Thursday, November 30, 2006

Iraq Study Group to Recommend Phased Withdrawal

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group won't officially make its recommendation to the Bush administration until December 6th, but the Washington Post is reporting that they will advise the US to begin a phased withdrawal of combat forces. The committee, which is split between democrats and republicans (including such prominent figures as former secretary of state James Baker and retired supreme court justice Sandra Day O'Connor) has, somewhat remarkably, come to a consensus that I think any realist looking at the Iraq war would have to find some truth in: the US military isn't doing much good by staying in Iraq, and meanwhile a lot of Americans and Iraqis are losing their lives as a result of the continued military presence there.

I opposed invading Iraq in the first place, but since we went in and destroyed much of the national infrastructure, then precipitated what is, unquestionably, a civil war, I have to admit that I feel the US has a moral responsibility to try to fix the damage that has been done. Of course, nothing can bring back the lives of the many Iraqi civilians that have died (nor the American soldiers who were killed in the line of duty, for that matter), but if we can do something to help stabilize and rebuild the country, then it's our duty to the people of Iraq to do so. As years of occupation have shown, though, keeping our troops there isn't helping. If anything, outrage against the occupation may be fueling recruitment for the various armed militias which have sprung up over the last 3 years. If the American forces leave, there's a good possibility that sectarian violence might actually decrease (unfortunately not enough to head off the civil war).

As far as what the US can do to help Iraq, the study group may recommend a regional conference on Iraq, including dialog with neighbors Syria and Iran. The US loses nothing by engaging these countries diplomatically, and other more friendly regimes like the ones in Jordan and Turkey could be valuable in providing support to the fledgling Iraqi government. The US ought to fund humanitarian aid for Iraq, but, as the study group recommends, step back to an advisory and support role for Iraqi police.

Of course, there remains a strong possibility that nothing the US, the Iraqi government, or possible new regional partners do can stop the civil war. Here, it may be useful to remember that Iraq was originally a political fiction created by the British following World War 1 from 3 former Ottoman provinces. The strong-arm authoritarian rule of Saddam Hussein's government was able to keep the country relatively stable, but the current chaos might only be solved by partitioning Iraq into predominantly Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia regions (essentially the same regional divisions along which the Ottomans governed). The Kurds already have quite a bit of experience with democracy and self government (between the 2 Iraq wars, the enforced no-fly zone meant that Hussein's military couldn't touch them), and an independent Kurdish homeland in northern Iraq isn't so far fetched (although Turkey and Iran worry about their own Kurdish minorities clamoring to secede and join a newly independent Kurdistan). Separating the Sunni triangle from the rest of Iraq could cut off a large portion of the ongoing sectarian violence, but doing so would come at a great cost: many people would want to, or feel forced to, relocate, family members would find themselves on opposite sides of the border, and many Iraqis who are members of mixed Sunni/Shia families (let's not forget that, while extremists on both sides battle each other, many Iraqis are a good deal more tolerant) would be torn as to where to make their lives. In short, partition is a drastic option, and it's not something I believe we should do right away. Following troop withdrawal and genuine diplomatic engagement with Iraq's neighbors, if violence does not die down, it may be time to consider that. In the meantime, I agree with the study group, the US needs to start packing up and pulling out.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Lebanon In Crisis?

The assassination of Pierre Gemayel is the latest of several violent tragedies to befall Lebanon and, although Americans are understandably occupied thinking about the escalating sectarian violence in Iraq, anyone interested in the prospects of a more peaceful and just middle each should be watching Lebanon closely. There is much to be hopeful about in Lebanon: the country is shared by large groups of Christians and Muslims (both Sunni and Shia), and the Lebanese government has succeeding in disarming almost all the rogue militias held over from the country's long and destructive civil war (Hezbollah is a glaring exception, but more on that later). 2005 also saw major progress for democracy in Lebanon, as long-simmering resentment of Syrian interference in Lebanese politics reached a climax following the assassination of another prominent anti-Syrian leader, Rafik Hariri. Public outrage in Lebanon lead to the Syrian military's complete withdrawal and the election of a moderate, pluralistic, and democratic government.

