Higher-quality discourse?


“Improving the quality of the discourse” is academic-speak for “making it safe to talk”. It lies at the core of the core of my answer to “The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything”. Higher quality discourse is the value delivered by the “Discourse Management Process”. And the Internet? Well, that’s a sovereign tool for automating the Discourse Management Process.

So… what criteria do we use to assess the quality of a discourse? And how might they apply to, say, Wikipedia (Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt’s prime example of a social machine – the solution onto which his fifth paradigm is converging)? Such criteria will always be socially constructed, but we could make a start with Habermas’s discourse ethics.

640px-JuergenHabermasJürgen Habermas

Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher, suggested that a good discussion–one that helps us all to think together more successfully–should be three things: articulate, symmetrical and authentic. By “articulate”, he means that we should talk about things that are on our mind–our hopes, concerns and thoughts–and not just keep silent or “bottle them up”. He means by “symmetrical” that each view should be equally valued and that no one person’s opinions should predominate at the expense of others, in other words that the balance of the conversation should not be skewed by power or upset by politics. Finally, he means by “authentic” that our thoughts, words and deeds should align. That is we say what we think. Our words are not empty. And that we do what we say (otherwise the conversation is a waste of time, a “gabfest”, just talking for the sake of talking). Communication is everything we do, and all that.

Discourse ethics was an important step that brought a dialogical and historical perspective to moral questions. Its critics, however, are unanimous on two points [see William Rehg’s Insight and Solidarity: the Discourse Ethics of Jürgen Habermas (1997)].

First, though it is presented as a purely procedural moral theory, it is not free from content. Everyone who agrees with its norms is already motivated by something: will, choice or tradition. Within any existing society, Habermas argues, a moral sensitivity or moral preference has already come into being that enables moral discussion to be successful. This is the willingness to reach consensus and the capacity to do so. But these are Western assumptions. The reasonableness and equality of individuals are postulated as self-evident highest Good. But not all African and Asian cultures take this view.

A second criticism focuses on conditions that Habermas sets for the participants in the discussion. Not only must these “subjects” be capable of using language and acting reasonably, they must also have a level of reflection that enables them to think about questions of justice, to argue about these questions and to reach consensus about them with others. This level of reflection can only be reached by a small, well-educated group: an intellectual elite. This contradicts Habermas’s assertion that, in ethical discourse, everybody can speak for themselves.

That’s why discourse ethics is at best only a starting point. How does Wikipedia address this? It harks back to an idea formulated fifty years ago in jest by the humorist C Northcote Parkinson, the Bicycle Shed Principle:

Most groups would rather talk about the specific and tangible, however trivial, than the complex and ambiguous, however important.

Parkinson describes:

…a committee that met to discuss the construction of a new nuclear power plant. The agenda included three items: when to have tea, where to place the bicycle shed, and how to ensure the safety of the plant. The tea issue was quickly dismissed. Nuclear safety was discussed for roughly an hour, being a difficult and embarrassing topic even for experts. The committee then spent no small number of days discussing the placement and the construction of the bicycle shed, since this was a topic which everybody felt comfortable dealing with.

Wikipedia observes that:

Theoretically every Wikipedian is working to build an encyclopaedia. However, many Wikipedians find their energies diverted by resolving disputes, or commenting on policy issues, or playing politics.

And adds:

These areas should be seen as the “bicycle shed”, whilst the encyclopaedia should be seen as “Nuclear safety”.

Snowden, Savile, Turing, Hawking

Edward-SnowdenEdward Snowden

Last night I watched Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning documentary about Edward Snowden. This, its UK TV premiere, was broadcast between 11 pm and 1 am on a commercial channel interspersed with ads for pay-day loans and online bingo.

I saw a frightened young man, caught between the enormity of government wrongdoing and a moral imagination that was driving him to martyrdom. And, yes, the critics of the film are right: it raises far more questions than it answers, and it ends abruptly. Funny that. Life doesn’t know it ought to fall into a three-act structure with glib epiphanies in the final reel.

SavileJimmy Savile

This morning I turned on the television to a live news conference on yet another report about celebrity paedophile Jimmy Savile. Someone has presented the data graphically:

Victims by category

Victims by age

Predictably, Questions and Answers turned on mandatory reporting of sexual offences (nobody at Stoke Mandeville will be held accountable for failure to respond to victims’ complaints because inaction is currently not a crime).

And I thought about two other biographical pictures, also winning Oscars this year: The Imitation Game about Alan Turing, and The Theory of Everything about Stephen Hawkins.

TuringAlan Turing

The Imitation Game is not just the retelling of how, in 1939, newly created British intelligence agency MI6 recruits Cambridge mathematics alumnus Alan Turing to crack Nazi codes, including Enigma – which cryptanalysts had thought unbreakable. It is also an account of how, during the winter of 1952, British authorities entered Turing’s home to investigate a reported burglary and ended up arresting Turing himself on charges of ‘gross indecency’, an accusation that would lead to his devastating conviction for the criminal offense of homosexuality.

