The good thing about picking such an intangible invisible enemy as “terrorism”, is that you never have to spend too much time justifying your wars and your actions. “Terrorists”, much like “communists” a few decades ago, can surface anywhere and take on any appearance.
Although they preferably do not dress like us and probably do not celebrate Christmas or Thanksgiving. Ideally, their skin even has a different shade.

Declaring war on an invisible army force with, by definition, no way to assess your progress, is very convenient for two reasons:

First, because there’s nothing like a good war to help people forget about other less palatable aspects of your policies. Bush’s government is only the last of a long line of variously skilled politicians who have waged some improbable war and based their entire political agenda on this premise.

If we look on the American side, we got everything from the 50’s war on commies up until the would-be-laughable (if not for the countless lives it has destroyed, both in the US and abroad): “war on drugs“…

While there’s no need to go over the futility and hopelessness of the latter war, one thing bears reminding about the cold-war and one of its long-term consequences: following 1979’s invasion of Afghanistan by soviet forces, the US directly provided both military and financial support to resistance troops. The very same people that would, a decade later, take over the country and instigate one of the most oppressing Islamic dictatorship of all times, while apparently backing Al Qaeda operations… But more on that later.

Has anybody noticed to what extent domestic policies have been reduced to an overt game of back-patting self-gratification between white-house cronies, while at the same time receiving close to no media coverage?

I guess it’s much more exciting to report about the glorious advance of the War on Terrorism, rather than, say, focus on Bush’s catastrophic environmental policies or his frighteningly medieval AIDS prevention program based on… “abstinence”…

All in all, Bush’s buddies hardly bother hiding their cynical agenda: they know no one’s watching and hardly anyone cares, ’cause that whole war stuff is so much more exciting.

The other reason why you would want to start a war with enemies you can’t count is precisely that you can’t win it… There’s an infinite supply of evildoers to ensure your “war” never comes to an untimely end, suddenly bringing back the public’s short spanned-attention onto your lucrative little business of cronyism and embezzlement…

Of course, in order to avoid unpopular messy wars, this strategy requires quickly jumping from one opponent to the next, forcefully fitting entirely unrelated countries under a common description of “axis of evil”…

And to a point, it works: nobody (read: no mainstream media) seems to have noticed how quickly Afghanistan disappeared from the US focus and how, beside a few gas pipelines quickly restored and put back to work, nothing much has changed in war-torn Afghanistan ever since… Why did everyone forget so quickly about the original goals of the campaign in Afghanistan that seemed so clear at the time (“eradicate Al Qaeda”, “find Osama Ben Laden”, “rebuild the country”)? Simply because, just when it started being a bit more complicated than dropping bombs and shooting a few underarmed disheveled fanatics, when it started being about building stuff and organizing and investing important amount of money in a country with little promise for immediate return (remember: no oil there), then the US government understood it was time to get the hell away, let the UN deal with the mess and move onto the next target… Which happened to be the good old arch nemesis of yore: the evil Sadam Hussein!

And that’s where the invisible-enemy strategy choked on a serious bone and showed its flaws: when you can’t see your enemies, it’s much harder to beat them, especially if they start actually materializing into real, concrete, people with good reasons to kick your ass and wide support from their country.

Most people (including me, I must admit) were somewhat expecting this to happen in Afghanistan, as there’s a very famous historical precedent. But the US military were quite careful not to make the exact same mistake that cost the USSR its worst military defeat ever. There was close to no ground engagement in Afghanistan, and the US backed pretty much anybody willing to say they disliked Al Qaeda, giving them weapons and telling them to go take care of the bad guys for them, thus making room for the next generation of US-equipped violent factions that will backfire in a few years. But at the time, it worked out well, as the dreaded guerilla war that proved fatal to Soviet troops twenty years ago was avoided.

But there wasn’t such an option in Iraq: against a real country with a somewhat real army, the US had no other choice than to engage completely and send ground troops. Plus, this time, they had a much more specific agenda regarding the use of local resources (let’s liberate the oil derricks) that required real involvement, not just a few bombs casually dropped here and there. The problem came when, after getting rid of a bunch of thinly-motivated Iraqi regular troops, they had to deal with other people who had their own agenda (anti-US, pro-islamic etc) and much more determination to carry it through.

