Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Convention Report: CopperCon/Fantasm

Hi, friends and fellow-fen.  I haven't reported in for awhile because I was at, and then recovering from, CopperCon -- this year nicknamed FANtasm.  CopperCon was the original Arizona regional Science Fiction convention -- since joined by LepreCon, TusCon, and a couple of specialized gamer and costumer conventions.  It's currently suffering, like all of them since the present Depression hit, from a shrinkage of membership, but still carrying on faithfully.

CopperCon has always been a particularly imaginative and intelligent convention; where else would you find panels on Tax Planning for the Coming Zombie Apocalypse, or the science of sound, or leatherworking shortcuts for costumers (did you know that you can set snaps and grommets with a Phillips screwdriver?), as well as the standard ongoing filking, gaming, video/film rooms, and well-stocked convention-suite?  The dealers' room was small but intense, with plenty of hard-copy books,  magazines, CDs, DVDs, models, jewelry, gorgeous Steampunk and Fantasy weapons for sale.  Definitely, there are things you can find at a SciFi con that you'll find nowhere else on Earth!  And that's not even counting the ongoing autograph sessions and readings.

I confess that I didn't get to many of the panels, but then -- as the Music Guest of Honor -- I spent most of my time singing.  There were open-ended filksings on Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon, along with my hour-long concert on Saturday, right after Mark Horning's concert.  The audiences, as seemed to be the case with all the other events, were small but intense.  We never did manage to sing all night and end with opening the coffee-shop for breakfast, but the filks did last for hours and hours.  So I sang and played, and I sang and played, and wore out my old guitar strings to the point where they absolutely refused to stay tuned, and I'll have to buy new ones.  That'll mean finding a music store somewhere out here in the westernmost outpost of the Phoenix valley, or else ordering via the Internet.  *Sigh*

And of course, as usually happens at conventions, we all swapped viruses and I came home with a brief but annoying cold.  That, my fellow-fen, is why I haven't reported in since before Friday.   Nonetheless, it was a delightful convention, I hope to get there again next year, and I invite everyone in fandom to come as well.  CopperCon is a little gem of a SciFi convention.

--Leslie <;)))><  


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Send in the Drones

The situation is not hopeless;  the US has the means -- right now -- to smash ISIL all the way back to Syria, find and hunt down every last member of Boko Haram, destroy all the drug-gangs in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and go after all the Jihadists in the world, regardless of how well they armor themselves in shields of  civilians or put on disguises of innocent civilians themselves.  All we lack is the will to use it, and that lack is the result of nearly 70 years of elaborate propaganda -- first by the USSR, and later by the better-educated Jihadists.

The means is a technological advance: so-called drones.  What we call drones are simply state-of-the-art, radio-controlled, model planes or model helicopters.  Most of the drones we've seen in the news have been sizable unmanned airplanes, capable of carrying a sizable load of (preferably smart) missiles.  The Jihaidists and their media-flacks have wailed about the "inhumanity" of using drones -- as if guided missiles, common aerial bombs or simple artillery were somehow more merciful -- precisely because drones are so effective, particularly against Jihadists, who have no effective means of counteracting them.

What nobody has mentioned in public -- outside of the Internet, anyway -- is the usefulness of small drones, very small drones.  Go up on the Internet and search the words "miniature aerial vehicles" -- or MAVs -- and you'll see some startling inventions.  The British military admits to having tiny solar-powered helicopters, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, which are quite capable of carrying miniature high-definition video-cameras, high-sensitivity microphones, radios capable of sending the audiovisual information back to one or more computers with audio and video pattern-recognition software, solar-charged batteries, tiny navigation computers with GPS locators, and radio-controlled motors.  There are other videos which show bird-shaped drones that fly exactly like birds, insect-sized drones that fly very much like insects, and even models of tiny drones that also look very much like insects.  Most of these are labeled openly as "spy drones".  I think we can safely claim that the US military already has these tiny robots in production, if not already in the field.