I wonder if decades from now some glossy biopic will win Oscars for depicting the grotesque mistreatment of Bradley/Chelsea Manning, or if someone will write a report on the failure to remove obstacles to Ed Snowden’s “speaking truth to power”.

Stephen HawkingStephen Hawking

The Theory of Everything is, of course, a genius-in-the-face-of-adversity story of Stephen Hawking, the most brilliant and celebrated physicist of our time. Hawking, like Snowden, voices deep concerns about the destructive power of the technologies that we now play with so cavalierly. Last month, with Elon Musk, he signed a memo on the threat to the human race from Artificial Intelligence.

Hawking might know: it’s the technology that lets him speak.

Let them suck you into open warfare and you will lose

WomenintheBattleofAlgiers488The women bombers

There has never been a greater need for a sustainable political strategy to marginalize terrorists

The minute you to start to think about films like Citizenfour, and issues like torture, you encounter that Everest of cinema: Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965). This has been one of the most influential films in history. Covering the period from 1954 to 1962, the movie uses documentary-style black and white photography to recreate real events. As violence escalates on both sides, children shoot soldiers at point-blank range, women plant bombs in cafés, and French soldiers resort to torture to break the will of the insurgents.

More than an Art House film, The Battle of Algiers was re-released in a set of three DVDs in 2004. Was it purely an accident that this was just as the Abu Ghraib torture scandal was emerging? Included among the extras was a feature: The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study (May 2004). Here Richard Clarke, former national counterterrorism coordinator and author of Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, discusses the film’s relevance with Michael Sheehan, former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, and Christopher Isham, chief of investigative projects for ABC News. This is the gist of their conversation…

While the terrorism we face today is motivated by Islamic fundamentalism, not the drive for national liberation of The Battle of Algiers, many of the lessons of the film still apply.

The first job of any insurgency, any terrorist movement, is to activate the people. The Algerians were fairly passive at first. So the multiple bomb blasts at the start of the campaign were designed to rouse popular support. That these actions brought a heavy response from the army, only served to make the Algerian people more impatient for liberation. Attacks designed to provoke excessive government backlash are all part of classical guerrilla warfare. And the French fell right into the hands of the terrorists who had a much longer-term view of where they wanted to go.

When these type of events take place, you need to take a deep breath and step back a little, before you do something overly heavy handed that might come back to haunt you. First and foremost, you need to formulate a political strategy, and the French never really figured that out. How could they implement a process to protect their interests, achieve what they wanted in Algeria, and build legitimacy within the broader population? Once you have such a strategy, and a political process to gain local support, then go after the terrorists and marginalize them as criminals. But let them suck you into open warfare and you will lose. [This was said in May 2004, remember]

ColonelMathieu300Colonel Mathieu

The message of this film is that terrorism only works where there is no political strategy to counter it. The response by the French military, by Colonel Mathieu and his people, worked on a tactical level. They found the terrorists and killed or arrested them. But in the end were surprised to find that doing the right thing tactically was not enough.

The Algerian model shows why short-term tactics are not the building blocks for long-term counter-insurgency. Of course, if the underlying political situation is unsustainable, and this might have been the case in Algeria, neither tactics nor strategy will achieve very much. That was certainly so in Cuba and Vietnam. Unsustainable political strategies collapse on themselves and insurgents triumph with very small forces but an idea, a vision that works.

We need to remind ourselves that an awful lot of modern democratic societies have experienced waves of terrorism – Italy, Spain, Japan, Germany and England – and none of those worked.

The French needed to figure out what they really wanted their relationship with Algeria to be. They couldn’t cling to this notion of Empire. It was no longer sustainable by the late 50s and early 60s. They had to come up with a new vision and make their military, police and economic strategies subsets of that. They had to persuade the local population they were on their side. The terrorists would be certainly claiming “we’re doing this for you”. And the French needed to show that this was a lie.

So the real battlefield in fighting terrorism is not the battlefield we think of as taking territory, it is the battlefield in the head. But it is more than a battle of hearts and minds; it is a battle of ideas and values. Who has got the winning idea?

In the Cold War, America didn’t invade Moscow, it won on the battleground of ideas and values. Eventually the supporters of the other side, not the die-hard fighters, have to go home. That’s what you want. You want them to say it’s not worth it; maybe the other side’s values are OK.

The only way the West can win against the hydra-headed Al Qaeda [or Islamic State?] is if it can get moderate Islamic leaders to stand up and be a counter weight on the ideas battlefield, on the values battlefield. Right now that battleground is all Al Qaeda’s in the Moslem world.

