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Archive for July, 2003


Thursday, July 31st, 2003

“Despite vigorous efforts, the U.S. government has been unsuccessful so far in finding key senior Iraqi scientists to support its prewar claims that former president Saddam Hussein was pursuing an aggressive program to develop nuclear, biological and chemical weapons,” according to the Washington Post.

Sources said four senior scientists and more than a dozen at lower levels who worked for the Iraqi government have been interviewed by U.S. officials under the direction of the CIA. Some scientists have been arrested and held for months, others have made deals in return for information and at least one has agreed to be interviewed outside Iraq.
No matter the circumstances, all of the scientists interviewed have denied that Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program or developed and hidden chemical or biological weapons since United Nations inspectors left in 1998. Several key Iraqi officials questioned the significance of evidence cited by the Bush administration to suggest that Hussein was stepping up efforts to develop new weapons of mass destruction programs.


Thursday, July 31st, 2003

Depleted uranium (DU) has been used for decades in anti-tank shells because its ultra-dense. But DU has been a controversial, possibly toxic, method for piercing armor — blamed by some for so-called “Gulf War Syndrome,” by others for birth defects.
A new alloy is emerging that could be a suitable substitute for DU, New Scientist reports.
The U.S. Army is expected to award a contract “for a test batch of 30-millimetre ammunition of the type used by American A-10 ‘tank buster’ aircraft, which fired some 75 tonnes of DU during the recent Iraq conflict,” according to New Scientist.
For years, it’s been thought that tungsten could replace DU, since it’s about as dense, but –hopefully — not as toxic.
The problem has been that “tungsten shells flatten on impact, forming a mushroom shape. But DU rounds self-sharpen as they deform” — making the ammunition much more effective.
“Now Liquidmetal Technologies, an R&D company based in Tampa, Florida, says it can get comparable performance from penetrators made of an exotic alloy of tungsten,” says New Scientist, which claims the rounds could be ready in as soon as two years.


Thursday, July 31st, 2003

Just out of high school, thousands of miles from friends and parents, and isolated by language and culture from the people around them, young airmen stationed on a U.S. Air Force base in Europe can find life pretty lonely.
But now the military’s fresh faces can get a bit of the comforts of home — by wasting their pals in an online shoot-‘em-up game.
U.S. Air Forces in Europe, or USAFE, is investing about $200,000 into networked gaming centers at 14 bases scattered across the continent. All told, more than 100 Microsoft Xbox game consoles will be purchased, giving thousands of airmen a familiar new option for their downtime.
“Everything is so different here. So it’s nice to have a taste of what (airmen) are used to — a taste of America,” said David Quinn, who heads the USAFE’s Community Activities branch. “This is a way to get them out of the dorms, to keep them from sitting and staring at four walls.“
Stars & Stripes had an article about this a little while back. My Wired News piece picks up where it left off.


Wednesday, July 30th, 2003

Did the Penatgon make a mistake in canceling its Policy Analysis Market — the instantly-notorious terrorism trading floor?
“The idea of a federal betting parlor on atrocities and terrorism is ridiculous and it’s grotesque,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) fumed, as he brought the project to the general public’s attention.
But supporters of the program point out that gathering intelligence is often a messy business, with payoffs to unsavory characters and the elimination of potential adversaries. The futures market, ugly as it may sound, doesn’t involve any of those moral compromises, said Robin Hanson, one of the earlier promoters of the concept of trading floors for ideas and a PAM project contributor. It’s just a way of capturing people’s collective wisdom.
“Among the many things we do for intelligence, this is one of the least reprehensible,” Hanson said. “Paying people to tell us about bad things. That’s intrinsic to the intelligence process.“
And a trading floor could be more effective than paying off a snitch.
Projects similar to PAM, like the Iowa Electronic Markets, which speculate on election results, have been surprisingly reliable indicators of what’s going to happen next.
My Wired News story has Hanson’s — and others’ — case for terrorism futures.
THERE’S MORE: Althought the market has been billed an aggregator of information, “oddly, the hope of the PAM might have been the ignorance of investors, rather than their intelligence,” Slate notes.

