This is a quick post, and my first in quite a while. I’m not going to look at the how and why of Donald Trump’s shocking election victory, nor am I really going to discuss the huge ramifications for both domestic American politics and international politics. Instead, at the outset of four or eight years of “The Donald” as the most powerful person on the planet, I’ll be foolhardy and make a limited prediction: Donald Trump is not going to exert executive power in the field of national security to the same extent as either Obama or Bush.
“Think different” - the late 90s Apple slogan - could also serve as a rule of thumb for soldiers trying to stay one step ahead of their opponents (and in the process, stay alive). Geoff Manaugh’s book A Burglar’s Guide to the City focuses upon different sort of people who tend to “think different” - burglars. Manaugh writes from the perspective of an architect, examining the many-varied ways in which burglars interact with the built environment in order to enter buildings, and remove things from them (usually for some form of personal gain).
Note: this is a sketch of some work that I’ll be writing on over the next couple of years. The core of this work is dissatisfaction with the revisionist account of the ethics of war, how this in turn informs my perception of debates regarding the development and use of lethal autonomous systems, and what I think this holds for the future of warfare. The TL;DR - expert systems will mean that any object legible to machines as a military target are dead, whereas those that can’t (humans, for example) will continue to require human decision-making, and thus less vulnerable.
This is a test of a new way of using footnotes on this blog. I haven’t written much here because I’ve been too busy writing books and other academic projects. Anyway, footnotes suck, and links take you far away from the page so I made a scab version of the footnotes used in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blockbuster article in The Atlantic last year. Seriously, The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration is an amazing read, more so because this kind of pop-up allows you to get the best of explanatory footnotes without breaking the flow of text for people who don’t care to read them.
If not inevitable, last night’s French air strikes on Islamic State, in the wake of Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, were an understandable response by the French government. This is ‘understandable’ in the sense that the worst terrorist attacks in Europe since the 2004 Madrid bombings were bound to stir the French government into action. The French President, François Hollande, called the murder of over a hundred civilians an ‘Act of War’, the French police have conducted over 150 raids, and French aeroplanes have hit Raqqa, the default capital of the Islamic State.
Nick Bostrom’s latest book, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, is a tour-de-force analysis of the consequences of research into artificial intelligence. One element of Bostrom’s book that I find enviable is that he manages to pack so many ideas into a single book. Different conjectures and ways of thinking about AI pretty much fly off the page. Although much of what Bostrom writes about could be found elsewhere, I can’t think of a book that addresses such a wide range of issues associated with AI.
Was the destruction of Alderaan justified? Sonny Bunch says yes, Daniel Drezner says no and Stephanie Carvin wonders “Why academics want to talk about make-believe when there are SO MANY more interesting real-life examples is beyond me.” More important, I think, is Carvin’s follow up: “This is not to be anti-sci-fi or TV, but I think that over-use pedagogically dements our theories and our lesson plans.” As someone who is utterly bored of academic articles on Buffy, Zombies, Vampires, Terminators and so on, I’m inclined to agree.
Hey, welcome back. This post is part-inspired by The Scholar’s Stage’s look at the wane of blogging on strategy and national security. I’ve basically been too busy to write a blog, and tip-toeing around a lot, because I’m meant to be a professional. The thing is, some of the most creative things I’ve ever written have been when making off-the-cuff comments about events connected for my research. Like today: The UK Government’s publication of its draft, 299 page, Investigatory Powers bill.
Let’s face it, last year’s push by the ICRC to integrate law of war training into video games didn’t result in an industry earthquake. First person shooters are still about shooting people with exotic weapons, and being heckled by impossibly-good thirteen year olds as they murder you repeatedly in online multiplayer. To combat this, the ICRC recently launched a design competition to get people to integrate medical evacuations into ARMA 3.
Are our names ‘dead personal information’? In The Fourth Revolution Luciano Floridi argued that people are constituted by their information, and that privacy breaches are therefore a form of aggression against the person. It is an intriguing notion, and one that makes an end run around the flaws in the ‘information as personal property’ model of privacy. I think Floridi is correct to point out that in this sense information ‘expresses a sense of constitutive belonging, not of external ownership, a sense in which your body, your feelings, and your information are part of you but are not your (legal) possessions.’ Where I think Floridi runs into trouble is the concept of ‘dead personal information’ - information that Floridi considers no longer part of a person, or that does not constitute them to the same degree as information about their preferences and motives.
I don’t know why Amazon put Oryx and Crake into the little section marked “You might also like” after I added a copy of Woman on the Edge of Time to my digital basket. The last book I had bought by Margaret Atwood was A Handmaid’s Tale, but I bought that in person, at Foyles in Charing Cross, in part because I had liked the thought of re-reading it and the particular paperback edition had red-edged pages.