Now think about the applications.  A single small airplane could fly close to the front lines of ISIL, or over the jungles of Nigeria -- or Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador -- and drop a small fleet of MAVs, each one linked to a computer, each computer managed by a US "military adviser" watching the screen from miles away.  There are already super-thin solar-electric "panels" that have a conversion efficiency of 50%;  with the wings and skins of the MAVs clad in these, the tiny drones would have no trouble flitting about the countryside in daylight.  With some of the more efficient batteries available today, the MAVs could still hide, watch and listen and transmit, all through the night.  The tiny spies can watch and listen until the Bad Guys, within the MAVs' sight and hearing, by word or action reveal themselves.  Within a few weeks, or even days, or even hours, the MAVs could dutifully report to their handlers just who, and where, the Bad Guys are -- not to mention what they're planning and where they're going.  With that information safe in the computers, the "advisers" could send in the MAVs' bigger brothers -- armed with smart missiles set for precise targets.  This would make it quite possible to blow the head off, say, a Boko Haram goon without touching the teenaged girl held in front of him.  The advancing lines of ISIL would be even quicker and easier to identify and target.

Up until now, the major sin of war has been the ruining, wounding, and killing of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire -- or placed there deliberately.  Thanks to the drones, it's now possible to target the real enemy precisely, and spare the innocent.  This will make it hard for the Jihadists' apologists to complain effectively to World Opinion.  Spying on one's enemies, by personal means or through implements, is a time-honored and perfectly legitimate tool of war.  Killing one's enemies at a distance, by way of an implement, is as old as the thrown spear. There is no solid moral objection to the use of drones in combat.

The one objection to spy-drones that has any real weight is the possibility of a government tyrannically using them against its own people, probably on the usual excuse of "crime".  In fact, peace-demonstrators in more than one city have complained about the presence of odd insects buzzing over their marches, assuming that the strange bugs were in fact spy-or-worse drones.  Of course, as we've already seen (i.e. Ferguson, Missouri), police given any kind of combat-toys are eager to play Rambo on any civilians who give them an excuse.  How bad would they get given the use of drones?

There are two defenses against this, one political and one technological.  The political defense, which I hope the city governments of more militarized police forces adopt, is simply to cut off the money.  Army surplus machinery requires a lot of maintenance, and that costs money.  Let the city auditors do the calculations, and cut the town's police budget down to only what will cover salaries, fuel and basic maintenance for squad cars, paper and utilities for police stations, union dues, pension and insurance fees, and nothing more.  With no money to fuel and use the combat machinery, the police will be a lot less tempted to use them.  For state and federal police who get too rambunctious, there's the trick California used to rein in the NSA: passed a law requiring the state to cut off all utilities -- including electricity, sewage, garbage, and water -- to any government department caught performing unconstitutional activities.

The technological defense is to stand back and turn the hackers -- and Hams -- loose.  A drone is useless without its radio connection, and there are various ways to discover the frequency of that radio transmission -- and jam it.  Of course this can lead to ongoing duels between the drone designers setting new frequencies and the hackers determining what they are, but the very possibility of having any of their frequencies hacked -- and the hacks no doubt published on the Internet -- will give governments good reason not to use drones on their own annoyed and educated citizens.

Why won't this deter the use of drones on drug lords and Jihadists?  Ah, this is where the factor of cultural psychology comes in.  There's good reason why there are so very few Muslim Nobel prize winners, and that is the general attitude of Arab culture toward science itself.  That culture doesn't really believe that the basic laws of nature are immutable, therefore predictable;  it assumes that the laws of nature are only the will of Allah, and Allah can be bribed -- with enough prayers and human sacrifices -- to change his mind.  This is why Jihadists will often throw themselves into suicidal battles and doomed tactics, truly believing that they can win despite the facts, because Their Strength Is As The Strength Of Ten Because Their Hearts Are Pure.  They don't really understand, or believe in, science;  they're happy to use the toys of technology that others invent, and can learn by rote to operate them, but have no talent for inventing new ones.  The best they can do in that department is, like drug lords, use their money to hire people who do have that ability.  Since history has amply proved that nerds in the employ of drug lords and Jihadists have notoriously shortened lifespans, competent scientists -- including hackers -- rarely care to work for such.  When they do, they tend to spend more of their time and labor creating escape-hatches for themselves than doing very competent work. State-of-the-art drone handlers have the advantage here, and will for the foreseeable future.