This year has not been so good. Israel's war in the summer really wasn't good for Lebanon or Israel. The stated objectives of Israel, which were to return their kidnapped soldiers and to eliminate Hezbollah's ability to make war, were not achieved. According to Hezbollah, Israel is now negotiating a possible prisoner transfer (which the terrorist organization originally wanted), and the last day of rocket attacks before the cease-fire which ended the summer war was actually the most intense. The war did, however, do a lot of damage to Lebanon in general, with major losses in infrastructure (including roads, airports, and power plants) as well as over 900 civilian casualties. All in all, the war was a public relations win for Hezbollah, which capitalized on resentment against Israel among refugees displaced by the war, using money funneled from Iran and Syria to give handouts to poor Lebanese who had lost their homes. Of course, there's no doubt that Hezbollah is a violent but savvy terrorist group, and their altruism has an ulterior motive: shoring up support for their opposition political bloc in Lebanon's elections. Hezbollah is hoping to turn nationalist sentiment, which drove the current anti-Syrian government into power, to their favor (despite the group's foreign backing) in the wake of the government's seeming impotence as the war between Israel and Hezbollah raged across Lebanese soil.

Now, another popular anti-Syrian politician, this time also a prominent Christian leader, has been assassinated by unknown assailants. Ironically, though, his death might once again galvanize populist opposition to foreign interference in Lebanese affairs, as moderate Christians and Muslims try to live together in peace and preserve independent, democratic elections in their country. As we speak, Lebanese business owners are striking in solidarity with the government, and leaders from across the ruling bloc are united in the condemnation of the attack and their call for political calm (even Syria has joined the condemnation, although suspicion certainly falls on militants connected with Damascus). One certainly hopes the situation stabilizes, and hopefully the response to the slaying will once again unite the Lebanese in support of a moderate and inclusive government. At the same time, the international community should be assisting Lebanon's legitimate government. As the tragic war this summer showed, a foreign incursion into Lebanon aimed at rooting out Hezbollah is doubtful to succeed. With the support of the international community, however, the government can hopefully begin disarming Hezbollah as it has done with other armed militias and asserting its mandate over the southern part of the country. At that point, Hezbollah will basically be relegated to being one of many political parties in Lebanon, and its popularity would hopefully dwindle as Lebanon continues to assert its political independence.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

My Sister is a Rock Star

Unfortunately, my little sister (obligatory myspace link) will not be able to come to our annual family Thanksgiving celebration. Nevertheless, I will be taking advantage of the long weekend to visit her in Grand Rapids tomorrow.

This post is mainly about my sister's budding musical and film career. She recently entered a short film festival in Grand Rapids along with a few friends. The rules of the festival required all the entrants to film and complete their entries in a period of only 48 hours, and they were required to include two specific lines of dialogue. My little sister, auteur that she is, came away with the grand prize and several special awards (I'm just so proud). The film, which I haven't had the opportunity to see yet, is a musical about the end of the world in an impending asteroid collision. Last night my mother played the soundtrack for me, and I have to say that it's excellent. Of course I'm a little biased (as such I won't be writing a proper review) but the songs are funny, memorable, and well-performed. Anyway, I can't wait to see the movie. Incidentally, she and her fellow filmmakers have recieved some funding to make a longer version, which should get started vaguely soon.

To those who know us, it's no secret that my sister and I have divergent musical tastes. I am deeply moved by Techno and its musical relatives Breakbeat, IDM, and Drum'n'Bass. My sister is a punk rocker, and thinks that my music is unlistenable. Whenever both of us are in the car, it's a constant battle over whose CDs will get played (my suggestions of listening to NPR as a compromise have thus far fallen flat). Anyway, she sings guest female vocals for a few tracks on a new album by the local band The Skies Revolt. If that's your thing, by all means give them a listen. Their CD hits the market this weekend. Again, even though I usually don't much care for "the rock music", my sister really does have a lovely voice, and I'll use this space to shamelessly plug her.