We can say we have killed all the known Al Qaeda [or IS?] leaders but they’re going to win in the long run, just as the Algerians won in the movie and in life, if we continue like the French just doing intelligence and police work and not pursuing a sustainable political strategy to marginalize the terrorists.


All this, tucked away on a third DVD of special features on The Battle of Algiers. Messrs Clarke, Sheehan and Isham felt the need to be very careful what they said.

But government misdeeds, state terrorism, torture… isn’t this a bit passé? Sadly not.

Yesterday, in the UK, Sir Malcolm Rifkind quit as chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which oversees Britain’s intelligence agencies, having boasted of his friendship with former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, his defence contacts and membership of an international panel on nuclear security to undercover journalists pretending to be agents of a fake Chinese company. Also yesterday, the Guardian ran a piece on the US entitled The disappeared: Chicago police detain Americans at abuse-laden ‘black site’

Torture and dad


This is the photo from Abu Zubaydah’s Wikipedia entry. He’s the detainee George Bush wouldn’t hesitate to torture again. The eye patch – straight from Pirates of the Caribbean – makes him look particularly villainous. Wikipedia tells us he lost his left eye in CIA custody. Maybe the eye patch is his medal.

There are two schools of thought on torture: one believes that it works in breaking down the cell structure of terrorist organizations; the other that torture doesn’t work, that you will often be misled by information gained under duress.

Ultimately however, more important than either of those discussions (and beside the fact that torture is immoral and illegal), torture as a policy is bound to fail, bound to be counterproductive, because what you are really trying to do in counter-insurgency is de-legitimize the enemy, to gain the support of the people that you seek to defend… and the use of torture defeats that most important objective.

These conversations usually begin by someone saying if there is a nuclear bomb about to go off in Washington DC and by torturing you could prevent that, would you do it? And everyone is supposed to say “yes”. But it never happens that way. And once you begin down the path to the Dark Side it’s easy to justify lesser and lesser reasons. The threshold drops and eventually you find you have foregone the strategic high ground that you wanted because word leaks out that you’re doing it, and you lose all moral authority and popular support.

On a practical level, a sophisticated organization will structure its cells so that one cell doesn’t know about the other cell. So you can torture someone to death, as the US did, but they still can’t tell you about the other cell because they don’t know about it. And a sophisticated organization will train their people to deal with interrogation. They will tell them to first say things that are of low value and can be corroborated, so they are talking; and then to say thing of higher value that can’t be corroborated, so the interrogator won’t really know whether they are cooperating or not.

What kind of people can torture others?

My dad was a Colonial Policeman in Palestine, Trinidad and Nyasaland. He was highly-principled and a brilliant counter-terrorist. He couldn’t bear to beat me as a child. He firmly believed torture doesn’t work. So I am sure he never knowingly tortured anyone. And yet our strengths are our weaknesses and therein lies his tragedy. For it was certainty that made him self-righteous and, ultimately, vulnerable to manipulation. I know this because I see the same failing in myself.

For in a lengthy chapter, entitled Essays in Unorthodoxy (sic), of his book Just the Job, my dad describes with great pride – even glee – actions that nowadays would be classed as torture (think of the practice of pushing blind-folded detainees out of a helicopter hovering a few feet from the ground to scare them into talking). The story was recounted as praiseworthy in his obituary.

I decided to have an all-out drive to collect as many rebel firearms as possible from the villages in the area.

For some time I had been concentrating on gathering, through my band of agents, every scrap of information as to makes, types and owners of firearms in the various villages, all of which we carefully sorted and recorded.

The time had now come to put this information to good use; nearly every night we cordoned a village and, at dawn, assembled the inhabitants on the threshing floor. Each male would be asked his name, which would be checked with our list and with the informers who were present. If a man were known to possess a rifle he would be told to go with a police escort to fetch it, the alternative being detention for an indefinite period under the Emergency Regulations which were then in force. When we were able to describe the firearm in some detail, specify occasions on which he had used it, and some- times even quote the manufacturer’s numbers to him, the owner would generally throw up the sponge and go off to dig up his rifle from its hiding-place on the outskirts of the village. Sometimes, of course, our information was false, or the owner had since disposed of his weapon; in which case he would be taken in for further enquiry.

The action we took at Yabad village early on in these proceedings did much to convince the inhabitants of the district that if we asked for their rifles it was as well to surrender them without argument.

I heard well in advance that Yabad would be difficult; when they learned that we were being successful in collecting rifles in other villages, the people of Yabad got together to plan what they would do when their turn came, as they knew it assuredly would. They decided that, whatever happened, not one of them would admit to having a firearm, let alone surrender it. The first two or three we called upon might be unlucky and get a rough passage, but they would stand fast and take what was coming to them. After all, we couldn’t take the whole village to prison. Well content with their plans, the villagers sat back to await our arrival.

