Tuesday, April 29, 2008

In the year 2108

The recent flap over the DNC's new ad which quotes John McCain talking about the length of the American commitment in Iraq, revolves around this exchange:

TIFFANY (questioner): President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for fifty years.

MCCAIN: Maybe a hundred. ... That'd be fine with me

If this were the whole of his comments, it would be tantamount to saying we will never leave Iraq in my lifetime or my son's lifetime. Or anyone else's son's lifetime.

Certain people have been saying that this rips the quote out of context. And it's true that the paragraph is a bit different than the ad makes it seem:

Maybe a hundred. How long—We’ve been in Japan for 60 years, we've been in South Korea for fifty years or so. That’d be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. That’s fine with me.

More moderate, right? Here, McCain seems to hedge a bit and say that if the violence doesn't end (perhaps, return to prewar levels; if you believe the epidemiologists, it seems like we're still way above the prewar level. Here's the article about those studies) then he would support getting out. Here, one might wonder how much American and Iraqi death is too much. A cynic might ask if the violence would become too heavy a burden before or after November 2008.

Fortunately, we don't have to wonder, because again there is more context for McCain's remarks (on January 3, 2008, mind you). Here is the full exchange. It's from a New Yorker blog by Hendrik Hertzberg. The only words I changed from the original rough transcript are "Make it a hundred"; the tape clearly has McCain saying "Maybe a hundred."

Bear in mind that the questioner is an antiwar activist (I didn't know at the time). Whether he's an agitator looking to score points is... beside the point. McCain's opinion, it turns out, is pretty forthright.

Dave Tiffany... [a “full-time antiwar activist”] asked McCain “what you hope to accomplish in Iraq and how long it’s going to take.”

Here’s my rough transcript of what followed:

MCCAIN: The fact is, it’s a classic counterinsurgency. And you have to get areas under a secure environment, and that secure environment then allows the economic, political, and social process to move forward. In case you missed it, New Year’s Eve, people were out in the streets in Baghdad by the thousands for the first time in years. That’s because we provided them with a safe and secure environment. Is it totally safe? No. I talked earlier about the suicide bombs and the continued threats. But then what happens is American troops withdraw to bases. And we reach an arrangement like they have with South Korea and Japan. We still have troops in Bosnia. The fact is, it’s American casualties that the American people care about. Those casualties are on the way down, rather dramatically. You’ve got to consider the option. If we had withdrawn six months ago, I can look you in the eye and tell you that Al Qaeda would have said, We beat the United States of America. If we’d gone along with Harry Reid and said the war is lost to Al Qaeda, then we would be fighting that battle all over the Middle East. I’m convinced of that and so is General Petraeus.... I can tell you that it’s going to be long and hard and tough. I can tell you that the option of defeat is incredible and horrendous. And I can look you in the eye and tell you that this strategy is succeeding. And what we care about is not American presence. We care about American casualties. And those casualties will be dramatically and continue to be reduced.

TIFFANY: I do not believe that one more soldier being killed every day is success. There were three U.S. soldiers killed today. I want to know, How long are we going to be there?

MCCAIN: How long do you want us to be in South Korea? How long do you want us to be in Bosnia?

TIFFANY: There's no fighting going on in South Korea. There's no fighting in Bosnia. Let's come back to Iraq.

MCCAIN: I can look you in the eye and tell you that those casualties tragically continue… But they are much less, and they are dramatically reduced and we will eventually eliminate them. And again, the option of setting a date for withdrawal is a date for surrender. And we will then have many more casualties and many more American sacrifices if we withdraw with setting a date for surrender. Now you and I have an open and honest disagreement. But I can tell you that six months ago people like you, who believe like you do, said the surge would never succeed. It is succeeding. And I've been there and I've seen it with my very own eyes. Do you want to follow up?

TIFFANY: President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for fifty years.

MCCAIN: Maybe a hundred. How long—We’ve been in Japan for 60 years, we've been in South Korea for fifty years or so. That’d be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. That’s fine with me. I hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where Al Qaeda is training and recruiting and equipping and motivating people every single day.

TIFFANY: By the way, I hope you kick Romney’s butt. That man cannot lie straight in bed.

MCCAIN: I knew there was a reason I called on you.

TIFFANY: What if U.S. soldiers are being killed at the same rate, one per day, four years from now?

MCCAIN: I can't tell you what the ratio is. But I can tell you, I understand American public opinion, sir. I understand American public opinion will not sustain a conflict where Americans continue to be sacrificed without showing them that we can succeed.

TIFFANY: I hear an open-ended commitment, then.

MCCAIN: I have an open-ended commitment in Asia. I have an open-ended commitment in South Korea. I have an open-ended commitment in Bosnia. I have an open-ended commitment in in Europe…

The rest was drowned out by applause. McCain said, “This kind of dialogue has to take place in America today, and I thank you.”