Note: My sister's little "block the vote" banner, as well as the very fact that she doesn't vote is, I'm sure, meant to spite me. Don't judge her too harshly. *wink*

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

First Impressions of Nintendo's Wii & Excite Truck Mini-Review

I went into a Gamestop today, hoping that I might splurge and make an impulse purchase of a Nintendo Wii. Alas, they were sold out. To be honest, I should have expected this given the various news reports I had heard about the console launch. I've also heard that there are many more in the supply chain than the tempting (but currently out of my price range) PS3, so that made me somewhat hopeful. According to the clerk, they should be receiving more Wiis this Friday. This sounded good for a moment, until I realized that this Friday is the dreaded Black Friday, wherein suburban shoppers decay into Hobbes' state of nature over under-produced and over-marketed gift items. I really don't want to brave a power shopper riot (let alone wake myself up early after gorging myself on the uniformly high-carb vegetarian items available to me on Thanksgiving), so I may have to wait even longer if I want to snag a retail-price Wii.

Even though I may not be bringing home one of the sleek white boxes just yet, I did get a chance to pick up one of the "Wii-mote" wireless controllers after surrendering my driver's license as collateral at Gamestop. The in-store demo unit had Excite Truck in the drive, and I plowed through 4 of the game's basic courses. Excite Truck is an odd little racer. On the surface it looks very similar to the excellent (if a bit mindless) arcade racer Burnout: Revenge, which I played last year on the XBox. Like Burnout, realistic physics and handling are nowhere to be found, the game barely penalizes you for crashing (you can tap a button on the Wii-mote to get a burst from your truck's boost jets just as you come out of a crash), and your final place relative to the other racers is only one criteria among several that determine your final score (the others being points awarded for drifting, jumps, slamming into rivals, etc.). Excite truck even imitates Burnout's "stars" which appear on screen to tell you that you've just scored bonus points for some risky driving stunt.

All this isn't to say that Excite Truck is Nintendo's clone of Burnout, though. There are a number of small differences and one huge, obvious one. The small differences relate to ET having, from what I saw, largely rural environments as opposed to Burnout's often traffic-packed city streets. This means that you'll be running into trees a lot more often than other cars, and you'll be afforded plenty of opportunities to sail over dirt jumps, then steer your truck in midair to try to score a perfect landing. ET is also more forgiving than the already pretty loose Burnout. Burnout rewards razor-sharp reflexes and taking calculated risks to snatch first place from your rivals. In Excite Truck, it's mainly about driving fast and loose, chaining together a bunch of ridiculous (and pretty damn cool-looking) automotive stunts. The inevitable wipeouts and crashes are basically inconsequential; if you can avoid them only enough to at least stay with the pack and pull off a sufficient number of acrobatic maneuvers along the way, you'll make progress.

Of course, where Excite Truck is extremely different from Burnout, and from pretty much any other racing game on the market, is the control scheme. The controller is held sideways and turned like a steering wheel. You can press on the gas or brake with your right thumb, and hit the boost with your left. When you launch into the air, you can also tilt the controller back and forward to align your wheels for a perfect landing. The control scheme works admirably well, but that's not to say that I was instantly attuned to it. If I veered off the track, I would often try to twist the controller all the way around in an attempt to turn out of the skid, only to find myself turning right into the wall of the track (apparently I had turned the controller a little too far, and it was now registering an orientation in the opposite direction). I had to force myself to tilt the controller only a small amount in order to stay on the track and catch up to the AI-controlled trucks. Once I got the hang of this, I realized that the controller isn't really a representation of a steering wheel so much as it is a rod sticking through a toy truck. Twist the controller 30 degrees left, and you can expect the truck on the screen to turn 30 degrees left in short order.

By the end of my time with Excite Truck, I was getting good enough that I was winning races on the game's easiest difficulty setting. Although I have no doubt I would improve with more practice, I'm not yet prepared to say if the Wii-mote is capable of matching the precision that I've accomplished with years of experience on a thumbstick. How much of the deficiency is simply my own inexperience and how much is an inherent limitation of the controller is something I'll only be able to figure out once I get my own system home and get more practice.