All this was relayed to me through my agents, and I, too, did some planning.

In due course we cordoned Yabad at night and moved in at dawn. All the inhabitants, male and female, were assembled on the threshing floor.

By prearranged signal, Albert identified to me one of the ringleaders in the plot to defy the authorities—a young man who was known to have a good rifle of which we knew the make and number. For the purposes of this story we will call him Mustapha Yassin, though that was not his real name.

When all were squatting in the usual Arab manner, I went forward with the Mukhtar beside me to address the assemblage. In Arabic I told them that our mission was a peaceful one, and that if the village co-operated they would have nothing to fear.

I then produced my notebook, called out the name of Mustapha Yassin as though it were the first on the list. I looked up expectantly, but there was no movement among the villagers, no sign to indicate that the man I had named was present. I turned to the Mukhtar and asked him, so that all could hear, to indicate Mustapha Yassin. He looked round vaguely, shifting his weight from foot to foot, obviously discomfited. He mumbled something into his beard and, on being pressed, stated, with no conviction, that Mustapha Yassin was not present.

“Oh! Is that so?” I said, adding: “I will show you Mustapha Yassin.” I looked carefully round the rows of swarthy faces, and then threaded my way towards the man I wanted.

“Get up and follow me,” I told him, and led him back to the spot where the Mukhtar was intently studying the dust at his feet. “This is Mustapha Yassin,” I told him, devoutly praying that Albert had made no mistake. “Go and sit down!” With a look of relief, the Mukhtar went and joined his villagers.

I turned my attention to Mustapha. “You have a Belgian rifle in good condition, No. 66813, which you used when your gang attacked Arrabeh village on the eighteenth of last month.” Mustapha opened his mouth to protest his innocence, but I silenced him with a gesture. “You will now go and bring it here.” Again he started to protest, saying that he had never owned a gun, that he was the most law-abiding citizen in Yabad, and that somebody who was interested in his wife had given this false information against him in order to get him out of the way.

This time I heard him out, then once more told him to go and get his rifle.

Once more the protestations. I said to him, “Mustapha, from the villagers of Yamoun and Kfar Rai, from Arrani and Meithalun, we have collected their rifles. Do you think you can succeed where they have failed? Listen carefully to what I have to say. If you do not go now and bring me back your rifle I shall kill you.”

He looked at me doubtfully. Was I bluffing or did I really mean it? His eyes searched my face, and I did my best to maintain an air of stern implacability and to hide my own doubts as to the wisdom of what I was about to do. To threaten and then to back down before the whole village would be a sign of weakness, and would result in considerable loss of prestige. I must know that, so what really were my intentions? I gave him a moment to consider the position, watching the uncertainty in his expression disappear as he remembered the plan for unity and non-co-operation made by his fellow villagers.

“Well?” I asked, and again he started on his story.

Drawing my automatic from my pocket, I swung him round and pushed him with my left hand towards a nearby house. We went behind it out of sight of the villagers squatting 30 yards away.

The sound of my first shot and the blood-chilling scream which followed it reverberated round the hills and put the village pigeons into the air in a panic.

I fired again, and the scream ended abruptly.

I walked back to the police and soldiers standing in front of the villagers, replacing the magazine in my pistol with a full clip as I did so.

On my instructions, two of my men got a stretcher from an armoured car and went with me round behind the house where I had taken Mustapha. After a few moments they re- appeared carrying a stretcher with Mustapha on it. His face was covered with his own hatta, but his fellows could identify him by his clothes. As he was carried slowly past the assembled villagers to the armoured car a stifled wail rose from one of the women at the back, as though attempting, with little hope of success, to dispel the electrified silence which hung over the proceedings. The rays of the brilliant sun seemed to lose their heat, and even I felt a cold shiver tingle around my spine.

I supervised the placing of the stretcher and its grisly load in the car and returned to the business in hand.

“Ahmed el Haj Yousef!” I called, and Ahmed el Haj Yousef came forward at once.

“Ahmed,” I said, “I want you to go now and fetch your rifle for me.” I started to give him the details, but he did not need them.

“Na’amya Sidi! Ncfamya Sidif” and off he went, pathetic- ally eager to co-operate and desperately anxious not to share the fate of his predecessor.

I called the next name, and the next, and without hesitation they all went off under police or military escort to do our bidding.

Not all the people on our list were in the village, but all those who were fetched their firearms without demur.

When the last one had returned I fetched Mustapha Yassin from the armoured car; there was an incredulous gasp from the villagers at this apparent resurrection of the dead, which turned first into a titter and then into a wave of hearty laughter at the realisation that they had been completely hoaxed.

The Arab, a past master of intrigue himself, has a keen sense of humour and can always appreciate a joke, even when it’s on him.

