I, Clone

Monday, March 31st, 2003

In I, Clone, Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, presents his Three Laws of Cloning (in the style of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics) and argues against cloning restrictions:

If cloning produces genetic monstrosities that render it impractical as another form of fertility enhancement, then it will not be necessary to ban it, because no one will use it. If cloning does work, however, there is no reason to forbid it, because the three common reasons given for implementing restrictions are myths. I call them the Identical Personhood Myth, the Playing God Myth, and the Human Rights and Dignity Myth.

Al Qaeda Training Manual

Friday, March 28th, 2003

Sometimes I wonder how fascinating information sneaks past me (and the public at large). The US Department of Justice has published excerpts from an Al Qaeda Training Manual on the net:

The attached manual was located by the Manchester (England) Metropolitan Police during a search of an Al Qaeda member’s home. The manual was found in a computer file described as “the military series” related to the “Declaration of Jihad.” The manual was translated into English and was introduced earlier this year at the embassy bombing trial in New York. The Department is only providing the following selected text from the manual because it does not want to aid in educating terrorists or encourage further acts of terrorism.

It’s an eerie mix of Islamist rhetoric, fascinating espionage anecdotes from throughout history, and no-nonsense rules of thumb for waging Jihad.

Victory Misunderstood: What the Gulf War Tells Us About the Future of Conflict

Friday, March 28th, 2003

In Victory Misunderstood: What the Gulf War Tells Us About the Future of Conflict, Stephen Biddle (writing in 1996) explains that no one factor (e.g. superior Coalition technology or inferior Iraqi morale) clearly explains the amazing outcome of the (first) Gulf War:

In less than six weeks, 795,000 Coalition troops destroyed a defending Iraqi army of hundreds of thousands, losing only 240 attackers. This loss rate of fewer than one fatality per 3,000 soldiers was less than one tenth of the Israelis’ loss rate in either the 1967 Six-Day War or the Bekaa Valley campaign in 1982, less than one twentieth of the Germans’ in their blitzkriegs against Poland or France in 1939-40, and about one one-thousandth of the U.S. Marines’ in the invasion of Tarawa in 1943.

Some of Iraq’s tactical shortcomings:

First, Iraqi defensive positions were very poorly prepared. The “Saddam line” at the Saudi border was haphazard at best (although given the poor quality of its conscript garrison, it is unclear how significant this was). More important for the outcome, the Republican Guard blocking positions were no better Western armies dig their fighting positions into the earth below grade, and hide the soil removed in excavation. The Guard, on the other hand, simply piled sand into loose berms, or mounds, on the surface of the ground around combat vehicles and infantry positions. This gave away the defenders’ locations from literally thousands of meters away, as the berms were the only distinctive feature of an otherwise flat landscape, without providing any real protection against the fire this inevitably drew. Loose piles of sand cannot stop modern high-velocity tank rounds. In fact, they barely slow them down. U.S. crews in 73 Pasting reported seeing 120 mm tank rounds pass through Iraqi berms, through the Iraqi armored vehicle behind the berm, and off into the distance. No U.S. tank crew would leave itself so exposed.


Second, the Republican Guard failed to coordinate the efforts of the different arms at its disposal. In particular, artillery support was almost wholly absent, both in defense against American assaults and in support of the Guard’s own counterattacks. The Iraqis made some attempt to direct artillery against the advancing Americans, but proved unable either to adjust fire against moving targets (a difficult task) or even to deliver fire in mass against fixed points as Americans moved past them (an easier job).


Third, Iraqi covering forces systematically failed to alert their main defenses of the U.S. approach, allowing even Republican Guard units to be taken completely by surprise. Going back at least as far as World War I, all Western armies have used covering forces — whether observation posts, forward reconnaissance screens, or delaying positions — to provide warning to the main defenses that they are about to be attacked. Ideally, these covering forces serve other functions as well (such as stripping away the opponent’s recon elements, slowing the attacker’s movement, or channeling the assault), but the minimum function they must perform is to notify the main defense of an attacker’s approach. This is not difficult. A one-word radio message is enough to sound the alarm. Even less can work if commanders agree in advance that failure to check in at specified times will be taken as warning of attack. The brevity of the message makes it virtually impossible to jam; the procedural backup of interpreting silence as warning means that even a dead observer can provide an alert.

Biddle’s analyis — including computer simulations — shows that avoiding those blunders could have neutralized many of the Coalition’s otherwise overwhelming advantages.

