Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fluff For the Holidays Pt. 2

Merry Christmas, happy holidays.

Monday, December 21, 2009

2009 Misinformer of the Year

Media Matters names their Misinformer of the Year.

"No one in 2009 peddled more hate, stirred more groundless fears, or spread more lies".

Some fluff for the holidays

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Keith Olbermann vs Conservative Media

Olbermann single handedly takes on pretty much every conservative pundit.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Kill the bill?

The fight for health care has erupted in to total chaos. No one even seems to know what side they are on or what they are fighting for anymore. A growing force on the left is saying the bill has been hijacked by insurance companies and unfairly held hostage by Joe Lieberman, and argues that without the public option or medicare buy-in, the bill doesn't work the same and isn't worth passing.

Keith Olbermann fuming over the current state of health reform. Pleads with Obama to take action:

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Howard Dean opposes the current health care bill-

"If I were a senator, I would not vote for the current health-care bill. Any measure that expands private insurers' monopoly over health care and transfers millions of taxpayer dollars to private corporations is not real health-care reform. Real reform would insert competition into insurance markets, force insurers to cut unnecessary administrative expenses and spend health-care dollars caring for people. Real reform would significantly lower costs, improve the delivery of health care and give all Americans a meaningful choice of coverage. The current Senate bill accomplishes none of these."

Read his full argument-

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs hit back on Howard Dean's assessment-

(From the Huffington Post)

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs strongly hit back at former DNC Chairman Howard Dean for criticizing the Senate health care bill, suggesting, at one point, that Dean was being irrational and didn't understand the contents of the legislation.

"I don't know what piece of legislation he is reading," said Gibbs.

"I would ask Dr. Dean, how better do you address those who don't have insurance: passing a bill that will cover 30 million who don't currently have it or killing the bill?" he added. "I don't think any rational person would say killing the bill makes a whole lot of sense at this point."

Asked if Dean was acting irrationally, Gibbs replied: "I can't tell what his motives are, to be honest with you."

(Read more)-

Nate Silver's analysis of the current Senate health care proposal. He welcomes criticism of the numbers.

Read how he came up with the numbers here-

As if health care reform wasn't enough of a war zone already.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Terminator Now (Pt. 2)

The breakthroughs in robotics are not limited to ground warfare. While the Navy has invested in to the technology, mainly in the realm of artificial intelligence for defense systems, it is the air force that has perhaps vested the most interest in to the field. The Predator, a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) or drone plane, has been in operational use since the late 1990s.

As the technology has advanced, so has the military’s dependence on it. As of March 2009 there were a reported 195 Predators in the Air Force’s arsenal. Another report shows Predators firing missiles 244 times in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2007 and 2008. (Wikipedia) In 2009, President Obama cancelled funding for the overpriced and impractical F-22 fighter jet, and approved the Unmanned Aerial System Flight Plan, which places a heavier focus on the development of unmanned aircrafts. At $4.5 million, one could buy eighty-five Predators for the cost of one of the F-22 jets. (Singer, Wired for War)

A lot of people are at least aware of the existence of the Predator drone planes. These twenty-seven feet long, 1,130 pound planes are known as UAVs. (Singer, Wired for War) This means that the plane is pilot less and is flown by a “pilot”, usually on the other side of the ocean, via satellite communication. In his book, Wired for War, P.W. Singer likens the control panels for the drone planes to an arcade video game. After a day in one of these consoles, flying a satellite controlled robotic plane over the mountains of Afghanistan and attacking enemy targets, the “pilot” gets to go home and have dinner with his family around the kitchen table.

There are other advantages to having a plane without a pilot. The Predator can spend twenty-four hours in the air, at heights of twenty-six thousand feet, before it needs to refuel. (Singer, Wired for War) It goes without saying that would be impossible with a human pilot, who needs to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. Also, the controller receives satellite imagery from cameras attached to the plane that can see through clouds, smoke, and dust, something a human pilot would not be able to do. Since the Predator was originally created for surveillance, the cameras can also reportedly identify something as small as a license plate from two miles up.

