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Archive for February, 2007

Friday, February 23rd, 2007


While I had heard of the Negroponte project for $ 100 laptops previously, it was not until today that a post at Dave Davison’s Thoughts Illustrated made me appreciate the true scale of the endeavor. Dave’s post led me to this article about Alan Kay, one of the fathers of the PC and of the very internet itself. Some key points from the Kay article:

The Viewpoints Research Institute is actually involved in three new projects. One is the $100 laptop project that Nicholas Negroponte is doing. That is coming along very well. The first 1,000 factory-built machines were built in the last few weeks. The plan is to build 5 million to 8 million laptops this summer, and perhaps as many as 50 million in 2008. We’re very involved in that. The other thing is a recently funded NSF project that will take a couple of giant steps, we hope, toward reinventing programming. The plan is to take the entire personal-computing experience from the end user down to the silicon and make a system from scratch that recapitulates everything people are used to—desktop publishing, Internet experiences, etc.—in less than 20,000 lines of code. It would be kind of like a Moore’s Law step in software. It’s going to be quite difficult to do this work in five years, but it will be exciting.

The third project we’re just getting started on and don’t have completely funded yet, is to make a new kind of user interface that can actually help people learn things, from very mundane things about how their computer system works to more interesting things like math, science, reading and writing. This project came about because of the $100 laptop. In order for the $100 laptop to be successful in the educational realm, it has to take on some mentoring processes itself. This is an old idea that goes all the way back to the sixties. Many people have worked on it. It just has never gotten above threshold.”

Kay makes very clear that the $100 laptop effort is aimed at the Gap where children are relatively uncorrupted by the pop culture techno expectations of America. A tabula rasa to re-start the information revolution. However the economic spillover effects of such an accomplishment cannot be contained. The entire computer market will be affected to broaden societal and global access to information.

At a stroke, in American public schools, the rationale for spending billions on textbooks ( which run about $ 70 per copy on average and are exceedingly mediocre in quality) would be eliminated, as would their use as a crutch by gen-ed majors and basketball coaches posing as teachers of core academic subjects. The poorest American school districts can afford $ 100 laptops even when new textbooks are beyond their budgetary reach. Kids in East St. Louis and Watts and the moonscape of inner city Detroit can enter the information age along with Bangladeshis and Burundians.

Factor in the pirates who will produce copycat versions in places like China and we are talking about an increase in the online population of the world by several orders of magnitude with all that such connectivity entails.

Cross-posted at Chicago Boyz

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007


Fred C. Ikle, a former Undersecretary of Defense, senior arms control mandarin and long time security scholar, has produced a thoughtful and provocative book with his Annihilation From Within. In the tradition of his fellow RAND alumnus, Herman Kahn, Ikle has tasked himself with thinking about the unthinkable but he has done so without the former’s sense of humor or optimism, which renders AFW a slim yet dour read.

Back in 1999, in The Future and It’s Enemies, Virginia Postrel hypothesized a growing political split over the implications of technology and social change between “dynamists”, who favored freedom of experimentation and “stasists”who favor top-down, social and political controls over technological progress. Ikle is clearly in the latter camp; while much of AFW is devoted to the outcome of a nuclear attack “from within”, Ikle spends a fair amount of time worrying about the advent of “superintelligence“, the dystopian potential of exotic technology and ends with a plea for a consideration of “stationary-state”economic theory. Shades of the Club of Rome.

Ikle adeptly identifies critical security vulnerabilities and likely hypothetical scenarios that the national security and defense communities have not adequately addressed. More than identifies, Ikle himself has attempted to nudge policy makers into taking necessary steps to minimize the chances of nuclear catastrophe as he once convinced General Curtis LeMay to establish screening procedures for military personnel who had access to nuclear weapons and used coded safety locks on the weapons themselves. The concerns Ikle raises are well worth raising and most should be acted upon to some degree, which is one reason AFW is a “must read” book for anyone interested in strategic or security studies.