Arab Gateway: Romanization of Arabic

Friday, March 28th, 2003

If you’ve been reading about Osama bin Laden and Usama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and Al Quaida, you may be wondering why no one can agree on how to spell Arabic words in our Roman alphabet. I found an article, Arab Gateway: Romanization of Arabic, discussing this topic. It starts with a brief discussion of Lawrence’s random spelling — which, by coincidence, I had just read about last night, in the preface to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

In 1926, when T E Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) sent his 130,000-word manuscript of Revolt in the Desert to be typeset, a sharp-eyed proof-reader spotted that it was “full of inconsistencies in the spelling of proper names”.

Among other things, the proof-reader noted that “Jeddah” alternated with “Jidda” throughout the book, while a man whose name began as Sherif Abd el Mayin later became el Main, el Mayein, el Muein, el Mayin and le Muyein.

Lawrence refused to change the spellings.

“Arabic names,” he replied, “won’t go into English, exactly, for their consonants are not the same as ours, and their vowels, like ours, vary from district to district.”

Frankly, I can’t imagine spelling the same word differently within my own manuscript.

The first problem in transcribing from the Arabic alphabet to the Roman alphabet is a problem for transcribing any language into the Roman alphabet: multiple European languages use the Roman alphabet, all differently. Thus, “Shaheen” and “Chahine” can both represent the same Arabic name as written by an English speaker and a French speaker.

The second problem is that not all Arabic speakers pronounce Arabic words the same. Pronunciations differ from region to region. Which pronunciation to you choose as the basis for your phonetic spelling?

The transcription can also go letter by letter (in what linguists call “transliteration”):

A different approach is to start with Arabic words in their written form and transcribe (or “Romanise”) them by replacing individual Arabic letters with corresponding letters from the Roman alphabet. This sounds simple but is actually very difficult. For example:
  • Only eight Arabic letters have a clear equivalent in the Roman alphabet: B, F, K, L, M, N, R, and Z.
  • Arabic has two distinct consonants that approximate to the sound of S. The same applies to D, H and T.
  • There are two glottal sounds that do not obviously correspond to any Roman letter.

All this makes it very hard to know whether two names are, in fact, the same name — and it makes it very hard to look anything up in an electronic archive!

The Cosmopolitan Illusion

Friday, March 28th, 2003

In The Cosmopolitan Illusion, Lee Harris weighs patriotism against cosmopolitanism. In the process, he describes how the Roman system transcended family or clan:

Families and kin can clearly work well together, but the source of their cohesion is simultaneously the source of their weakness: Either one is a member of the family or the tribe or else one is not. If not, you never will be, and you know it. But this law does not apply to societies in which the primary unit is a group able to work together — a team, and not the family. This, according to Livy’s account, is how we are to understand the secret of Rome’s initial rise to greatness: It was made up of people who could work together precisely because family could not and did not matter to them. This meant that they were free to organize and cooperate without the structural tensions that arise when there are a number of different families, each vying for positions of prestige, prominence, and power, and leading in their contentious train all sorts of juvenile rabble-rousers.

Comparing America to Rome and Iraq to Scythia is left as an exercise for the reader.

The New Missionaries

Friday, March 28th, 2003

In The New Missionaries, Adam Garfinkle compares modern democratizers to 19th-century missionaries and explains the hurdles to democratizing Arab nations:

In different degrees, Arab societies lack three prerequisites for democracy: the belief that the source of political authority is intrinsic to society; a concept of majority rule; and the acceptance of all citizens’ equality before the law. Without the first, the idea of pluralism — and the legitimacy of a “loyal opposition” — cannot exist. Without the second, the idea of elections as a means to form a government is incomprehensible. Without the third, a polity can be neither free nor liberal as those terms are understood in the west.

Before Launch, Global Network Collects Data for Missile’s Path

Thursday, March 27th, 2003

Shades of Ender’s Game? From Before Launch, Global Network Collects Data for Missile’s Path:

More than 300 missiles were fired in a huge barrage last Friday. An officer who was in the Strike Center then described a tense but businesslike atmosphere, with planners staring at screens, outwardly oblivious to the havoc they were wreaking far away. “It was surreal, because it was no different than exercises that we’ve practiced again and again,” he said. “Hours later, you take a step back and see the video and see the hits coming in Baghdad and you realize it was real.”

A Growing Threat to Troops In Iraq: Sleep Deprivation

Thursday, March 27th, 2003

For a “macho” organization of gung-ho soldiers, our military can be surprisingly scientific about something like sleep deprivation. “Powering through it” has consequences. From A Growing Threat to Troops In Iraq: Sleep Deprivation:

For warriors operating in highly charged situations with weapons, trouble in processing cognitive information can lead to deadly miscalculations. Research shows that for every 24 hours that a person goes without sleep, about 25% of that person’s ability to effectively process such data is lost. This becomes especially critical for troop commanders or fighter pilots who must rapidly size up a situation and craft a response.
For now, military researchers say the best way to combat fatigue on the battlefield is the power nap. Two hours is optimal, but even 45 minutes has proven beneficial. This tends to work better for ground troops, who can operate in shifts and crash out on a mat. Caffeinated drinks also help improve alertness.