This is how the loop has been looped and now the US faces the same exact problem which the Soviet faced two decades ago: myriads of invisible partisans that do not care for their life and can easily get their hand on semi-heavy weapons (the ones the US provided them with, back when we still liked them better than their evil Iranian neighbours) that are all too sufficient to inflict continuous, relentless damages to occupation forces. If you’ve read any account of the Soviet-Afghan war, you will have noticed how strikingly similar the attacks are: a few people with a rocket-launcher can down a lot of planes or helicopters without much effort. The Afghans have done it successfully for years, and so are the Iraqis now.

On one side, a bunch of regular militaries in a foreign country, on the other side, guerilla fanatics with an increasingly wide popular support (due mostly to US ruthless behaviour toward civilians during the invasion)… Odds -and time- are working strongly against the US. And it’s not hard to see the specter of an Afghan-style defeat looming over the horizon (Vietnam being not too far either, although the involvement levels are definitely not comparable).

Just as a note: although there hardly ever was a single real “battle” fought on Afghan territory during the Afghan-Soviet war, the Soviet lost a total of more than 25,000 troops over their decade of occupation, before completely withdrawing in 1989…

Continued in some next entry

in the meantime, you can always read this rather funny piece about why “White House No Longer Uses Orwell and Machiavelli as ‘Consultants'”

Late night discussion subjects with Harold yesterday (lengthily and passionately argued over for hours until 4 this morning)…

Among many others, we went over (less and less focused and informed, as the discussion kept advancing):

1/ Is there any point in using an appropriately trained neural network for type-specific music compression over a regular algorithm?

2/ Is any task performed by a neural network more or less isomorphic to an interpolation function?

3/ Is any given neural network always replaceable by a definable iterative algorithm?

4/ Is the brain replaceable by an iterative algorithm?

5/ Is neuron transmission a discrete discontinuous function?
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Since I now host an install of MT on my own servers, I offered my friend David R., a Frenchman who lives in SF, to set him up with his own blog (link removed: blog taken offline), knowing he would certainly have interesting things to say.
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A rather well written movie review by Adam Gopnik interestingly trying to enumerate the more or less plausible philosophical references alluded to by the Wachowski bros. in the two first volumes of their magnum opus.
Along with an entertaining and mostly negative critic of the sequel, is the attempt to go over the first episode once again and dig a much decomposed corpse from a grave where it is high time to let it rest: “Philosophy and the Matrix”. In one single column, Adam Gopnik manages to cram references to no less than: Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, French philosopher Jean Beaudrillard, the Cathar religion (with some glaring mistakes and inaccuracies, by the way), Plato, Daniel Dennett, Robert Nozick, Hilary Putnam and Princeton philosopher James Pryor, along with a host of other writers and the predictable -yawn- tribute to sci-fi grand pubah Philip K. Dick…

So, beside letting us know in lengths that he is a highly refined, well-read, educated man who knows his classics and beyond, Mr Gopnik nonetheless listed an interesting point made by James Pryor and worth rehashing a bit more:

[…] the Princeton philosopher James Pryor posed the question “What’s so bad about living in the Matrix?,” and, after sorting through some possible answers, he concluded that the real problem probably has to do with freedom, or the lack of it. “If your ambitions in the Matrix are relatively small-scale, like opening a restaurant or becoming a famous actor, then you may very well be able to achieve them,” Pryor says. “But if your ambitions are larger —e.g., introducing some long-term social change— then whatever progress you make toward that goal will be wiped out when the simulation gets reset”…

Quite a good point imho, “what is so bad about living in the Matrix?”, well, absolutely nothing in most cases. It is even a good deal if you praise the stability of the overall system and inner limitations put on any social interferences.

So, if you are quite satisfied with the system -and who isn’t?- who cares if it is not the original system designed for you. What difference does it make? The essential is that it works, and that it works for you in particular…
Opening that restaurant, becoming that famous actor or getting that job promotion… all these are more likely to happen soon in a well-ordered, Matrix-style system than in the chaos which could only replace it. Right?
Better yet, your dream to gather the entire collection of Matrix action figures or the ultimate website repository of matrix’ links: where do you think you stand better chance to achieve it? within the Matrix… Or outside in the wild ?
Of course, the system has its flaws, not everybody get their fair share of happiness and it even seems like only a handful of people do… but what if that’s the only way for you to get what you consider your well-deserved fair share of happiness?