The Predator is now one of the most lethal tools in the militaries arsenal. Although designed as a surveillance plane, Predators are now armed with laser-guided Hellfire missiles. The general populace started becoming familiar with Predators after some high profile attacks on the Pakistan border in 2008, but the truth is that as far back as between June 2005 and June 2006 Predators carried out a reported 2,073 missions, flew 33,833 hours, and surveyed 18,490 targets. (Singer, Wired for War) As noted before, the Air Force has been drifting towards the unmanned approach for some time.

The Predator has received some press and is more widely known than anything else in its robotics family currently on the battlefield. The Global Hawk, affectionately referred to as the Predator’s big brother, has stayed surprisingly in the shadows for something so big. The Hawk is forty feet long and is used to patrol entire regions of land, not just particular targets like the Predator. The Hawk flies autonomously after being put on a set course, which basically means it flies itself and doesn’t even have a pilot in an arcade console controlling it. It can stay in the air for up to thirty-five hours at altitudes of sixty-five thousand feet so the Global Hawk primarily serves the purpose of surveillance. (Singer, Wired for War) Think of it as the equivalent of the Star Destroyers in the Star Wars films, with the Predators being the smaller and more numerous TIE Fighters.

The Predators are not the smallest drone in the robotics chain though. There are UAVs even smaller that are launched and controlled by soldiers on the ground. One of these is the Shadow, which is about the size of a model airplane. The Shadow is used almost exclusively to patrol neighborhood sized areas. Its noisy nature, due to its propeller flying system, makes it incapable of being used for stealth surveillance missions.

For those missions that the Shadow cannot do, there is the Raven. The Raven is thirty-eight inches long, weighs four pounds and can fly for ninety minutes at up to four hundred feet. (Singer, Wired for War) In addition to being used for stealth surveillance on the ground, the Raven is also ideal for ground soldiers because it can be used to see over hills, walls, or buildings that may be obstructing their view. In effect, the ground military now has its own air support.

This is the present state of the robotic revolution. These wonders of technology that were once confined to the pages of science fiction are now being used daily on the battlefield and in civilian homes. Whether they are fighting our wars or cleaning our pools, the age of robots has arrived. But this is all just the beginning.

The peak, the ultimate goal, of robotic research is the sentient humanoid robot. These robots will be much like the ones in movies like Terminator, capable of independent thought and decision making, and humanoid in form and action. Steps towards this evolution have already been made. For years, iRobot has been researching animatronic facial expressions and responsive and expressive robotic software. (Wikipedia) In addition, scientists have been working on complicated networks of software with intricate ethic and judgment systems. The age of Terminators may be a lot closer than anyone realizes.

Another much talked about robot of the future is the Wasp. The Wasp, sometimes described to be a mini metallic robot beetle and other times a robotic moth, is the pinnacle of stealth surveillance technology. These tiny bug sized robots carry microscopic cameras and would (ideally) be completely silent; the literal fly on the wall.

All of this, these limitless possibilities of robotic technology, is where the questions of ethics begin to arise. Should robots be able to make decisions on their own? Should we license them to be able to make life or death decisions? Is the microscopic camera robot too much? In 2008, there were reports of several sightings of these “Wasp” spy robots at political events; claims that are widely regarded to be paranoid conspiracy babble, but it does put in to perspective the terrifying prospect of the power of such tools.

Ultimately, humans have nothing to fear from the robot revolution, except for maybe the prospect of the complete deficit of self sufficiency. All technological revolutions bring about their own problems, questions, and obstacles. Inevitably, they are always exaggerated and inflated by the human race’s crippling fear of change. The technology and lack of responsibility already exist in the world’s atomic bomb supplies to destroy this planet ten times over. Comparatively, what threats do robots pose?