--Leslie <;)))><   )O(  

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Wagging the Dog

In my long and checkered career I've had occasion to work as an editor on two newspapers, by which I picked up a passing knowledge of how to recognize a faked news photo or film-clip.  For example, a picture shown on CNN purportedly showing three Palestinian schoolgirls weeping about their neighborhood being bombed by the wicked-wicked Israelis;  it showed all three girls with identically-patterned headcloths, identically draped, and their faces artfully painted with identically airbrushed make-up.  I also noted a Hamas film-clip that claimed to show artillery-fire from an Israeli battleship far out in the sea hitting a playground in Gaza City;  it didn't show any flash or trail of smoke from the ship, but only showed an explosion in the city -- and the smoke-trail pointed in the wrong direction.  I could also point out how you can tell that at least 99% of the famous Abu Ghraib photos are fakes, but that's a subject for a whole 'nother article.  The point is, the media even here in the US have been showing shamelessly faked videos -- not to mention shamelessly tailored facts -- for a very long time.   

It's been especially interesting watching the major news media of the western world, for the last couple weeks, try their best to raise sympathy for the Hamas jihadists in Gaza and do anything to make Israel -- and Jews in general -- look bad.

 This is from

"If you have ever wondered why the New York Times photo coverage from Gaza has almost exclusively consisted of dead and bleeding Palestinian children in Shifa Hospital, with nary a Hamas gunman or missile launch from a school or a mosque to fill out the narrative of events on the ground, the newspaper of record has an astonishing answer: Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Tyler Hicks really sucks at his job.

"For anyone who knows anything about photojournalism, the Times’s answer raises some very serious questions about the sanity of the people who are running the newspaper, as well as the paper’s loyalty to one of the greatest photographers of his era who has put his life at risk for the newspaper time and time again in global hot spots and conflict zones.

"But according to Eileen Murphy, the Times Vice President for Corporate Communications, the paper’s photographers in Gaza, led by Hicks, are the sole reason for the radical imbalance in the Times photo coverage of the war. Or at least that’s what she told Uriel Heilman of JTA, when he asked the Times to explain why, out of the 37 images that made up the paper’s last 3 slideshows from Gaza, there wasn’t a single image of a Hamas fighter or rocket launch or anything else that might signal to readers that Israel hadn’t simply decided to maim and murder Palestinian children in the coastal enclave for sport.

"Incredibly, the first part of Murphy’s answer blamed Times photographers for apparently submitting only a handful of low-quality images:
Our photo editor went through all of our pictures recently and out of many hundreds, she found 2 very distant poor quality images that were captioned Hamas fighters by our photographer on the ground.  It is very difficult to identify Hamas because they don’t have uniforms or any visible insignia; our photographer hasn’t even seen anyone carrying a gun.
"Is this really how a legendary photojournalist like Tyler Hicks operates? Two very distant low-quality images, and nary a sight of a single person carrying a gun in all of Gaza during a three-week long conflict in which over 1500 people have died? If Hicks’ assignment took him anywhere else besides Gaza, one might suspect him of holding up the hotel bar.

"The rest of Murphy’s answer provides only a tiny bit of insight into why Hicks’ performance has been so poor:
I would add that we would not withhold photos of Hamas militants.  We eagerly pursue photographs from both sides of the conflict, but we are limited by what our photographers have access to.
"The key word in the second part of Murphy’s response, of course, is “access.” Tyler Hicks is hardly lying down on the job: He’s doing incredibly hard and dangerous work in a combat zone where photographers are hardly free to take pictures of whatever they want. Which is the key point that Murphy and her bosses are determined to elide.

