The content on this blog is my personal opinion and does not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the US Navy in any way.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Conspiracies and Truth

... because I feel like pointing and laughing this week, I think.

Okay, that's a bit too much. Really it's more of a helpless pity, since I have no idea how to convince someone like Mike Adams or the average person who actually believes that NaturalNews is accurate that their view of the way reality works has become rather dramatically divergent from the way it actually works. Case in point: a recent article that I found via RationalWiki.

Apparently the Mayan apocalypse was the only crackpot theory Adams doesn't believe in (granted, this was apparent long before now). I would say I don't understand how it's possible to believe in this many wild theories... but I think this article does actually show how people get drawn in.

For example, the article mentions how the number of deaths at Sandy Hook is miniscule compared to, say, car accidents. That happens to be true. As is the fact that there is some collateral damage resulting from US drone strikes, and that the media rarely mentions it. Further down, the Fed can, in essence, create more money to put in the US economy. And there are powerful societal pressures to conform to everyone around you...

Granted, there's a lot that's... untrue, to put it mildly. Vaccines, while not 100% free of adverse effects (nothing is), tend to be far better than the diseases they replace - and if that becomes untrue then we tend to stop using them. There's essentially zero evidence of a massive propaganda system covering everything we watch, hear, or read. NaturalNews and Infowars either aren't seeking the truth, or are so breathtakingly incompetent that they're effectively useless - yes, more so than Fox or MSNBC's blatant partisanship.

Still, those truths appeal to people who are just realizing that something is wrong. Their presence makes the untruths easier to swallow - unfortunately, it's quite natural to think that if he's right about this one thing, then maybe he's also right about the other things I'd never considered before. That suggests that, however hard it may be, it's important to check all the claims being made, even if you know some are true...

But... and perhaps more to the point... those "truths" I mentioned are a little more complicated than the article mentions. The experience of many other countries suggests our number of gun deaths is abnormal, whether due to our gun culture or due to the number of guns we have. While I haven't exactly asked them about it myself, I'm reasonably certain the entire military chain of command from the President on down deeply regrets that collateral damage - and does what they can to minimize it (which might not be enough from some people's point of view, but even if you believe that, it's still better than nothing). The Fed has to carefully balance risks of inflation and deflation as they decide where to set rates and how much money to lend - they can't just create whatever they want. And those societal pressures are an unconscious product of psychology, not an intentional propaganda war - perhaps more to the point, they can be acknowledged and countered (to various, sometimes limited extent) without believing in all sorts of conspiracy theories.

They're true, but incomplete. In my experience, that's a much easier way to lie to someone... sometimes, even without actually knowing it (although, for something of this magnitude, even my naturally forgiving personality struggles with that idea). And that suggests that sometimes it's important, not necessarily to question the things we know are true (because ultimately, there's little we can do but rely on our own judgement for determining that, whether it's using personally observed facts or advice from others as input), but to ask ourselves if there's something else we haven't considered that might make a more simple answer partially wrong.

I think the failure to do that is both the easiest and the most tenacious way in which we convince ourselves to believe something that's wrong and settle for only part of the truth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tragedy and Reaction

Sorry for the late post this week.

I'm commenting on the most recent school shooting this week (along with what I'm pretty sure is every other blog on the Internet). For my part, though, I'm going to look at what constitutes the right (or perhaps just a good) way to act in response.

There are a fair number of different choices, most of which we've seen before in previous such tragedies. Those very close to the victims are dealing with grief which most of the rest of us can barely imagine - I'm certainly not going to try for this post; I have no right to tell them how they should grieve.

As for everyone else... they're just doing the best they can, as usual. For some people that's a plea to avoid talking about the issue, or to avoid poisoning it with politics or acrimony. Most of those people, I imagine, want to help those close to the victims by avoiding too much sensationalism or hatred creeping into the discussion. Other people reject that approach and dive into the discussion, arguing as hard as they feel they need to in favor of what they see as the right solution. Their motivation is fairly obvious - to prevent, or at least limit, the incidence of any other events like this one.

Neither reaction, I would argue, is precisely wrong.

Some people, no matter how far removed, may wish to limit the discussion for their own reasons, or may imagine that keeping themselves out will limit the national discussion's cacophony, even if only by a small amount. Both those goals are acceptable to me.

Likewise, there is very little to disapprove of in the desire to reduce senseless violence, even if doing so makes people uncomfortable.

But there are two caveats here - two ways in which I do think someone can react inappropriately.

One is that you can't really control others' actions. Those people who want to limit the discussion are limited to what they personally can do - forcing others to remain silent does them a disservice and implicitly supports one side in the debate about how to react to incidents like this. (Likewise, forcing people to talk wouldn't be allowed - so no arguing that those who don't wish to discuss the issue have to do so. I think that's much less of a problem than the other way around is, though.)

The other is that no one gets a pass on talking points and emotional appeals, even in a highly emotionally charged time like this. In this time just like any other, we need to come up with the right answer - and passion and emotion might drive us to have those debates and to convince other people of the answers we come up with, but they won't help us as much when we're coming up with those answers. The paranoia seen in many gun advocates and the disgust of many gun control supporters only helps to a point.