Policy market day-traders who don’t speak Arabic or have access to classified information wouldn’t necessarily make worse bets than the professionals who spend their days sifting through Al Hayat and humintel reports. This is a seeming paradox called the “dumb agent” theoryone of my esteemed predecessors in this box explicated it a few years ago. Walk up to a traveler waiting in an airport, ask how many minutes late the plane will take off, and you’re likely to get a wrong, uninformed answer. Ask 75 more of your fellow passengers the same question, and you’ll get 75 more similarly wrong, uninformed answers. But throw them all together and take the mean, and you’re likely to get something pretty close to the right answer.

Priorities & Frivolities digs up a Harvard/Stanford study of Tradesports​.com, which has been offering “Saddam Securities.”

“The price of the Saddam Security is a reasonable assessment of the likelihood of war. The time series movement in the series seems sensible as measured against both expert opinion and a narrative approach. The market is deep enough that it should have value as a forecasting tool, and market data meets simple tests of efficiency.”

Salon’s Scott Rosenberg makes a persuasive case against the trading floor:

Markets depend on good information. The DARPA plan is based on the theory that an open market will draw out the best information from multiple sources. That’s fine if, in fact, the incentive of making money in the market is strong enough to overcome other motivations of participants. If you were a terrorist planning an attack, would you try to make a little money on the side by using your insider knowledge to place a winning bet? Or would you allocate a little extra money in your operating budget to placing decoy bets to delude those who you knew were turning to the U.S. military-funded terror market for intelligence? Or would you simply stay away, distrusting the market’s anonymity mechanism on the assumption that its American designers will have built in some sort of back door? It’s nearly impossible to imagine any set of circumstances in which this market would provide untainted information.

Finally, Andy Borowitz puts his signature Spinal Tap-esque spin on a New York Times editorial calling for John Poindexter to step down.
He writes, “The Pentagon has named Retired Admiral John Poindexter, the man responsible for the recently abandoned idea of a ‘terrorism futures market,’ to head the newly created Department of Bad Ideas.“
AND MORE: New Yorker financial columnist James Surowiecki has a defense of the PAM plan in Slate that’s just about identical, point-for-point, as my Wired News piece.


Tuesday, July 29th, 2003

To Pentagon researchers, capturing and categorizing every aspect of a person’s life is only the beginning.
LifeLog — the controversial Defense Department initiative to track everything about an individual — is just one step in a larger effort, according to a top Pentagon research director. Personalized digital assistants that can guess our desires should come first. And then, just maybe, we’ll see computers that can think for themselves.
Computer scientists have dreamed for decades of building machines with minds of their own. But these hopes have been overwhelmed again and again by the messy, dizzying complexities of the real world.
In recent months, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has launched a series of seemingly disparate programs — all designed, the agency says, to help computers deal with the complexities of life, so they finally can begin to think.
My Wired News article has more — including an exclusive interview with Ron Brachman, who heads the DARPA office overseeing projects like LifeLog. There’s a separate story on Brachman’s latest project, “Real-World Reasoning,” designed to get computers to start looking at problems from different angles — a key artificial intelligence challenge.


Tuesday, July 29th, 2003

John Poindexter, the Pentagon division chief behind the notorious Total Information Awareness mega-database, is at it again. Now, he’s heading up an effort to build a kind of stock market for terrorist strikes.
The New York Times reports, “traders bullish on a biological attack on Israel or bearish on the chances of a North Korean missile strike would have the opportunity to bet on the likelihood of such events on a new Internet site” established by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Information Awareness Office.
According to the Associated Press, the Pentagon has requested $3 million for the Policy Analysis Market for next year and $5 million for the year after.
THERE’S MORE: “It sounds jaw-droppingly callous, not to mention absurd,” notes the San Francisco Chronicle. “But experts say the DARPA-backed Policy Analysis Market is based on a legitimate theory, the Efficient Market Hypothesis, that has a proven track record in predicting outcomes.“

Basically, the idea is that the collective consciousness is smarter than any single person. By forcing people to put their money where their mouth is, the wagers help weed out know-nothings and give more weight to the opinions of those in the know.
“Markets are a great way of aggregating information that a lot of different people have,” said Eric Zitzewitz, an assistant professor of economics at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “One of the big issues with intelligence that was gathered before 9/11 was that information wasn’t aggregated within the intelligence community. This is directly aimed at addressing that.”

