. I would highly recommend this book for anyone who reads war stories, who enjoys translated fiction from other cultures, or who just wants a thought-provoking work of literary fiction.

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DAILY PHOTO: Medieval Warfare at Sümeg

Taken at Sümeg Castle on December 20, 2016

Taken at Sümeg Castle on December 20, 2016

 

Close up foot armor.   One imagines this kicking up under the front plate to stab the enemy without ever breaching his armor; file under "W" for "wicked."

Close up of foot armor. One imagines this kicking up under the front plate to stab the enemy without ever breaching his armor; file under “W” for “wicked.”

 

Another armor close up

Another armor close up

 

One of the trebuchet on display at the base of Sümeg castle

One of the trebuchet on display at the base of Sümeg castle

BOOK REVIEW: Thirst by Andrey Gelasimov

ThirstThirst by Andrey Gelasimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This novel (novella) is translated from Russian, and is the story of a soldier, Kostya, who fought in Chechnya and was badly burned while trapped inside an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC.) Owing to his severe disfigurement, Kostya becomes a heavy-drinking homebody. This changes when one of his team members from the war, Seryoga, goes missing and a couple surviving team members come to recruit Kostya to the search party.

Kostya struggles with an internal conflict common in war stories. On the one hand, Kostya both rationally recognizes the logic of why his friend and teammate, Seryoga, didn’t pull him from the burning APC (i.e. Seryoga believed Kostya was dead) and he loves Seryoga like a brother. On the other hand, he can’t help but feel that if Seryoga had pulled him out sooner he wouldn’t be so hideously disfigured and his life—as he sees it–wouldn’t have been ruined. Kostya battles those feelings, even defending Seryoga’s decision based on the reasonable conclusion that Kostya was already dead. A flashback sequence interwoven into the contemporary timeline shows us the events of the APC attack, including—ominously—a discussion of what should happen in case grenade breaches the vehicle for the benefit of the FNG (F@#%ing New Guy.)

The story is short and sparse, and that complements the somber tone of the book. One reason for dragging Kostya into the search is that his father is a Lieutenant Colonel with the pull to access records. This forces Kostya to open up the estranged relationship with his father and his father’s new wife. One gets the feeling that Kostya blames his father more for his plight than he does Seryoga, adding to any pre-war problems in the relationship. There are several factors that combine to move Kostya toward a better place over the course of the story. One is the thaw in relations with his father, and–perhaps even more so—the burgeoning relationship with his step-mom, Marian, who he discovers to be a genuinely good person. A second factor is reconnecting with his military buddies. Finally, his art (Kostya has a talent for drawing) becomes more therapeutic as his friends and family begin to see it.

This is a classic brothers-in-arms story. The universality of that bond comes through in translation. With tweaks in details (and choice of liquor) this story could be about American soldiers in Vietnam or Iraq. What makes the book a worthwhile read, if nothing else, is its display of that commonality of human experience. The ways of soldiers who have a stake in each other, even if they feel little personal stake in the grand strategy that has put them where they are.

I found this story to be moving and thought-provoking. I’d recommend the book—particularly for readers of literary fiction—and it’s definitely literary fiction. The story is character driven, and not plot or action driven. The tension derives from the interaction of characters and not (except for the APC fire) outside events. Many will find the ending abrupt and anti-climactic, but it’s the story of Kostya’s journey and not of any particular destination.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Country With No Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali

The Country Without a Post OfficeThe Country Without a Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 27 poems about life in conflict-riddled Kashmir. Kashmir is a territory in the Himalayas that’s governed by India, but claimed by both India and Pakistan—and, it should be noted, has a significant population of residents that want to be part of neither country. In other words, there are some who’d like to see an independent Kashmir. However, at the moment Kashmir is one portion of one of India’s 29 states, Jammu and Kashmir—a state which is, itself, tripartite (Hindu Jammu, Muslim Kashmir, and Buddhist Ladakh.)

It’s a telling quote from Tacitus with which the author begins the collection. Solitudinum faciunt et pacem appellant. I won’t claim that I didn’t have to look this up, but it means: “They make a desert, and call it peace.” The first poem echoes variations on that quote.

There are a range of poetry styles within this collection, including: rhyming verse, free verse, poetic prose, and ghazal. A ghazal is a Middle Eastern style of lyric poem which has a pattern of rhyme and is metered to be set to music; there are several in this collection. Some of the poems are sparse and some are wordy, and variety is the order of the day.

The 27 poems of this collection are divided among five parts. The book is brief (under 100 pages), and it contains only a prologue and notes (some of which are interesting) with respect to ancillary matter.

This collection paints a portrait of war and life in a war-torn locale. It’s as much the latter as the former. The title poem, “The Country With No Post Office,” suggests the sapping nature of life where the institutions of governance and civil society have broken down.

I’d recommend this collection for those who enjoy poetry, but also for those interested in the conflict in Kashmir.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Taiheiki trans. / ed. by Helen Craig McCullough

TaiheikiTaiheiki by Helen Craig McCullough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Let me be blunt, “The Taiheiki” isn’t a book you pick up to read a gripping story. While it’s considered a work of fiction, it reads like a history. In some sense, it is a history. It does follow the broad brush strokes of the events in Japan in the early 14th century. However, there are way too many characters to keep track of, or to remember who is on the side of whom, or even to know whether a given individual is worth remembering or whether they’ll soon die an ignominious death. If you don’t believe me, here are the words of the book’s translator and editor, “In short, the ‘gunki monogatari’ [the war tales of which ‘The Taiheiki’ is one] are not great literature. But the best of them are worth reading.”

I agree with McCullough’s point about these books (and this one in particular) being worth reading, but I would add an “if.” “The Taiheiki” is worth reading, if you have an interest in medieval Japan, samurai, or civil war life. The time period in question was fascinating, and it was characterized by war and intrigue. The Hōjō clan was ousted. (They were the military clan that administered the government.) A compromise had been in effect in which the mantle of Emperor was to be alternated between two opposing lines. However, an ambitious Emperor Go-Daigo refused to relinquish the title, and this led to a war between the courts. It’s a story of both warriors of legendary loyalty (most famously, Kusunoki Masashige) and those of shifting loyalties.

While the book is too fractured to form a clear and interesting story overall, that doesn’t mean it isn’t filled with intriguing episodes of battles, espionage, siege warfare, and even the occasional ghost or goblin story. There are many interesting individuals that are dealt with in sufficient detail to make them intriguing—the aforementioned Kusunoki Masashige stands out among them. The book offers insight into the medieval Japanese mind and to some degree the modern mind as well. There are discussions of philosophy and strategy worked into the narrative that help one to understand from whence the individuals were coming.

The book has a few features that help non-expert readers. The first is an extensive introduction written by Dr. McCullough that serves to provide background for the book and the era in which it took place. The second is frequent footnoting. There are also several plates of artworks and photos interspersed throughout the book. These help the reader visualize the environs and how these individuals would have looked.

If you have an interest in medieval Japan, in samurai, in ninja, or even in pre-modern war generally, I’d recommend this book. (If you’re looking for a gripping tale of intrigue set in 14th century Japan, not so much.)

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