By now I hope you understand that this is not only about the metaphoric Matrix concept such as exposed in the movie, it’s much more generally the idea of a “thought system”, more or less efficient, unconsciously adopted by the majority, thus redefining for the masses what is “real” and what is not… it can be religious, political or even much deeper down in the psyche of civilizations…

Anyway, just thought it was somewhat amusing that most fans of the movie and overall the type of people who kept nodding their head and mumbling “I knew it” while exiting the theater, when given the choice, would typically prefer to remain within “the matrix”…

Nobody waited for Warner Bros to devise ways of controlling people’s minds or to wonder about how much credit we can give to our senses
Religious and political systems have been quite successful at the former, and still are nowadays, to the best of my knowledge. Like a perfectly designed Matrix, they usually ensure that you are assimilated or disposed of.
It is also essential that nobody sees what’s on the other side of the wall, look at the USSR or the USA of the 50’s ? How much accurate information did each one know of each other ? For either one, the other side was about as real as a propaganda cartoon on national TV… still is to this day, except the sphere of influence of one matrix has eventually overcome and practically erased the other.

As it has been pointed out way too many times already: yes, we live in the “Matrix”… but does anyone really want to get out of it?
I doubt it.

Ok, time to go to catch Fox news.

It suddenly downed on me while reading yet another article pointing out how the US still cannot manage to justify their invasion of Iraq, even after the fact…

Delenda Est Carthago

First, let me give a bit of explanation for the ones who were lucky enough not to endure years of latin grammar and history during their childhood.
Delenda Est Carthago, or more exactly: “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” (“And therefore, I conclude that Carthage must be destroyed”), was the motto of Roman conservative senator Cato the Elder. In fact, it was much more than a motto, it was a slogan, tirelessly punctuating every single of his interventions at the senate. Even when the subject debated was in no way related, he would always weave in his subliminal message: “Carthago delenda est”…
Something like: “we need more fund for the new aqueduct, and carthage must be destroyed… let’s paint the coliseum blue and carthage must be destroyed… we need to fight corruption within the administration and carthage must be destroyed… etc. etc”

The goal, obviously, being to convince the Roman senate to go on yet another war against rival city Carthage and make sure nobody got out alive this time…

This warmongering successfully started the third, last and most vicious of the Punic wars, opposing Rome to Carthage and unsurprisingly resulting in the complete obliteration of the weaker one.

Now, I am sure I could find half a dozen wars in the world’s History which would perfectly stand the comparison to “US-Irak Pt. 2: The Vengeance”, but this one is particularly striking in its similarities.

What reminded me of this old tidbit of history was probably, more than anything, the rhetoric used by US warmongers to justify their position before the war: no need to be subtle there, just utter pseudo-truths and dumbed-down arguments over and over again, until they become the official media truth.

But is this the only points of comparison between the two? Well, hardly… curious about how far it could go, I tried to complete my superficial knowledge of this particular slice of history and felt an increasingly dizzifying feeling of déjà-vu as I dug into history books.

What are we talking about again?

Well, it all starts with this rather wishy-washy politician, not really famed for his wit, but quite popular among conservatives for his obtuse, simplistic traditional views.
Then, there is this old nemesis, once a mighty and threatening empire, but now a war-torn piece of land crushed by the previous conflict, painfully recovering under strong economical sanctions.
What happens then?
Well, building a hatred for the other, based mostly on inane non-factual arguments, employing fear and panic as instruments of war, this politician and his allies eventually succeed in starting an unnecessary and unfair conflict, quite predictably won by what is then an unchallenged superpower… all this for the benefit of none but the private interests of a handful of people.

As you guessed, I was merely giving a small lecture on the Third Punic War (149-146 BC), as accounted for by most history books.
History, perpetually repeating itself? nah…

Among the many interesting details of this (rather gratuitous, I’ll admit) comparison, is that this war, although it had little impact on the Roman empire by itself, is considered the first step of what eventually became its demise… and because it just sounds too familiar, I will merely quote some history website:

“The accidental Roman Empire suddenly shifted into high gear. However, the massive wealth that was created for Rome awoke old tensions between the classes, and the Republic would live in a state of crisis for over a hundred years – a crisis that, at its conclusion, would precipitate the demise of the Republic in favor of a dictatorship.
Rome failed to prosecute corrupt bureaucrats effectively since the courts showed a strong bias towards the senatorial class. […]
The historian Sallust […], dated Rome’s corruption to the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC and the absence of any foreign threat.”

Did that sound a bit scary? oh sorry…