I will admit that I walked into the Imperial War Museum’s (free) display of Omer Fast’s film with low expectations. Most artistic takes on ‘drones’ have, for the most part, struck me as badly researched, ill-thought out or plain lazy reactions to a ‘hot’ topic in politics. This reflects my personal preferences (I prefer art that happens to challenge my beliefs, rather than re-enforce them, and bad ‘drone art’ does neither) and what I might call professional competence (I happen to know a bit about them and the reasons people use them).
The Act of Killing is a documentary about some ambling old men who also killed thousands of Communists in their youth. Documentaries about mass killing aren’t new, nor for that matter, is it truly possible to shock with archival footage. Anyone born in the UK likely encounters footage of Auschwitz at some point before their 18th birthday, and as such, become somewhat vaccinated to imagery of mass killing. At a certain point, many documentaries cross the line between the attempt to convey the horror of atrocity, and the attempt to shock the viewer with genocide-porn.
Why discuss automated targeting and art installations? In part, the genesis of this article (and some others that I have planned) is that I’m something of a war-junkie who can’t switch off thinking about war when stepping into art galleries. I do my best to engage, but sometimes an artist’s work makes me think about my ‘day job’ a little differently. At the moment, I’m doing a fair bit of research about autonomous weapons and targeting.
I have an article in the latest edition of World Defence Systems on the use of targeted killings to contain al-Qaeda, it is available (for free) online here. McDonald J (2012) Containing terrorist networks - the role of targeted killings. World Defence Systems 2012(1): 21-23 [link] Targeted killings work, as Byman tells us, but they don’t solve conflicts. Thinking about targeted killings in terms of containment allows us to consider the long term detrimental effect that such programmes have on a democracy.
Dan Rezner has been writing some good articles on PhD study, which made me think about mine (coming to the end right now). There isn’t much out there on part-time PhDs, but when it comes down to it, I’ve always been a part-time student, considering the amount of paid employment I’ve done while studying. This article is therefore written from the perspective of someone without much money trying to complete a PhD.
I wrote a post on the Kony 2012 video here, it went viral and got me mentioned on al-Jazeera, quoted in the National Post (online here) and The Age. I wrote another post on the subject here, got interviewed on Toronto talk radio and Foxnews.com and did a podcast here. It’s now a second past my fifteen minutes of fame so I’m going back to writing bits and bobs that no-one reads.
New post over at Kings of War by myself. Check it here.
Seeing as this is located about a stone’s throw from my PhD room, it has taken a little too long to go and see it. Frontline is in name a year of journalism and conflict, but in actuality what was viewed in four places: Libya, Syria, Egypt and Hackney (okay, ‘the UK riots’). It is all very modern, coming equipped with Ipads, and the opportunity for “augmented reality” on your smartphone (if the wireless is working, which it wasn’t, and when finally downloaded, the app was confusing to the point of non-use).
So yesterday, as part of Rosie and I’s mission to watch funny Hollywood action films, we went to see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. (Spoiler alert from here on in blah blah blah). Actually, I shouldn’t even need to bother with the spoiler alert, since the trailer shows about 80% of the decent stunts, and the opening credits to the film show 90%, in sequence. This is a new horizon of bad directing that I hadn’t previously considered, but it has potential.
The usual spoiler warning: This contains spoilers. I won’t bother to check for the overblown subsidiary title, which is something to do with shadows and darkness. It reminded me of Pirates of the Caribbean: Keep Reading This To Distract You From The Fact That Only The First One Was Any Good. Duff title aside, this film was pretty damn good, but an exercise in poor structure, which marred the overall effect.
I enjoyed writing that last one. So I’ll continue. Again, absolutely none of this is intended to be “Things were better back when…”, more of “Now I come to think about it, such and such was really important.” Exhibit A: Gigs in houses Fuck you, bro. I used to play in a band, we played quite a few gigs and had a fun time. This, in fact, is a picture of my band playing the kitchen of my old house.
Between the ages of sixteen and twenty seven I went to about one gig a week, minimum. Sometimes two, sometimes three. During insane summer touring seasons, maybe more. I used to do a lot of things to do with DIY, but this isn’t about that. When I got back to the UK in Autumn 2008, I basically ceased being an “active” DIY person. Life took over. Well, more specifically, my PhD did.
Spoiler Alert - Yeah, the entire plot of In Time is up for grabs here, and I’d give it a 7⁄10 so you might not want to read this before watching it. The key to great science fiction is crafting a world out of an idea, usually a twist on something we can dream of happening, that illuminates something about us (humans) and what we do. Tweaking the limits of reality to show that they exist, if you will.