The noise subsided somewhat as I turned once more to my erstwhile victim. “Oh, Mustapha!” I said, pointing to the pile of rifles at our feet. “I was right in all these cases. Do you still wish to say that I was wrong in yours?” There was a moment’s hesitation, and I feared that perhaps he alone would still call my bluff. But then, to my relief, a voice from the crowd—probably the owner of one of the rifles already surrendered—called out to him to fetch his rifle. Others joined in, and the battle was ours. With a grin, Mustapha acknowledged defeat and went off to collect what was the best rifle of the day’s haul.

My two thugs, Albert and Faiz, who had made their way unobtrusively behind the selected house while the villagers were being rounded up, had played their part in our little tragedy most effectively. Albert’s scream had been so realistic that, although I was expecting it, it had made me jump almost out of my skin, and the way in which he cut it off dead when I fired my second shot into the ground was nothing short of an artistic masterpiece; Faiz’s task had been to keep our victim quiet and prevent him giving the game away, which he had accomplished by a combination of fearsome grimaces and whispered blood-curdling threats as to what would really hap- pen to him if he as much as uttered a word or moved a finger before he was safely hidden in the armoured car.

I was greatly relieved that this—this experiment in psychological warfare?—had gone off so well, though after the reprimand I acquired by my well-meaning and successful efforts to restore the tarbush to normal use I took good care to see that the methods we had adopted on this occasion were not reported to Jerusalem.

The G.O.C. Palestine, General Sir Robert Haining, in a letter written about me to the Inspector-General of Police on July 13th, 1939, when he was handing over his command, said, among other things:

“… With the Border Regiment first, and later with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, he has been on the closest of terms, and his flair for obtaining information and for keeping in close contact with the people of the country has resulted in the surrendering of a perfect stream of fire- arms which has frankly surprised me by its size and continuity. . . .”

Perhaps he would have been even more surprised if he had known how we did it!

Certainly our methods proved successful, for I see from my diary (which is by no means a complete record) that over 300 rifles, 40 pistols and 133 shotguns were seized by police and military in the Jenin area during the months of June and July, 1939. Some of these were captured during actions with gangs, but the majority came into our possession solely as a result of the methodical collection and effective use of informers and information. I would be the last person to suggest that we had denuded the area of all its firearms, but there is no doubt that our activities did make a very big hole in the total rebel fire-power. And it was gratifying to know that our seizures in Jenin easily exceeded the total seized from the rest of the country put together during the same period.

Nietzsche observed that the world can be a brutal place, a place where people gain power not by being wise and respected, but by dominating and taking advantage of others. So, what are we going to do about it? For Nietzsche, one of the necessary things we must do to free ourselves from this dominance over body and mind is to recognize that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are just words, words that have been used by the powerful to justify what they do – their ‘just wars’ against the ‘evil foe’, while that foe invariably preaches the same story in reverse, making us the villain.

To say that someone is ‘evil’ is to say that they have no rational motivation for what they do, that we should not attempt to understand them, but should oppose them without thinking about why. It’s a powerful tool to maintain denial of reality, and so, as individuals, if we refuse to accept definitions of what is good or evil as they are handed down by those in power, we will have taken the first step to freeing ourselves from mental tyranny.

I am unconvinced by dad’s:

incredulous gasp from the villagers at this apparent resurrection of the dead, which turned first into a titter and then into a wave of hearty laughter at the realisation that they had been completely hoaxed.

The Arab, a past master of intrigue himself, has a keen sense of humour and can always appreciate a joke, even when it’s on him.

Laughter signified the villagers great relief, no more. And “The Arab”? Dad’s clumsy compliment today seems loaded with racism and condescension.

My father struggled with this to his end.

Before we knew, it was illegal. Now we know, it’s not.

Big Brother
Delighted that Citizenfour just won Oscar for Best Documentary. This is the film about Edward Snowden. It was barely released in the UK: the single screening nearest to me was late at night and over 50 miles away. But it will be shown again on UK TV this week on Channel 4 at 11.05pm this Wednesday 25th February 2015 (hardly prime time or major channel for a serious film just voted best documentary in the world last year!). I won’t miss it again.

Here is a thoughtful, thorough and carefully-worded assessment on Snowden and the Future, given by Eben Moglen (Founder of the Software Freedom Law Center, Columbia law professor and historian).

A year ago, informed by my father’s experience of counter-terrorism, I took the Coursera MOOC Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Comparing Theory and Practice conducted by Leiden University. From this I learned that academics still floundered with the definition of terrorism [Wittgenstein’s suggestion that we should “let the use of words teach (us) their meaning” is obviously far too sensible for them], and that the boom in academic study of terrorism does not embrace state terrorism. Unsurprising maybe, considering who funds such research. State terrorism is better classed as Human Rights violations, or so I was told, “because there are legal mechanisms already in place to deal with that”.