Sounds like college.

Pilots operating in cramped cockpits don’t have as much latitude. “There’s no coffeepot in there or place to stow stuff” like power bars or energy drinks, says Dr. Caldwell. “We tend to stay away from the herbal sort of products.”

Instead, prior to each mission they fly, pilots see a service physician who can dispense dextroamphetamines, a form of “speed.” Studies have shown that such drugs enable a sleep-deprived pilot to fly as well as a well-rested one, while those without a pharmacological boost often fell asleep at the controls. So far, Dr. Caldwell says, there is no clinical evidence that pilots taking speed are more prone to error, as was suggested after two American pilots who had used the drugs killed four Canadian soldiers accidentally in Afghanistan last year.

Again, sounds like college. OK, OK, not like my college experience — I stuck to soft drinks — but certainly nothing unusual for students in the 1960′s, when “pep pills” were considered fairly benign.

Early in this war, nonpilots made a push to get some of the “go pills” for themselves. “Everybody thought they were the magic answer to making guys work around the clock,” said a doctor at a Marine air base near the Iraqi border that is home to helicopter pilots. Ultimately, they were turned down.

I can see plenty of potential for use and abuse amongst ground troops. In many cases, I’m sure, both caffeine and amphetamines make you feel better now by putting you deeper and deeper into sleep debt — debt that you have to pay off sooner or later.

Initiation Ceremonies

Thursday, March 27th, 2003

In Initiation Ceremonies, Den Beste draws an analogy between hazing and protesting a popular war though unpopular means:

It’s been noted that there is a rising tide of antiwar protests in the US and in Europe, and it’s also been noted by many that some of the signs and slogans they’re using vary from brainless to idiotic to outright vile. In some cases the demonstrators are doing things which are virtually guaranteed to cause nearly everyone outside the movement to have negative reactions. (For example, the recent protests in San Francisco which involved deliberately interrupting traffic, or ejecting various unpleasant bodily fluids in public places.)

The most obvious theory is that by doing this these people hope to influence the more general public to their point of view politically, but given that it’s equally obvious that it’s been a notable failure, and indeed in many cases has been causing general animosity, there’s also been much speculation that those responsible for these demonstrations are unwise, or stupid, or deluded.

But even if these demonstrations have had little political effect at all, or outright negative effect, on the public as a whole, it also has the effect of making those in the movement itself particularly dedicated to the cause. There’s little practical difference between wearing weird robes and dancing and chanting on a street corner, and having a vomit-in at City Hall.

America: an Empire in Denial

Thursday, March 27th, 2003

America: an Empire in Denial examines the good and bad elements of the British Empire:

When the British governed a country — even when they only influenced its government by flexing their military and financial muscles — there were certain distinctive features of their own society that they tended to disseminate. A list of the more important of these would run as follows:

1. The English language
2. English forms of land tenure
3. Scottish and English banking
4. The Common Law
5. Protestantism
6. Team sports
7. The limited or “night watchman” state
8. Representative assemblies
9. The idea of liberty

The last of these is perhaps the most important because it remains the most distinctive feature of the empire — the thing that sets it apart from its continental European rivals.

Al-Qaida message aids Iraq

Thursday, March 27th, 2003

From Al-Qaida message aids Iraq:

NBC News has obtained a copy of a message from the al-Qaida terrorist network to Muslims in Iraq, a message that is, in effect, a military playbook on how to defeat Americans.
In what amounts to a military playbook, Al-Adel lays out lessons learned fighting Americans in Afghanistan, and claims “victory over the U.S. [in Iraq] is very possible … easy beyond the imagination” and depends on “depleting, exhausting and terrorizing the enemy.”

I have to ask, exactly what lessons did Al Qaeda learn in Afghanistan?

He advises Iraqi Muslims to fight in small groups trained in “reconnaissance, traps and raiding operations,” and to mount rocket launchers on pickup trucks.

But he reveals that in Afghanistan, al-Qaida’s secret weapon was not the ever present pickup truck, but a Toyota Corolla — a passenger car — filled with bombs and shoulder-fired missiles.

“The enemy did not notice we were using them, and most were not directly targeted,” Al-Adel claims.

US Navy Marine Mammal History Page

Thursday, March 27th, 2003

The US Navy Marine Mammal History Page refers to its trained dolphins and sea lions as “systems”:

Mk 4 is a dolphin mine searching system that detects and marks locations of mines moored off the ocean bottom. It is capable of shipboard forward deployment to support post-amphibious operations.