To me, it's fairly clear that McCain doesn't have an exit strategy for Iraq. He has a permanent presence strategy for Iraq. He can contemplate being there in the year 2108, long after he's dead (and long after the next American casualty will be dead). What he can't contemplate is a future where American military force continues to fail in the face of a completely untenable political situation in Iraq.

Don't you get it? We have already had eight long, long years of a President who refuses to contemplate the consequences of failure, who is not living and dying in the reality that the rest of us recognize. The idea that we will have to go through another four years of this exhausts me, it makes my heart heavy.

Finally, here's Josh Marshall, with a very watchable dissection of the flap, with further McCain statements reaffirming his long-term commitment to the occupation of Iraq.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Book action

I read Smoke and Mirrors, another short story collection by Neil Gaiman. There are a few stories that will definitely stick with me, and more that are pretty forgettable. The Cthulhu ones were pretty good, and there's a great murder mystery set in Heaven, prior to Satan's rebellion.

I started Catch-22 on a blustery day at Denver's City Park Lake. I've never read it before. I was in the shade most of the afternoon, working on the first hundred pages or so. It finally got so cold between the tree and the wind that I moved a couple of benches over to the warmth of the sun. I felt much better while I was there, and I developed a nasty sunburn.

Catch-22 is a funny funny book.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Code folding in emacs

I wrote a regular expression today that got my C++ major mode in Emacs to play nice with outline mode. For the first go round, I am just collapsing down to comments. We are using Doxygen so the structure is predictable.

It helped me double-check that I'd done the comments up to our standard, which was useful and productive.

Customizing Emacs has been a bit of a ride, but there is enough material on the internet to do quick fixes. My job isn't really paying me to learn an editor, but I'll spend a little time to get things like this in order.

One thing that's caught me a little off-guard is how little I depend on an IDE to get stuff done at work. I definitely recommend that the programmers out there wean off Visual Studio and Eclipse, and just put a good editor in their toolbox.

I saw The Simpsons' "Worst. Episode. Ever." again tonight. It's a meta-episode about how the Simpsons' writers are running out of ideas, so they have to recycle old plots, make ridiculous running jokes, crappy dialogue, and default to implausible coincidences to resolve the story. It's one of the funniest things they've ever done.

For those who don't know The Lewises, we have about 15 hours worth of Simpsons episodes on the DVR right now. It's the 800 pound gorilla, the monster show, undefeated champion of the world. It's twice as long as Seinfeld and still going. The quality is still running surprisingly strong.

Best. Sitcom. Ever?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Baroque Cycle finally finishes

Well, it was quite a ride. Quite a ride, indeed. But I finished the Baroque Cycle, the 3000-page (in hardback! It's something like 8 paperbacks) historical novel set in the days of Newton, science and calculus, currency, and the beginning of the modern world.

If you haven't been following along, the story revolves around three larger-than-life characters: Daniel Waterhouse, Newton's schooltime chum and doer of deeds; Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, a kind of bloody-minded adventurer, beggar, and explorer; and Eliza, the woman Jack loves, a master of markets and influence. Behind the scenes, they create the atmosphere in which the greats of the era get things done.

What surprised me most was the lengths to which modernity depended on Newton's project to create a money system that could be trusted. He spent half his life on a project I hadn't even known was important. I used to think that Newton's best years were behind him when he went to work at the Mint. This book certainly put it in perspective for me.

I don't know how to describe it exactly. At the beginning of the book, the world is very chaotic and new. By the end of the last volume (titled The System of the World), Newton and his generation have created systems, and even in a way, systematic knowledge. Newton and Leibniz divide the world between them, all else is technology, that sort of thing.

I watched the modern world come into being, while caring about the poignant and hilarious adventures of this motley crew (and there's a cast of hundreds to care about, if you can). It's hard to believe that so much could get packed into one story, but somehow it did. And it definitely played hard and well as a counterpoint to and illumination of our modern times.

Plus, Monty Python jokes, including an absolute howler in Volume III.

I will definitely need longer to digest it, but it's been an amazing trip. I've been reading these for months, and I haven't appreciated all the subtleties, I'm sure. If you have several weeks to devote to one work of fiction, this would take you to great places. I feel like I can finally get back to reading three books at once, which is more like normal mode for me.

My only quibble is this: I know that the story takes artistic license with the events of the period. So I now have more fictional knowledge about the Baroque era than real knowledge. It's like Alan Moore's graphic novel From Hell, which gave me fictional knowledge about Jack the Ripper. So, now that I'm interested in this stuff, I'll have to read a great deal of history. No doubt some fictional knowledge will always be mixed in from now on.

Also like Alan Moore's graphic novel about Jack the Ripper, this series is for adults only. I don't actually worry too much about kids reading for the sex, violence, disturbing images, language and adult situations. They're never going to make it past the superb language, the hunks of world knowledge inserted by the author, and the thinking they'd have to do to put it together.

Five Stars.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Google takes over the Internet

Let me bring you up to speed.