That being said, Ikle falls into the common fallacy of futurist books of this type on two counts. First assuming that all that which is necessary for the worst case scenario to come pass will fall perfectly in to place. He does this most strenuously with the subjects upon which he has the least to say, such as on “superintelligence” ( which, none of us, in actuality can assess the parameters of, for reasons of self-referential limitations). Secondly, aside from dismissing the benefits of the exotic technologies that Ikle fears, he corrupts his probabilistic estimates of disaster by not accounting for all the positive downstream effects of new technologies that will also be causing societal shifts.

A stimulating and serious book.


James McCormick at Chicago Boyz

John Robb at Global Guerillas

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007


My cold has warped into some kind of flu and I’ve stayed home to rest. I’ll probably post some things after lunch if I can shake some of the lethargy.

Tuesday, February 20th, 2007


Dr. Barnett had one of his more freewheeling, “thinking out loud” posts up today, “What grand strategy is to me” that I recommend. It’s not short but Tom hits many points of interest from horizontal thinking to cultivating the mindset of a grand strategist for the need to shift persons but not the position of grand strategist from American life. Some excerpts:

“Systematic thinking about the future means you’re not “for” or “against” issues like peak oil or global warming, you just accept the dynamics implied and rank them accordingly. As such, you will always disappoint the single-issue-trumps-all crowd, because you do not subvert your entire logic to their presumed hierarchy.

….When government’s role in grand strategy is explored, its primary function is that of enabler of overriding era trends, thus grand strategy is contextualized at all times. This is crucial for someone who approaches grand strategy from the perspective of national security, because the military’s tendency–especially in the United States–is to view war strictly within the context of war (our penchant for annihilation). Thus, one great purpose of grand strategy for me is help the military come back to society

….A fundamental characteristic of grand strategy is adaptive planning according to fundamental rule sets enunciated in said strategy. Strategy is neither confirmed nor denied by events, for it is not an objective reality but a desired end state (think “Groundhog Day”).

….It is a good and worthy profession. It needs serious exploration for the purposes of rule-setting. It is too often tied to individual personalities when it needs to be a skill set that is repeatably applied as a strategic planning solution. It should not be outsourced to columnists and talking heads, but should remain organic to the field of national security. It is a skill we lost across the Cold War, primarily because of the success of the “wise men” in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But that vision no longer holds sway.”

It is a highly useful exercise, in my view, to go back and plumb the memoirs and papers of men like Churchill, Stimson, Acheson, Marshall, Nitze, Forrestal, Kennan, Dulles, Byrnes and others who were ” present at the creation”. Not all of them were, technically speaking, grand strategists and quite a few were wrong on points large and small. Some of them schemed and others curried favor, while holding their democratically elected superiors in contempt. But these were insightful, well educated, men who took the responsibility of statesmanship seriously and for whom country came before party. At least most of the time.

At times, their prose is even a pleasure to read. Acheson on the Coal and Steel community that healed 80 years of Franco-German rancor or Stimson on the art of the possible in Eastern Europe after Yalta, is a level of understanding of foreign affairs often absent in Washington today.

Sunday, February 18th, 2007


A generous grab bag of veterans, freshmen and newcomers:

Washington Post – “Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration At Army’s Top Medical Facility

Top Billing: This one will make you very, very, angry. There is no excuse for this whatsoever.

Col. Austin Bay – “Time to Fix the Great American Failure

Michael Tanji – “Abusing Intelligence

Opposed Systems Design – “Reforming Pentagon Strategic Decisionmaking

Thomas P.M. Barnett -“Looking for an easy out from war

ChirolNo Disconnectedness?

John Robb – “TERRORIST NETWORKS: Advanced Topics

Bruce Schneier -“Scanning People’s Intentions

Neptunus Lex – “How democracies perish

protein wisdomOh, Rocks! [Dan Collins]”

Secrecy News – “The Putin Era in Historical Perspective“(PDF)

That’s it!

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