Saturday, April 30, 2005

Russian reforms

According to pretty much any conceivable metric, situation in Russia worsened drastically during the 1991-2001. There can be no doubt left whatsoever that life of Russian people, as measured by objective indicators, became much worse. The charts show an unprecedented decline in all spheres of human activity, more devastating than any country has ever suffered.

Health condition of pregnant women, mothers and children
1 - births complicated by anemia, %; 2 - children born sick, %; 3 - mothers with anemia, %

Income inequality

Construction of preschools, thousands of kids accomodated

Consumption of fish and fish products, kg per capita per year

Deep prospecting drilling for chemicals, mineral water and thermal water resources, thousands meters

This destruction of a country was started under the banner of greater economic efficiency, higher incomes, bigger opportunities for people. Economic efficiency, indeed... After the initial shock the destruction continued under the banner of greater freedoms, better democracy, opening the society. How convinient that these things can't be measured and we have to rely on the claims of ardent supporters of the regime to believe that we are in fact getting all these benefits.

And when someone does measure these benefits, we are in for a few surprises too. Corruption Perception Index places Russia 90th, next to Mozambique and Tanzania. In the Index of Economic Freedom it is placed 124th, around Rwanda and Cameroon. And in Human Development Index it is ranked 57th, right next to Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and Antigua and Barbuda. Russian reforms are a crime agains humanity and there can be no justification for what was done to the Soviet people.

Great learning resources

I was reading Cool Tools by Kevil Kelly (founder of Wired). He really does have a lot of extremely cool and useful stuff. Some of the great finds:
  • The Teaching Company - audio lectures by some of the best professors on a variety of topics. Expensive, but probably worth it. Alternatively, search on eDonkey2000 network, many lectures are available there.
  • IT Conversations - recordings of important speeches (from conferences, lectures and the like) by IT industry figures (and not only).
  • Baraka - "A cinematic poem celebrating the human relation to the eternal. Not a word is spoken, but every person alive in the twenty-four countries this was filmed in would understand it. It’s about Us on Earth Now. It’s the first truly sacred film I’ve seen". Would be interesting to watch it...

The Power of Nightmares 3

"The driving force behind these new global policies in the war on terror was the power of a dark fantasy: a sinister web of hidden and interlinked threats that stretched around the world. And such was the power of that fantasy that it also began to transform the very nature of politics because, increasingly, politicians were discovering that their ability to imagine the future and the terrible dangers it held gave them a new and heroic role in the world."

A confrontation started between the United States and the new imagined evil power - Al Qaeda, seemingly a giant network of thousands of dangerous terorrists operating in more than 60 countries, but in reality just a handful of Bin Laden's supporters.

The ridiculous fantasy of Tora Bora hidden underground base is one of the best example of how nonsensical were the tales that the neo-cons told, but also of how easily everyone was misled. What was presented as a giant military facility with hydroelectric power from underground streams and the gates large enough to have a tank pass through (on the left) turned out to be nothing more than a couple of abandoned holes (on the right). The interviews with the commander of the British forces (right after coming to Afganistan to do what the Americans failed to do - find Al Qaeda terrorists and after a few months when his forces killed zero terrorists and captured zero terrorists) is pure comedy gold.

Having not found that evil power in Afganistan, the American government turned to its own country, looking for anyone looking at least potentially like a terrorist. On the left photo are pictured two members of Detroit Al Qaeda sleeper cell on their sinister trip to Disneyland in California in their hotel room jumping on their bed and having a pillow fight. On the right are the secret plans to attack the American military base in Turkey disguised as doodles in a day planner discovered under the sofa in the house in Detroit.

Two of the suspects were convicted. "One by one the terrorists are learning the meaning of the American justice." told George W. Bush to the press after the conviction. But the court decision was overturned later, when the government's only witness (an international con artist) admitted he made everything up to reduce his own sentence for fraud. But the War on Terrorism continued.

"A group of students who supported the liberation of Kashmir were found paint-balling in the woods of Virginia. They were convicted of training to attack America. A group of African-Americans from Oregon tried to go to Afghanistan to support the Taliban but got lost in China. All these groups, the government said, were part of a hidden and terrifying Al Qaeda network."
With even less evidence than it had for the existence of a giant Al Qaeda network the US government moved on to attack the next evil power - the President of Iraq Saddam Hussein.