Ok, that's not exactly hyperbole. While Google has been essentially the most popular first click on the Internet, it has done so as an honest broker. It has said that pages sink or swim in its search results on the basis of algorithms, not favors for favors. It is a road sign on the (sigh) information superhighway, rarely an offramp or destination.

There are some exceptions. Google has steadily built a stable of productivity applications: Gmail, Gcal (the calendar), Google Maps, Google Docs and Spreadsheets (think Word and Excel, less powerful, but collaborative). They also own some content, like Youtube (and Google Video), and of course Blogger.

You can find the bleeding edge stuff at labs.google.com. Google 411 is a fascinating example. You can call a toll-free number from anywhere, 1800 GOOG 411, talk to a robot, search for a business by type, then get connected to the business without putting down the phone. The whole service is always free.

Why is Google doing Google 411? No, no, it's not just to put regular 411 out of business, which it totally would if anyone knew about it. There's a much awesomer reason to do it. While you talk to the robot, your voice data is being collected to train speech recognition algorithms. They're trading information so their robot can listen to you. It's not much of an invasion of privacy, really (if you called real 411, you'd be telling a person what you were looking for anyway). You can even block your caller ID before calling in, if you're paranoid.

Last week, Google stuck a program out there that allows you to use their office products even when you're offline, and seamlessly resyncs your data when you regain your internet connection. Google Docs and Spreadsheets are now competing directly with Microsoft Office...

Trust me, they are doing stuff there you could not imagine.

Until now. Google's system scales better than anything else out there; the amount of data they use and process is mindboggling, and they've created several unique tools to analyze it all efficiently. This week Google opened up its internet infrastructure (in beta), allowing people access to their application servers, Google FS filesystem and BigTable databases. It's called Google App Engine.

They're allowing 500 MB of space free, and a generous amount of bandwidth per month. The level of use they are allowing is free into the future, three applications per person. If you want more space or page views, you'll pay Google some amount of money.

Chances are good that the next great internet application, the next Facebook, will be written on these servers. And best of all, it takes 90% of the thinking out of hosting internet applications. It is Internet programming for the masses, in Python. It costs nothing just to go make a cool project that anyone in the world can see. A lot of budding young programmers will do just that. And Google will buy that awesome application that already runs on their infrastructure, along with the programmers who wrote it.

I decided to be a budding young programmer. To go with my Emacs and Unix obsession, I'm getting back into Python by fooling around with it to do processing for my Netflix prize data. And of course, I'm on the waiting list for the Engine... internet programming is a somewhat hairy world. I am taking my baby steps through Unix first, then onward.

I am on the home stretch of The Baroque Cycle. It's been just about perfect. I'm on the last 200 pages (out of 2500 or so). I'll be sorry to see it go. But, there's a new Neal Stephenson novel coming out in the fall, so I'm right on time. I've also never read Catch-22, so I got that from the library.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Linus and religion

No, not the philosophical kid with the blanket. Incidentally, the complete Peanuts is coming out in permanent book form now. Here's one. It will take over a decade to release them all to the buying public. A full set will cost in the neighborhood of $400.

I grew up with Peanuts. When I have frivolous spending money, I might get a set for my kids. And if anyone out there in publishing land is listening, a DVD ROM set would go straight onto my wish list.

I finished Just For Fun, the autobiography of Linus Torvalds, this week. Linus is the originator and still dictator for life of Linux, the Unix-clone operating system kernel that is free to inspect, copy, and obtain. Linus is an interesting character with an obvious gift for low-level software and the interface between it and hardware that he has planted himself in. That part of the book is quite interesting. In fact, I recommend it overall, although the story is bookended by a philosophy I am about to disagree with.

His exposition of the meaning of life is not so cogent. Essentially, he believes that human behavior comes down to essentially, a hierarchy of needs. The most basic need is survival. The next is social. The last is entertainment. They are not just like needs, they are also something like the stages of human endeavor and motivation.

Aside from leaving off the tops of Maslow's pyramid, which is itself an incomplete story at best, Linus' theory of behavior omits some other important motivators/stages.

There's no good and evil in Linus' world. I leave it to you whether the Carthaginian human sacrifice of children was an example of survival, social, or entertainment. On the good side of religion, there's the Kierkegaardian knight of faith, who follows the moral that is in some way beyond the mores of society. It would take reductionism in the extreme to call, say, Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac to God a product of the survival instinct or the social order, when a major point of the story is to turn exactly those things upside down. Here's the incomparable beginning:

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"

"Here I am," he replied.

Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."

Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey.

More stages: the ultimate end of entertainment is corruption and decay. See the Romans, Fox News, any decadent society (pre-bloodbath France). And religious/civil awakening seems to be a spontaneously generating toothbrush for that decay. You can often see the pendulum swing again to a state sponsorship of religion. I'm not sure where power fits into survival, social, or entertainment either.

I suppose it's possible that Linus is carefully couching these stages in terms of progress, so a lot of what I am talking about are the forces opposed to survival, social, and entertainment, but I think he's really aiming at a broader target than that.