Mk 5 is a sea lion exercise mine recovery system that locates pingered training mines. The sea lions can locate these mines to depths of 1000 feet and attach a grabber device for recovery.

Mk 6 is a dolphin swimmer and diver detection system that can detect and mark the location of an intruder. This system was used in Vietnam in 1970-71 and the Persian Gulf in 1987-88.

Mk 7 is a dolphin mine searching system that detects and marks the location of mines on the ocean bottom. This system is also capable of shipboard forward deployment to support post-amphibious assaults.

The Middle Seat

Wednesday, March 26th, 2003

The Middle Seat regularly covers the airline industry. This installment tackles taxes and air travel:

The federal tax on cigarettes is 9%, yet the federal government taxes an airline ticket at 7.5%, plus a $3 federal tax on each flight segment, plus a $2.50 per segment security charge. Then there are international arrival and departure taxes of $13.20 each way, a $6 immigration fee, and that’s before local airports get to add passenger facility charges of up to $4.50 per boarding.

To be sure, airlines and airline passengers need to pay for many of the services they use. But much of what they are paying for now goes beyond air service. Airport security now is a national security issue — we don’t want airplanes used as weapons of mass destruction.

Power tool

Wednesday, March 26th, 2003

Power tool describes the Tomahawk cruise missile and how it has changed warfare:

The idea that going to war carries a near-certain risk that thousands of your own soldiers will die; the idea that mass civilian casualties on the enemy’s side are inevitable, or that whole societies must inevitably be obliterated in targeting their leaderships; the idea that wars are massive, all-or-nothing undertakings between entire peoples that cannot be entered into lightly or with limited commitment: all would tumble — in the strategic thinking of America’s military planners, if not always in reality — in the era that began with the San Clemente test. It reached its fullest expression on Wednesday night in Baghdad, when around 40 Tomahawks, fired from battleships in the Persian Gulf, rained down on “leadership targets”.
The new symbol [of the American military] is 21in in diameter, 18ft long, weighs 2,650lbs, has a range of 690 miles, costs $600,00 and is packed with circuit boards manufactured at a secret facility run by Raytheon, the defence contractor, outside Phoenix, Arizona. Since its debut, claims of its accuracy – it is now capable, the air force says, of guiding itself past obstacles and around corners to within 7m of a pre-programmed target – have prompted breathlessness among the media. It can hit “a target the size of a mailbox with almost as much accuracy as the postal service,” Fortune magazine declared, as early as 1990.
“During the second world war, an average B-17 bomb during a bombing run missed its target by some 2,300ft,” Warden told General Norman Schwarzkopf and the then defence secretary Dick Cheney, according to David Halberstam’s book War in a Time of Peace. “Therefore, if you wanted a 90% probability of hitting a particular target, you had to drop some 9,000 bombs. That required a bombing run of 1,000 bombers and placed 1,000 men at risk. By contrast, with the new weaponry, one plane flown by one man with one bomb could have the same probability.” And Tomahawks, it seemed, could do similarly well without even that risk.

Mary Beard on Cleopatra

Wednesday, March 26th, 2003

Mary Beard tries to uncover the truth about Cleopatra, starting from the end:

Cleopatra’s last public appearance in the city of Rome was in the form of a wax model, complete with model asp, carried in the victory parade of Octavian in 29BC. Octavian — a bloodthirsty ideologue in the civil wars — was by then well on his way to reinventing himself as Rome’s benevolent autocrat, its first (and almost only) ‘good’ Emperor, Augustus. Three days of triumphal procession through the streets of the capital — to mark his victories over an assortment of Northern barbarians, over Mark Antony’s forces at the battle of Actium and finally over Egypt itself — were to draw a line under civil war and inaugurate the new regime. Along with the wagonloads of booty, the placards blazoning the names of massacred tribes and annihilated cities, the hordes of bedraggled, defeated troops, the prize exhibit in the procession — walking in chains just in front of the triumphant general’s chariot — was to have been Queen Cleopatra herself.

Cleopatra had other ideas, however. She had presumably witnessed Roman triumphs during her stay in Rome as Julius Caesar’s amant en titre and well understood their techniques of humiliation. She would also have known that the most dangerous and distinguished of Rome’s victims never reached the end of the procession: they were put to death in the Forum, just as the general began his ascent of the Capitoline Hill to offer sacrifice at the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. She pre-empted the humiliation by suicide — either by means of her trademark asp (which, as the symbol of Egyptian monarchy, turned her death into a defiant assertion of her royal power) or, as some ancient writers thought, thanks to some more mundane poison. “I will not be triumphed over,” Livy has her declare.