Before I handed the controller back in, I also tapped the home button and poked around the Wii's built-in interface. The visual style features a lot of friendly-looking rounded buttons (similar to Wi-Fi setup on the DS). The home screen gives you access to the currently inserted game disc, a settings menu, something called the Mii channel (I only saw this briefly, but it looks like an interface for creating a personal avatar and customizing the system), and several Internet-driven channels like weather and web. The demo unit wasn't set up to access any Wifi network, so I didn't get to try these features firsthand, but they are apparently powered by a version of Opera. I'm a Mozilla fan myself, but Opera seems to have been doing a lot of work on their embedded browser to get web pages designed for a PC with a high-res display to be usable on a more constrained system, so it was probably a good choice here. Using the Wii-mote as a pointer is probably a welcome change from navigating around with the D-pad on the Sony and Microsoft consoles, too. That gives me a thought just now... the 360 and the PS3 already support USB keyboards and mice, why not market wireless ones for them?

Speaking of using the Wii-mote as a pointer, it's definitely an interesting experience. On the one hand, it's the most literal and direct form of "point and click" that you can imagine. On the other hand, the cursor was a little jittery as I moved it around the screen, and I sometimes had to consciously try to steady it to click on a button. I managed to get into the Wii's settings menu and adjust the aiming sensitivity, and while this helped somewhat, it still left something to be desired. This behavior could be the result of an abused and/or poorly calibrated demo unit, and it also might have something to do with my constant fidgeting. Just the same, it might benefit Nintendo to roll out a software update for their menu system that smooths out the cursor a little bit (perhaps by averaging samples over a very brief period).

So, in the end, what do I think of the Wii? Well, it's hard to say conclusively without playing more games for it. In particular, I can't wait to try out the new Zelda, which is by all accounts breathtakingly great. The pack-in title, Wii Sports, is also apparently a good showcase for the system's controls (which makes you wonder why it's not sitting in the demo stations instead of, or alongside, Excite Truck). Based on my very limited playtime with the console, I'd say that it holds a lot of promise, but developers are going to need to spend some time refining their controls so that the Wii-mote is a joy and not a nuisance. In all likelihood, the Wii will follow a course similar to that of the DS: the early crop of third-party titles will be a mix of half-ass ports and underdeveloped gimmick-games that try to exploit the new controller without much success. Nintendo is going to have to lead the way with some great first-party content (again, everything I've heard suggests they're off to a great start with Zelda) before the system really blossoms with a plethora of truly innovative games. Fortunately, if the DS is any indication, the Wii is headed for just that sort of pleasant future.

Open The First

Hello Internet. After many years vaguely thinking I should start a blog, I finally have. About a year ago, I wrote a small, simple software package to manage a blog in Perl, but after the work on that experiment I, unfortunately, lost the motivation to actually begin the blog. In the time since then, I've often found myself engaging in a mental writing process to crystallize my ideas on any number of topics. Once I have my thoughts organized, I often find myself wishing I had the opportunity to express them to an interested party, and publishing to a blog seems the natural route for this.

You may be wondering why I've chosen to use blogger, as opposed to resurrecting that old project of mine. To be quite frank, although my collection of Perl scripts matched certain proclivities of mine quite well, I've found that on the whole, blogger has a much more robust and well-developed interface. I also don't have to go through the trouble of finding a cheap hosting provider that will give me scripting access.

Well, with that introductory bit out of the way, I'll attempt to set the tone for this blog. As the sub-headline at the top of the page reads, this blog is about "Technology, Culture, Politics". That means that I'll use this blog as a bit of a soapbox to share my ideas on the things that interest me. You can expect to find articles on science and technology (which I hope to keep from being too boring) with my own viewpoint as a computer science student and hobbyist thrown in. I'm also an avid fan of music, cinema, and even television, so I'll be speaking on those topics and occasionally offering reviews of new and not so new releases. Finally, I follow politics quite closely, and I hope to offer insight there as well. In case you are wondering, I am an American liberal, and proud of it.

I hope that, if you are reading this, you are interested in what I have to say or, at least, the topics that I'm talking about. I encourage you to post comments in response to mine. I always welcome discussion, and whether you agree or disagree with something I say, I hope you contribute your opinion.

Well, that's about it for this first post. Thank you for reading, and I hope you find this blog interesting in the weeks and months to come.