For even though there are legitimate and sizable complications in the transition to a robotic age, it will always be us humans in control of the direction of progress. The biggest fear in some circles is that al-Qaeda, or any enemy organization, could disable and capture a robot and then reprogram it to work under their orders. Already, the human race is its own biggest obstacle and enemy in this new field of development. When the Terminator arrives, it may just be that it has more to fear from us than we ever could from it.

Antal, J. (2009, July). I Fight the Body Electric! . Military Technology
Engdahl, S. (2008). Artificial Intelligence. Contemporary Issues Companion
Knight, G. (2009, March). March of the Terminators. Daily Mail (London)
Singer, P. (2009). Wired for War. Penguin Pr.

iRobot. Wikipedia. Retrieved (2009, December ) from

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Terminator Now (Pt. 1 of 2)


I decided to write “Terminator Now” because I feel that the advancement of robotic technology has been neglected by the mainstream media, and as a consequence there are many who are totally oblivious to what is happening in the field. Robots and autonomous technology are the future of military conflict. We are right now only in the beginning stages of this transition, and it is important these breakthroughs don’t sneak up on us. I have tried to concentrate primarily on technology already in use or in development. The rise of the robots is inevitable, so what actions we as humans take is really inconsequential. My purpose in this writing has simply been to inform on the subject so that the reader can begin to anticipate and better prepare for this new age.

Terminator Now

To the general populace, the current wave of military technology developing in all three branches of the United States military is the stuff only possible in science fiction. Most of the million dollar contracts currently funded by the Pentagon are invested in technologies straight out of the Terminator movie series or a H.G. Wells novel. It has been dubbed the era of “robots at war”. The future is here.

When the tank and the bomber plane made their debut they seemed like works of fantasy; strange, alien inventions of a new age. Today too the breakthroughs occurring in military test fields and scientific labs seem to be the work of fiction. Artificial intelligence programs capable of making decisions through complex software judgment systems; Robotic planes equipped with missiles and state of the art surveillance technology that are controlled by pilots on the other side of the world via satellite controls; Soldier droids that can be equipped with machine guns and grenade launchers. The age of robots arrived without anyone even realizing it.

The Prometheus of robotic technology is a company by the name of iRobot. (The company was named after the book “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov, which was recently adapted in to a Will Smith movie). iRobot was founded in 1990 by Rodney Brooks, Colin Angle and Helen Greiner who were all students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. iRobot originated with several small government contracts and to make service robots for individual sale on the public market. The Roomba, an autonomous vacuum cleaner robot was their most successful model. A range of robots for other home chores such as the Looj, a gutter cleaning robot, and the Verro, a swimming pool cleaning robot, soon followed.

It didn’t take long for the military to begin aggressively funding research at iRobot. In 1998 iRobot formed a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Soon after, what is perhaps at this time the world’s most famous robot, the PackBot, would appear.

The PackBot weighs forty-two pounds and, in the words of P.W. Singer, is about the size of a lawnmower. It is controlled via remote control, and in some instances have even been controlled using rigged Playstation and Xbox video game controllers. The PackBot essentially looks like a small metal box with tank treads on either side, and with two large metal poles on top, one with a camera attached, and another with a “gripper” hand. The tank treads are made of a special polymer patented by iRobot that allow it to travel over rocks, snow, mud, and even under water while moving at speeds of up to five miles per hour.

Most critically, the PackBot has eight payload bays and hookups that allow for interchangeable tools such as a mine detector or chemical weapon sensor. (Singer, Wired for War) The PackBot has been serving the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002, primarily by disarming IEDs (improvised explosive device) in the war on terror. However, there are already reports of the robots being field rigged, with everything from claymore mines to a shotgun, to be the first combat robot model.

One PackBot costs about $150,000, which may sound like a lot, but is significantly cheaper than the costs that go in to training and then caring for a human soldier to do some of the same jobs. (Singer, Wired for War) Of course, there is also the obvious benefit of being able to send a robot in to a possible danger area to disarm an explosive than a human soldier. The military also obviously realizes these benefits as evidenced in the $286 million dollar contract awarded to iRobot in 2008.

iRobot is not the only company making history through robotic invention. Foster-Miller, a perhaps better known name due to the diversity in their products, has been providing for the military for almost as long. The company has essentially its own version of the PackBot, called the Talon, but its true gem is the SWORDS (for Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System), the robot that could be called the first Terminator.