Adam Curtis, the writer, producer and narrator responds to a similar question to one that I raised earlier - how to deal with all the information in order to get to the truth?

"Today we all have to work much harder to weigh up the different versions of the truth that are being presented to us. This is exactly what I tried to do in the series."

Friday, April 29, 2005

The Power of Nightmares 2

Some random thoughts on the second part of The Power of Nightmares. The second part tells the story of christian fundamentalists (religious right) taking over the Republican party, it describes the failure of islamic revolutions in Algeria and Egypt. And it describes the series of false accusations against President Clinton orchestrated by a group of neo-cons.

One of the hypocricies of neocons that is evident (though it's not mentioned explicitly in the film) - they believed that myths are vital to ensure the stability of the society and strong values of liberalism were dangerous and harmful. At the same time, stability of the Middle East was seen as unimportant and they acted as if enforcing the values of democracy and freedom by ousting Saddam Hussein was the only right course of action, no matter what the practical consequences are. I don't like the world where people who are so mentally sick have power.

The film is too objective, in my view. The problem is that in addition to being objective in presenting the facts and opinions it is also objective in presentation. It would be much easier perceptually if they clearly stated that some groups are sick and evil. Of course, that would not make any sense in the context of neocons making similar accusations wrongly. :) On second thought, it's refreshing to watch and objective film that not only allows, but practically forces the viewer to make his own moral and ethical judgements. Even though it is probably more comforting to watch Michael Moore's emotionally loaded films, rationally I appreciate the balanced and objective presentation of BBC more.

It's interesting that while stupid people believe that they understand the world and act on it, smart people realise that they don't fully understand the complexities of the world. There is a correct answer, but it is much harder to arrive at it than at wrong ones. Most forces are evil forces that are battling each other fighting for their false ideals.

The Politics of Fear

I just watched the first part of The Power of Nightmares (The Rise of the Politics of Fear) by the BBC (official site).
"In the past our politicians offered us dreams of a better world. Now they promise to protect us from nightmares. The most frightening of these is the threat of an international terror network. But just as the dreams were not true, neither are these nightmares."
In the first part the film explores the roots of the neo-cons in the US (later allied with fundamentalist Christians) and the islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East. Also it explains the story of how neocons, who believed Strauss' idea of inventing to unite the masses a myth of a grand Good vs. Evil struggle were caught up themselves believing that myth.

Horrible stuff. It's not a revelation, at least not to me personally, but it makes you think about this stuff, rethink it again, pay attention instead of ignoring it or pushing these problems aside. How can the world be so wrong? How comes that instead of creating a global society of happy and friendly people we descend into this horrible nonsense? Sad.

There are so many eye-opening books and films (this one is just the latest example) that I feel like I can't stop learning for a moment. How can I live a productive, honest, correct and generally good and righteous life if I don't understand important things about the world? I don't feel like dragging along mindlessly occupying myself only with simple problems of everyday life. But then, when I learn something new, there is another problem - how to share it with the world, how to wake everyone up to the reality? It's not a very comfortable feeling when you realise you can't do it. But still, I must continue learning even if only for myself.

Fan service

I just finished watching Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. A great film, like everything by Hayao Miyazaki. Was funny and cool to see regular "fan-service".

Technically Nausicaa is wearing pants in the film, but they are surprisingly close to skin-tone and are tight-fitting (unlike pants that all other characters wear). :) The authors even had to clarify that in the FAQ. The following gratitious shot one was really exhilarating. :)

Sadly, some people are so sexually repressed that they have a fit when seeing these innocent images. They probably consider it hardcore porn or something. In endless discussions they debate whether it is appropriate or not to show some animated character naked or in a titillating pose. Stupid. IMO, there is nothing wrong whatsoever with an innocent bathing scene (from My Neighbour Totoro).

And so what if someone gets the kicks from that, or from gratitious panty shots.