There are a million spoilers in this, so it’s all going after the jump. Don’t read this until you’ve seen the film. So today I sat down and watched this year’s “MMA Movie”, fully expecting shitty Hollywood plotlines (which occurred) and a million moves that are either one in a million, or pretty much impossible (yup, that happened too). After all the way through, all my initial thoughts were confirmed, and yet, it is the best film I’ve seen this year.
It is quite odd to see the city I’ve grown up in turn upside down in the space of seventy two hours. I’ll skip the reasoned arguments and flippant comments for the time being. This morning I went for a run in Victoria Park. It was a fine morning, and slightly at odds with the sirens of the night before and the grainy youtube videos on repeat. While I was running, I passed a kid who had to be maybe twelve or thirteen running the other way.
On The Origins of Political Order – Francis Fukuyama I read this book (which is good) and immediately embarked on something of a Fukuyama kick, revisiting State Building, After the Neocons, The End of History? and The End of History and the Last Man. This review is therefore not restricted to Fukuyama’s most recent work, but more of an attempt to figure out how he progressed from proclaiming the end of ideological development, to a kind of cold realism about the world that he has always professed to dislike.
I picked this books up in New York a month back, but it got caught up in my travel bags and I didn’t read it on the plane. It has since languished in my room due to furious amounts of PhD work since I got back. I’ll freely admit to not having read any of Styron’s work before. After finishing The Suicide Run it seems his best stuff was highly controversial and not at all related to this book.
I had the misfortune of seeing this film within 24 hours of Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void. I think this might have prejudiced me against the film from the start. It is better than Enter The Void, but pretty much as empty. Whereas Noé filled his drugs trip with completely pointless, meandering dialogue, Malick took the high road and filled The Tree of Life with overtly meaningful lines that are equally pointless.
I went to the cinema at the last minute today and ended up going to see this based on the fact that Woody Harrelson was on the poster and the alternates looked boring. Luckily enough it was damn, damn good. The film centers around two soldiers, a gulf war 1 veteran played by Woody Harrelson and a recent Iraq veteran played by Ben Foster who have the unenviable task of delivering the bad news to the next of kin of deceased soldiers.
So then, BBC3’s Afghanistan war documentary comes to an end with an IED, a dead British soldier, a saved kid and six dead Afghan National Police. As motifs of the war in Afghanistan go, it was pretty much a grab bag of the headline items. For that reason, it was by far the least interesting episode of the three part series. The strength of the series has been its use of the intimate footage from the helmet cameras of the soldiers themselves.
I must admit to missing this book the first time round. It is, however, rather indispensable for an outline of the lunacy that was the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. On reflection, it’s rather grating that Rajiv sticks, in true journalistic fashion, to the facts. I’m normally not a fan of comment pieces, but the world that he painstakingly reconstructs is begging for some form of authorship and voice in the form of his opinion on the matter.
I picked this up in New York City’s rather overwhelming Strand Bookshop. While I spent about half my time in NYC reading classics that I’d never gotten around to, the other half I devoted to American fiction by authors that I hadn’t heard of. This was one of the better in that latter category. I must admit to picturing Man on Wire in my head almost the entire time that this book began to describe it’s fictionalised account of Philippe Petit’s audacious tightrope act.
The frankly brilliant conversion of this book to the silver screen is what introduced me to Cormac McCarthy in the first place. I did, however, manage to read The Road before seeing that book’s relatively lacklustre conversion. The film understandably hangs itself on the pursuit of Llwellyn Moss by Chigurgh (with one of the most inspired castings since Mickey Rourke getting tapped to play the lead in The Wrestler). The book reveals a lot more depth to the character of Sheriff Bell, ably played in the cinematic version by Tommy Lee Jones.
Writing is a learning experience, something re-enforced by discovering (slightly to my dismay) that Virtual War appears to be out of print (though thankfully freely available). The excerpt today is perhaps the logical outcome of some of the processes discussed in Virtual War. I selected this piece because in my mind it reflects unexpected changes in the experience of war derived from increasingly automated methods of war fighting. Some of the most interesting accounts that I’ve been reading about contemporary wars involve the collision between today’s highly technology-literatate teen generation and the wars that they volunteer to fight.
One of the most interesting things that I got to do last year was a lecture on War and Literature for the first year Experience of War course for King’s College London’s War Studies BA. As part of the lecture, I pulled together about sixty different poems and segments of books which, in my mind, would give students and idea of the range of literature that deals with or gives us an experience of war.