The SWORDS is not a humanoid android robot, it essentially looks like a little tank. It is, however, the first robot created specifically for combat. In place of a gripper like on the PackBot, the SWORDS has a gun mount. Everything from a M-16 to an antitank rocket launcher can be equipped to the mount in less than a minute.

Unlike the PackBot, which has a small amount of artificial intelligence, the SWORDS can only be operated through manual control via remote. Still, the robot interface has its advantages. In addition to not endangering the troops operating it, the SWORDS is a lethal sucker. In military tests, the SWORDS hit the bull’s-eye seventy out of seventy times. For everything it can do, at $230,000 per unit, the SWORDS seem like a bargain. (Singer, Wired for War)

To be continued...

(Not much of a cliffhanger, I know, but I wrote this as a paper for school, not a blog)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Religious Leaders Protest Beck

Church groups were upset at Beck's use of Christian imagery and
Christmas as a way to disseminate what they call his largely hateful
message. They believe the way Beck addresses women, people of color and
immigrants is incompatible with the Christian ethic.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Way Forward in Afghanistan

Sorry, my (most) liberal friends: I support the President's decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Yes, I am aware that we have been there for over eight years. Yes, it is true that al-Qaeda is mainly based in Pakistan. Yes, it is also true that Afghanistan has never been (and can never be) a fully functioning democratic nation state. And yes, our "partners", the Afghanistan government run by Karzai, could not possibly be any more corrupt or worthless.

But no, none of that is reason enough to risk a premature withdraw from the region, if for nothing else but for security's sake. I don't care what Michael Moore says. Afghanistan started as a war of necessity, after the attacks on 9/11 by al-Qadea who were based in Afghanistan at the time. It is true that they might be primarily based in Pakistan now, but they continue to launch attacks and have influence in Afghanistan. If we left now, you can bet they would regain control of the already destabilized region before anybody even knew better.

What I think is interesting is the political fall out of the President's approach. For once, in the first time since the Inauguration, the Republicans are actually vocally standing behind the President and supporting him. (Except for the vampire Dick Cheney who apparently operates on an island of his own).

In contrast, it is now the Democrats losing their heads and grumbling about the next election cycle. That is even after Obama threw the left a bone by announcing a withdraw plan for Afghanistan beginning in 2011 (so for accuracy sake, the plan is a temporary surge followed by a timed withdraw). All I have to say to these Dems, is if the President has a plan to start getting us out of the region in 2011 (which will be about the 10 year mark in the war), why not just let him and the generals have the troops they think they need to do it? Honestly, don't pretend like you know more about strategic military decisions than the people at the top of the chain of command. Remember when Cheney accused Obama of "dithering?" The President spent weeks, almost months, on this decision. It was not made lightly. There were debates and deliberations between some of the sharpest minds of these subjects the entire time. There is something in this plan for both sides. A troop increase for Republicans and a timed withdraw for Democrats. So far there has been a lot bigger of a fuss on the left.

It just goes back to the saying that in politics, when you drive down the middle of the road you get hit by traffic on both sides.

In short, I support the troop increase because I think our attention and focus has been negligent in Afghanistan since pretty much the start of the Iraq war and needs to be made up for. I support the timed withdraw, because we should not be occupying Afghanistan, or trying to turn it in to something it can never be (a fully functioning democratic nation state). And hopefully, as the idea goes, the time line will make not only our only military actions more efficient, but make our partners in the Afghanistan government wake up and actually do something.

So for this blogger, another home run for President Obama.

*EDIT* Next day update: Republicans are suddenly turning against the President's plan in waves. Big surprise.

The American Conundrum

Bob Englehart. more here :