People are funny. :)

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Food must not be eaten

I am currently reading "Soviet Civilisation" by Sergey Kara-Murza. It really bends the mind. There are some things said that I heard about, but could not really comprehend before reading a colourful first-hand account. One example is the destruction of food in a capitalist society. Kara-Murza writes:
I recall the August 13, 1993. The farmers' cooperatives in Saragosa handed out peaches for free, accompanies with flyers urging people to boycott French food products. An hour in advance a large crowd of seemingly well-off people accumulated at the city square. A newspaper wrote about it humorously: "they pounced on the food like Saraevo citizens pounced on the trucks with humanitarian aid after a 16-month blockade". Meanwhile, 30 kilometres away was located a state-built "complex for peach destruction".

I opened the newspaper - a huge photo that looked like a "Harvest festival" painting from Stalin's era. A sun-lit scenery, a line of tractor carts with golden peaches, huge scales, piles of fruits. Turns out it's one of several peach destruction points constructed in Aragon. The government buys peaches from the farmers at a market price, the farmers carefully transport them, trying not to crush any - the quality control is at the highest level in Europe (the newspaper explained that the EEC set the price for fruits bought for destruction between 17 and 27 pesetas, "depending on the quality, size and the appearance"). And then the fruits are crushed on the ground by a special machine or buried in huge trenches. The annual "production" plan was set for these destruction points in Aragon at 12 thousand tons of peaches - 4 kilograms for each resident of that region.

Why aren't the "useless" peaches and milk given to people, why aren't they sent to schools, to old people's homes? Impossible. The capitalist market must constantly create the strange feeling of shortage - a combination of availability with inaccessibility. As the old jokes goes, "You can't understand it, you must just memorize it".

How could that be? This is hard to take in for a Soviet person. I googled and it does look like a common "agricultural" policy. Here are just two links about similar practices:
By 1995 every British family was paying £20 a week into the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). By 1996 the crazy rules of CAP were subsidising Europe's inefficient farmers to the tune of £30 million. Some were enabled to grow weeds on millions of 'set-aside' land so that farms in poor countries could be ruined by the dumping of the EU's unwanted surplus meat and grain at knockdown prices. Greek fruit-growers could produce 650 tons of peaches a year for bulldozing into the ground. Meanwhile, British farmers received handsome subsidies to grow acres of unwanted flax for burning in the fields. (source)
The UK is the second largest net contributor to the EU budget. Included in the budget expenditure is UKP57m paid to EU farmers to destroy their produce (source)
Earlier Kara-Murza mentions that Spain was fined by EEC in early 1990s for "overproducing" milk. He notes that the milk consumption in Spain was then 146 kilograms per capita per year, while it was as high as 363 kilograms in the Soviet Union. But instead of improving the conditions of people the government paid 60 pesetas for each "not-produced" kilogram of milk (compared with the previous year), while it paid 40 pesetas for produced milk. The goal was to raise the market milk prices in Spain to a more adequate average European level, forcing the people to buy more expensive milk from Holland.

This is insane. How can all this happen and no one seems to be talking about it?! They destroyed Soviet Union, the greatest place to live ever, only to have it be succeeded by this capitalistic gutter? :(

Artificial Intelligence

Tried to write a brief page for Future Wiki on artificial intelligence.


In 1950s first artificial intelligence laboratories were established at Carnegie-Mellon University, and MIT. Early successes created a sense of optimism and false hopes that some kind of grand unified theory of mind would soon emerge and make general AI possible.

The promises of the artificial intelligence were summed up in the classic 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey featuring artificially intelligent computer HAL.

In 1982 following the recommendations of technology foresight exercises, Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry initiated the Fifth Generation Computer Systems project to develop massively parallel computers that would take computing and AI to a new level.

The United States responded with a DARPA-led project that involved large corporations, such as Kodak and Motorola.

But despite some significant results, the grand promises failed to materialise and the public started to see AI as failing to live up to its potential. This culminated in the "AI winter" of the 1990s, when the term AI itself fell out of favour, funding decreased and the interest in the field temporarily dropped.

Researchers concentrated on more focused goals, such as machine learning, robotics, and computer vision, though research in pure AI continued at reduced levels.


Microsoft OneNote

I've just installed Microsoft OneNote 2003 and has been playing with it. While I do miss the structure of FreeMind, OneNote does look as slick as the rest of MS Office 2003 and is actually quite usable. I can't wait to get a TabletPC and ditch the paper alltogether.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Can blogging cure laziness?

I wonder if opening a blog can help me force myself to write something regularly instead of just consuming information. I don't hope for much though.