Instapundit has more on this.
AND MORE: The Associated Press now says that the Pentagon will “abandon” the Policy Analysis Market (PAM). Sen. John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, spoke with the program’s director, “and we mutually agreed that this thing should be stopped,” the AP reports.
AND MORE: The cancelled terror market project wasn’t the Pentagon’s only experiment in trading floors that gauge the likelihood of world events. Two small firms — Market Technologies Systems (the professors behind the famed Iowa Electronic Markets election exchange) and Neoteric Technologies — received grants from DARPA to build such operations. Two of their trading floors are up on the web, currently: One market speculates in homeland security threat levels; the other in the spread of SARS.


Monday, July 28th, 2003

Last week, mobile phones mysteriously began working in Baghdad, giving the war-ravaged city a needed boost to its shattered communications infrastructure. Now, the BBC reports, U.S. authorities in Iraq have ordered the Bahraini firm Batelco to stop running the service.
“The authorities were concerned that a renegade service provider could upset its own plans to put Iraqi mobile licences up for tender next week,” according to the Beeb.
“Since Batelco had not applied for a licence of its own, the Coalition Provisional Authority has asked the firm to shut down its roaming facility. The firm said it had already spent $5m (3.1m) on infrastructure in Baghdad.“
(via Techdirt)


Monday, July 28th, 2003

By now, we’ve all heard that turf battles in the intelligence community were partially responsible for the 9/11 plot being missed. But, according to Computerorld, a recent Congressional report also notes that creaky, outdated information technology played a big role, too.

That lack of IT capability was a major problem for the FBI’s pre-Sept. 11 investigation into potential al-Qaeda plans, according to the report. In fact, when a Phoenix FBI field office agent drafted an e-mail in July 2001known now as the infamous “Phoenix Memo“he had no reliable way of querying a central FBI system to determine whether there were other reports on radical fundamentalists taking flight training in the U.S.or whether other FBI field offices were investigating similar cases. Another agent had expressed similar concerns.
In addition, congressional investigators found that because of the limitations of the FBI’s Automated Case File (ACS) system, a number of addressees on the Phoenix communication, including the chief of the FBI’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit, weren’t aware of the communication before the attacks occurred.
The FBI deployed the ACS in 1995 to replace a system of written reports and indexes. However, FBI agents told congressional investigators that the system was limited in its search capacity, difficult to use and unreliable. The system was so difficult to use, in fact, that FBI officials informed Congress that as of Sept. 26, 2002, 68,000 counterterrorism leads dating to 1995 remained outstanding and unassigned. (emphasis mine)


Monday, July 28th, 2003


For nearly a century, submarine design has dictated that the control room be right below where the periscope is. That’s because the periscope was an optical device, where the user in the sub was looking at what a system of mirrors in the periscope tube showed was outside.“
That changes with the new Virginia class U.S. Navy boats, which will be the first subs built without an optical periscope. Instead, the periscope mast contains video, still and infrared cameras that provide digital images in color, and black and white.
Since the images are digital, the periscope mast does not have to pierce the hull (cutting construction costs a wee bit) and the control room can be anywhere in the sub.


Friday, July 25th, 2003

The Associated Press reports:

The death of Colin McMillan, an oilman awaiting Senate confirmation as Navy secretary, was ruled a suicide by gunshot Friday.
McMillan, 67, was found dead Thursday at his 55,000-acre ranch in southern New Mexico, near the White Sands Missile Range.
“The cause is a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The manner is suicide,” said Tim Stepetic, spokesman for the state medical investigator.
In Alamogordo, District Attorney Scot Key would not say whether McMillan left a suicide note. Key said a handgun was found with the body.