Nevertheless, state terrorism was the focus of the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program. On December 9, 2014—eight months after voting to release parts of the report—the SSCI released a 525-page portion of the 6,000-page report that consisted of key findings and an executive summary. It took five years and $40 million to compile the report. The rest of it remains classified.

The report details actions by CIA officials, including torturing prisoners, providing misleading or false information about classified CIA programs to the media, impeding government oversight and internal criticism, and mismanaging of the program. It also revealed the existence of previously unknown detainees, that more detainees were subjected to harsher treatment than was previously disclosed, and that more forms of torture were used than previously disclosed. It concluded that torturing prisoners did not help acquire actionable intelligence or gain cooperation from detainees and that the program damaged the United States’ international standing.

Bush citing of Abu Zabaydah in the above video, that water-boarding was the technique that allowed him to fulfil his religious duty “you must do this for all the brothers”, leaps straight from the pages of George Orwell’s 1984

But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

…as does the language of U.S. government communiqués: “enhanced interrogation techniques” for “torture”. Obliging the media to explain why Obama won’t prosecute torturers who so clearly violated the law.

The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture under the Bush administration has revived calls for the Obama administration to prosecute those responsible for violating the law. Critics argue correctly that if torturers are not punished, then torture could happen again. But Obama has acted rightly by refusing to authorize prosecutions. He acted rightly because prosecutions would have failed to secure convictions; and he acted rightly as a matter of principle. Criminal punishment of a partisan opponent who engages in illegal behavior for policy rather than personal reasons can pose a risk to democracy.

Oh yeah? Too many acted rightly‘s for me.

A very few academics have, however, been brave enough to address the issue of state terrorism. For example, Dr Ruth Blakeley (lecturer in International Relations at the University of Kent) in her book State Terrorism and Neoliberalism. The North in the South puts US activities in their historical and geographic context:

This book explores the complicity of democratic states from the global North in state terrorism in the global South. It evaluates the relationship between the use of state terrorism by Northern liberal democracies and efforts by those states to further incorporate the South into the global political economy and to entrench neoliberalism.

Most scholarship on terrorism tends to ignore state terrorism by Northern democracies, focusing instead on terrorist threats to Northern interests from illiberal actors. The book accounts for the absence of Northern state terrorism from terrorism studies, and provides a detailed conceptualisation of state terrorism in relation to other forms of state violence. The book explores state terrorism as used by European and early American imperialists to secure territory, to coerce slave and forced wage labour, and to defeat national liberation movements during the process of decolonisation. It examines the use of state terrorism by the US throughout the Cold War to defeat political movements that would threaten US elite interests. Finally, it assesses the practices of Northern liberal democratic states in the ‘War on Terror’ and shows that many Northern liberal democracies have been active in state terrorism, including through extraordinary rendition.

Dr Blakeley’s most up to date work is on the CIA’s rendition programme, and with her co-researcher, Sam Raphael, she has developed the world’s most comprehensive dataset of flight data relating to rendition operations, accessed through their Rendition Project website. The flight data is reached via an interactive map (go to ‘Global Rendition System’). On the website you also find lots of other information and primary documents relating to the latest iterations of state terrorism by the US and its allies.

Finally, of course, some academic had to study just the phenomenon of the-silence-on-state-terrorism itself, and Richard Jackson of Aberystwyth University did precisely that in a 2008 piece called The Ghosts of State Terror: Knowledge, Politics and Terrorism Studies

An analysis of more than a hundred academic texts on terrorism, many by established ‘terrorism experts’, reveals that state terrorism is noticeable mainly for its absence. In some cases, state terrorism is simply defined out of the analysis by the employment of an actor‐based definition: terrorism, it is argued, is a kind of violence performed solely by non‐state actors.

My brief encounter with the folks at Leiden University shows not much has changed since then… except that their Human Rights argument is looking pretty feeble now that we know for sure that no one is ever going to be prosecuted for state terrorism.

While earlier this month it was ruled that Snowden’s leaks have legitimised law breaking by the NSA and GCHQ (in the UK): Before we knew, it was illegal. Now we know, it’s not.

Doublethink, or what?

Juxtapositions from the oceans of the streams of story

T S Eliot 22c stamp
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

T. S. Eliot: Four Quartets – Burnt Norton

In 1978, I was responsible for planning the construction of a billion dollar desalination and power plant in Saudi Arabia. I started my work at the construction company’s head office in London. The engineering, drawing, purchasing and manufacturing scope of work was taking place not only in the UK but also at major suppliers and partners in Germany, Italy, Japan and the USA. When the project moved into the construction phase, I moved to Jeddah where the plant was being built.

We set up a “war room” on site with schedules and charts pinned around the walls, artist’s impressions of the finished buildings and even a scale model of the whole plant showing the mechanical equipment, pipe bridges and cable runs.