"What the Times and other mainstream news outlets seem determined to hide from their readers is that their photographers and reporters are hardly allowed to roam freely. In fact, they are working under terribly difficult conditions under the effective control of a terrorist organization which–as the war itself indicates–doesn’t hesitate to maim, kidnap, and kill people that it doesn’t like.

"How does being dependent on Hamas for your daily access–not to mention your life–potentially impact coverage? Well, the fact that the Times has only two distant, grainy, unusable images of Hamas gunmen from Tyler Hicks tells you all you need to know, doesn’t it.

"If your imagination needs more help, here’s Liel Liebovitz’s column in Tablet:
In recent days alone, we’ve heard the account of Gabriele Barbati, an Italian journalist who, once leaving Gaza, tweeted: “Out of #Gaza far from #Hamas retaliation: misfired rocket killed children yday in Shati. Witness: militants rushed and cleared debris.” We’ve also heard from Radjaa Abou Dagga, a former correspondent for France’s Liberation whose attempts at practicing honest journalism got him summoned by Hamas thugs, accused of collaborating with Israel, and told to stop working as a reporter and leave the strip at once.
"By playing coy with readers about the reasons why coverage is so imbalanced, the Times may think that it’s defending the work of its reporters and photographers. In fact, it’s making them and the paper look foolish–while serving as the propaganda arm of a terrorist organization. Someone at the paper needs to devote some serious attention to the reasoning that has transformed difficult working conditions on the ground into a glaring editorial failure."

And obviously it isn't just the New York Times playing this game.

 Even when the TV news channels are handed clear videos showing Hamas jihadists launching rockets at Israel from the roofs of private houses, hospitals, schools, and even UN shelter buildings, they show as little of the footage (maybe 5 seconds) as possible -- and then it's back to long minutes of pix of wounded Palestinian children.  You have to go search on the Internet to find actual photos of those tunnels that the Hamas jihadists dug into Israel, and videos that identify the buildings from which Hamas keeps firing rockets.

As to why Hamas would draw fire onto UN shelters, why, it's a win-win situation for them.  Those UN missions included schools that dared to teach women and female children heresies like reading, writing, mathematics, science, real history, and critical thinking. Getting the Israelis to bomb those buildings -- by the usual tactic of climbing up on the roof and firing a few rockets toward Israel -- would get rid of that problem while making the wicked-wicked Jews look bad.

I leave to the readers' imaginations just why the western news media have tried so hard to spread anti-Israel pro-jihadist propaganda, but be it noted that this attempt is failing -- largely thanks to the Internet. When it's possible to see (and analyze) pictures, videos and witnesses' reports from humble on-the-spot citizens with no more than cell-phones and Internet accounts, it gets really hard to limit viewers' news to only what the government and its tame media-flaks want them to think  Thus it's growing harder for Hamas to convincingly howl "Foul!" when everyone with uncensored Internet access can see its sins: shelling its own people, preventing its own people from getting out of the danger zones, using women and children for human shields, breaking every cease-fire that Israel has agreed to, constantly firing rockets at Israel and then wailing when Israel hits back -- with pinpoint precision.  The evidence relentlessly exonerates Israel, and the best propaganda artists in the business can't hide it all.  

And the media flacks themselves have begun to see the tide of public opinion turning.  Note how TV news in the last few days has begun showing a bit more balanced coverage, as if worried about complaints from the audience.  The audience can no longer be lied to as completely as in Nazi Germany, or the old USSR, or even the US in the heyday of William Randolph Hearst.

This is why the Internet must remain free and uncensored.  We have to combat every attempt by every government we can reach to pass censorship laws.  We must also support the efforts of every hacker who can break any technology that threatens such censorship -- not just the Electronic Freedom Foundation and Anonymous.

And, of course, it helps to learn how to identify a media fake when you see it.     

--Leslie <;)))><