UPDATE: I went back to Facebook after I wrote this, and read yet more posts from friends regarding the gun control debate... And now I just want to emphasize that last paragraph's point about fallacious arguments. I hate to call people stupid too obviously and/or act too arrogant about my own capacity for debate, but I guess the idea that this is the best we can come up with to react to this tragedy is getting to me more than I thought it was.

Also see this blog post from Almost Diamonds on Freethought Blogs - I had intended this to be more of a meta post about the debate as opposed to expressing my position on the debate, but now I find myself wanting to point out one of the main problems clearly, and I really can't do it any better than that post did.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Technologies and Tactics

For once I'm actually using a blog post as inspiration.

The post in question is titled "Shock and Awe without El Kabong". To summarize, it mentions a new missile being developed by Boeing which has the ability to generate a directed EMP effect - allowing it to neatly fry any electronic devices in a target as the missile flies past. The post continues to point out that such technology could be used to disable defenses while greatly limiting collateral damage.

Certainly, I'm happy to see it - improvements in precision weapons and nonlethal weapons make it easier for me to do my job while avoiding civilian deaths. That said, I'd also like to point out that this is far from a perfect solution. Granted, I think the author of the original blog post probably knows that, given the caveats that were included along with the proposed additional uses, but it's worth emphasizing that this, like every other technological advancement in history, can only change the nature of war so much.

One of these problems is the ability to defend against this missile's attack. There are some things which by their very nature will not be easily protected - building a Faraday cage around an antenna tends to make the antenna stop working. However, there's a lot more that can be isolated either with such devices or by building them that much deeper underground (and the blog post in question specifically calls out "provided they have not moved things underground" as one of its caveats). Even if the only recourse is to carefully switch your defense stations between "offline, useless, shielded" and "online, useful, unprotected", that's still more options than you get when your defense stations are smoking craters.

There are also some things that can't be effectively attacked with such technology. A rifle-wielding infantryman may wind up in trouble if he loses communications, night vision, or other electronic assists. He still has the capability to pose a threat, though, and many military technologies are designed with manual backups specifically so that they can continue to pose a threat even if something breaks. The Internet is another example. I've read the original blog post two or three times now and I still have no idea why the author thinks frying Wikileaks servers is plausible - or why he thinks that would do any good. Given the proliferation of mirrors, backups, and additional routers and paths, keeping anything off the air by hitting its storage media or communications links is the next best thing to impossible - at best, it would require a massive intelligence effort to find all of those things, followed by the political will to engage in quite a bit of "collateral damage" to mirror sites and archives that serve other sites as well as the one you were targeting. (Granted, "provided we can pinpoint servers" is the caveat listed with that idea, so I think the author understands that the idea isn't exactly a sure thing. Still, I think such a brief phrase vastly understates the difficulty of that task.) The same idea applies to using it to counter cyber operations - pinpointing their sources in real time remains difficult (at least, to the best of my understanding).

Finally, collateral damage remains a possibility. I alluded to that above when I pointed out that some servers run things we like along with things we don't like. One of the other possibilities here is that we could take out computerized regulatory/control systems for utilities, airports, or any number of other things - and that could have quite a few consequences, including death, for any noncombatants that really needed power or heat right then.

With all that said, I'll close out by acknowledging that I like the look of this new weapon myself. As I was saying above, there are manual backups - but the reason they are the backups is because they are less effective than the primary (electronic) methods. We still have to think about our tactics carefully and acknowledge that this won't save us from sometimes having to kill people - but this particular weapon gives us more nonlethal options than we had, and that's not a bad thing.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Tactics and Compromises, part 2

Wasn't planning on writing something like this, but I recently had another interesting Facebook debate. (I think most of my posts have come from Facebook issues by now. I really need to go back to the blogs I read one of these weeks.)

Anyway, the reason this is listed as "part 2" is because said debate touched on the issue I raised here, namely: what do do when someone starts lying in a debate. Really, I should have known much better than to divide the choices into two specific options... given that I just pointed out a falsehood without actually calling my opponent a liar, I'd say it's quite clear that there's some gray area in there.

This is also why I sometimes like Internet debates more than real-life ones. I have as much time as I need on the Internet to line up my facts and think about how best to phrase a reply. Sometimes that turns into paralysis as I try to find the perfect way to put something, but overall it tends to go better.

Anyway, before I get too wrapped up in patting myself on the back, I should probably point out (to myself and everyone else)... I don't actually like using this gray area.

Why? Well, because I wouldn't be too surprised if my opponent's reply accused me of calling him a liar. For that matter, I'd probably agree with him, because I did, albeit indirectly.

Something like the "non-confrontational" idea I came up with in the linked post isn't just a matter of what I think; it depends a lot on what my opponents think of me. And when I'm calling out someone for lying, even if I'm trying to soften the blow by being indirect, I am being at least a little confrontational. Certainly less so, to my mind, than the rather more direct "you're a liar/idiot/whatever", but there's a little bit there. I'm not going to blame my opponent for picking up on that, even if I'd rather have him acknowledge and focus on my efforts to avoid emphasizing it. Probably that's why I came up with the binary selection in my earlier post... there may be gray areas I can aim for that will serve both purposes, but they're not always going to work.