Every week we held a planning meeting in the war room. This lasted most of the day and systematically reviewed progress in each area and on each system. This was the opportunity for civil, mechanical, electrical, instrument and commissioning teams to resolve the sequence and priority of work at critical interfaces: where the big cooling water pipes went under the road, how the pipe bridge cut off crane access to the transformer bays, when the continuously-cast chimneys would get precedence on the concrete batching plant.

Dramas of goods lost in transit, failed machinery, even sudden death from heatstroke unfolded, were discussed and consequent problems resolved in this theatre. The meeting was structured so people need only attend the part that affected them.

The Project Manager chaired the planning meeting. I took the minutes, aiming to have them typed and circulated the same day. On rare occasions when we couldn’t be there, the meeting went ahead without us. It wasn’t the Project Manger’s meeting or my meeting. It was everybody’s meeting; they needed it to do their job. If they couldn’t talk about their problems, they wouldn’t be able to solve them.

Check and display

Civil construction (and especially the marine work) was a challenge on this project. Situated on the Red Sea coast, the porous ground consisted of compacted rock and coral. The construction of a quay was a particular concern. We were building this to offload the big roll-on roll-off (RO-RO) vessels that were bringing our three-hundred-ton evaporators from Japan.

A desalination plant is basically a huge kettle to distil fresh water from seawater or rather a series of such kettles. On our project, there were sixty evaporators, fabricated in a Japanese shipyard and shipped to us twelve at a time. These would to be brought ashore by a massive flat-bed trailer.

When the first shipment was already on its way, it became clear that the quay was not going to be ready on time. The quay was built of pre-cast slabs resting on forty piles drilled into a shore that sloped rapidly to depths of a hundred feet. Drilling the piles was very difficult because the bores could easily be deflected by granite boulders that were embedded in the coral.

We drew up a bar chart to monitor progress and posted it on the war-room wall. This detailed each step of the process: drilling the hole, inserting the steel liner, fitting reinforcement, pouring the concrete and moving the piling rig to the next position. The piles were all numbered but it was hard to relate the bars on this chart to the piles on the shore, so we put up a plan of the ship-offloading quay and colored-in the circles as each pile was completed.

It was easy to see that we were slipping behind but unclear what we could do to retrieve the delay. So we drew another chart that plotted the cumulative number of piles completed against a time scale and showed the target: forty piles before the ship arrived.

It was obvious that we would have to double our drilling rate to get the quay ready in time. This was impossible. The existing crew was already working twenty-four hours a day in shifts, and we couldn’t hire another piling contractor as the work demanded specialized equipment which would never get to Jeddah in time.

When we hit real problems on site, our Lebanese owners would don their traditional Arab costumes (“thawb”, “ghutra” and “igaal”: the ankle length cotton shirt; red diagonally-folded headdress; and double-coiled cord circlet that holds it in place) and request a meeting with the Saudi client in the war room.

We were quite open. We told the client that we were having a problem with the ship-offloading quay and that we didn’t know what to do about it. What did they think?

By now, we had pinned up a photograph of the roll-on roll-off vessel and, to complete the picture, a diagram of the stowage of the evaporators on its deck. Someone noticed that the evaporators were arranged in two rows of six along the length of the ship and asked the question “couldn’t we focus on completing a quay of just half the width, moor the ship to roll the evaporators off on one side, re-anchor the ship and roll the evaporators off on the other side?” So this is what we did. By the time the second shipment arrived the whole quay was complete.

Our Saudi clients were delighted to have been invited to discuss the problem and thrilled to feel that they had contributed to its solution.

Summarizing and confirming your understanding of a situation are vital steps in creating understanding. Displaying this understanding in a graphical form is a further stride in helping people spot patterns and find solutions.

Look for patterns

Weather is the classic example of a complex system that is totally beyond our control. Yet for centuries sailors have gained some mastery over the weather by studying it and recognizing its patterns. They have discovered how to exploit its global cycles, harness the trade winds and avoid the hurricane seasons.

Many of these winds are so well known that we have given them names: the Roaring Forties, which blow almost continuously in the southern hemisphere; the Mistral, the cold, north-westerly wind that blows down the Rhone valley in France; the Harmattan, which blows south from the Sahara and brings dust storms and very dry air; the Levante, the easterly Mediterranean wind that brings mild, moist air to Gibraltar and the mainland of Spain and Africa; and, the Pampero, the bitterly cold south-westerly wind formed in the heart of South America that blows across the pampas grasslands of Argentina.

Nowadays we recognize even longer cycles in the weather, like the El Niño Southern Oscillation which happens every three to seven years. This see-saw has a profound impact on weather far away, reversing surface air pressure between eastern and western tropical Pacific, raising temperatures in western Canada, lowering temperatures in the southern United States, and creating drought conditions in South America, Africa and Australia. Next to the seasons, El Niño is the most powerful pattern affecting global weather.

We cannot control the weather but if we recognize its patterns we can manage around them. And we can do the same in complex relationships.

But presenting some truth about our complex, dynamic, multidimensional world on flat, static paper is not a trivial task.

Create visual confections

Edward Tufte is a Yale Professor who has written seven books on the subject of graphical dispay of quantitative information. He notes that chart makers, like magicians, reveal what they choose to reveal. That selection of data – whether partisan, hurried, haphazard, uninformed, thoughtful, wise – can make all the difference, determining the scope of the evidence and thereby setting the analytical agenda that leads to a particular decision. Visual representations of evidence, he argues, should therefore be governed by principles of reasoning about quantitative evidence. For information displays, design reasoning must correspond to scientific reasoning. Clear and precise seeing then becomes as one with clear and precise thinking.

tufteEdward Tufte

Tufte supports his point by tracing the evolution of visual display through human history from the first maps for travelers to the latest computerized graphical interfaces that summarize clinical information for doctors. He describes the triumphs and disasters en route.

Among the triumphs, Tufte includes John Snow’s 1854 map of deaths from cholera in Central London–a graphical representation that revealed a strong association between incidences of cholera and proximity to the Broad Street water supply (also cited by Nigel Shadbolt in the video on my last post). The pump handle was immediately removed and the epidemic soon ended. Such clear, lucid reasoning may seem commonsensical, obvious and insufficiently technical.

Tufte contrasts Snow’s success with the disastrous decision in 1986 to launch the space shuttle Challenger, where incompetent data display failed to reveal the deadly relationship between the O-ring damage (that lead to its explosion on launch) and the abnormally low temperature that day.

Tufte makes the case for “visual confections” or, more poetically, “juxtapositions from the oceans of the streams of story”.  That was exactly what we created by pinning bar charts, histograms, plans, photographs and diagrams on the walls of the war room in Jeddah – though we had no vocabulary for what we were doing. The answer to our problem was there all along in a diagram of the stowage of evaporators on the RO-RO vessel’s deck.

“What collage is for art, confections are for the design of information” according to Tufte. “Like perspective, confections give the mind an eye. Confections place selected, diverse images into the narrative context of coherent argument. And, by virtue of their arguments, confections make reading and seeing and thinking identical”. In Tufte’s words, by putting a picture of the RO-RO vessel beside a plan of the quay we were “combining assorted images of real objects into concocted universes, showing all at once what never has been together”.

Tufte argues for good method. That is “a shrewd intelligence about evidence, a clear logic of display and analysis, placing data in the appropriate context for assessing cause and effect”. In short, he talks about the need for “a coherent architecture for organizing and learning from images”.

A complex adaptive system outlasts its components, just as the ant colony outlives the individual ant, and in so doing develops a purpose of its own greater than the free will of its parts. While individuals may only be involved for a matter of months or just a few years, a complex relationship can learn, change, grow and adapt over five, ten, fifteen or more years. Nevertheless, because our lives take place at lower levels, we frequently don’t know the contribution we make to a complex relationship. But we can help its intelligence to emerge.

To look beyond our blind spot, we therefore need to think about complex relationship as a whole. Helping a relationship recognize and respond to changing patterns will make it more successful at achieving whatever goal it seeks. Good news is that – through spelling out the hierarchy of interfaces, aims, issues and views – we can build just such “a coherent architecture for organizing and learning”.

Incorporating that structure into a web-based private network and revealing patterns of thought, while by no means the whole solution, can further help to set the stage for better dialogue.

Beyond speech and vision

An announcement on Wednesday is relevant to our enquiry. This was news that Microsoft has made its experience in machine learning (aka pattern recognition) available to developers.

Machine learning — getting a system to teach itself from lots of data rather than simply following preset rules — actually powers the Microsoft software you use every day.

Its flashiest vehicle may be the futuristic Skype Translator, which handles two-way voice conversations in different languages.

Now, with machine learning available on the Azure cloud, developers can build learning capabilities into their own applications: recommendations, sentiment analysis, fraud detection, fault prediction, and more.


Peter Lee, Microsoft’s director of research, is excited about projects like Project Adam, which…

pertains to going beyond speech and vision to really a deep understanding of human discourse. Ultimately, it’s the next stage of a true AI [artificial intelligence] where we really understand at scale how to get a machine to understand what human beings are talking about.

Long story, short: making it safe to talk sets the stage for emergence of collective intelligence, pattern recognition (computer-aided or not) acts as a catalyst.

Pundits like Professor, Sir, Nigel Shadbolt now chuck human, artificial, augmented and collective intelligence into a pot they call Social Machines, and predict lots of people, computers, integration and networking. Love his Goldman Sachs (opencorporates.com) example, 27:10 to 28:40 in the following video. Talk about pattern recognition!