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Archive for August 20th, 2021

The Singularity approacheth

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As I’ve mentioned previously, the Singularity in science-fiction is when an AI gets good enough to design a better AI, and then recursion leads to exponential improvement, and the story’s off and running.

Well, it’s here. Matthew Hudson mentions it in an article in the New Yorker, which begins:

Deep learning, the artificial-intelligence technology that powers voice assistants, autonomous cars, and Go champions, relies on complicated “neural network” software arranged in layers. A deep-learning system can live on a single computer, but the biggest ones are spread over thousands of machines wired together into “clusters,” which sometimes live at large data centers, like those operated by Google. In a big cluster, as many as forty-eight pizza-box-size servers slide into a rack as tall as a person; these racks stand in rows, filling buildings the size of warehouses. The neural networks in such systems can tackle daunting problems, but they also face clear challenges. A network spread across a cluster is like a brain that’s been scattered around a room and wired together. Electrons move fast, but, even so, cross-chip communication is slow, and uses extravagant amounts of energy.

Eric Vishria, a general partner at Benchmark, a venture-capital firm in San Francisco, first came to understand this problem in the spring of 2016, while listening to a presentation from a new computer-chip company called Cerebras Systems. Benchmark is known for having made early investments in companies such as Twitter, Uber, and eBay—that is, in software, not hardware. The firm looks at about two hundred startup pitches a year, and invests in maybe one. “We’re in this kissing-a-thousand-frogs kind of game,” Vishria told me. As the presentation started, he had already decided to toss the frog back. “I’m, like, Why did I agree to this? We’re not gonna do a hardware investment,” he recalled thinking. “This is so dumb.”

Andrew Feldman, Cerebras’s co-founder, began his slide deck with a cover slide, then a team slide, catching Vishria’s attention: the talent was impressive. Then Feldman compared two kinds of computer chips. First, he looked at graphics-processing units, or G.P.U.s—chips designed for creating 3-D images. For a variety of reasons, today’s machine-learning systems depend on these graphics chips. Next, he looked at central processing units, or C.P.U.s—the general-purpose chips that do most of the work on a typical computer. “Slide 3 was something along the lines of, ‘G.P.U.s actually suck for deep learning—they just happen to be a hundred times better than C.P.U.s,’ ” Vishria recalled. “And, as soon as he said it, I was, like, facepalm. Of course! Of course!” Cerebras was proposing a new kind of chip—one built not for graphics but for A.I. specifically.

Vishria had grown used to hearing pitches from companies that planned to use deep learning for cybersecurity, medical imaging, chatbots, and other applications. After the Cerebras presentation, he talked with engineers at some of the companies that Benchmark had helped fund, including Zillow, Uber, and Stitch Fix; they told him that they were struggling with A.I. because “training” the neural networks took too long. Google had begun using super-fast “tensor-processing units,” or T.P.U.s—special chips it had designed for artificial intelligence. Vishria knew that a gold rush was under way, and that someone had to build the picks and shovels.

That year, Benchmark and Foundation Capital, another venture-capital company, led a twenty-seven-million-dollar round of investment in Cerebras, which has since raised close to half a billion dollars. Other companies are also making so-called A.I. accelerators; Cerebras’s competitors—Groq, Graphcore, and SambaNova—have raised more than two billion dollars in capital combined. But Cerebras’s approach is unique. Instead of making chips in the usual way—by printing dozens of them onto a large wafer of silicon, cutting them out of the wafer, and then wiring them to one another—the company has made one giant “wafer-scale” chip. A typical computer chip is the size of a fingernail. Cerebras’s is the size of a dinner plate. It is the largest computer chip in the world.

Even competitors find this feat impressive. “It’s all new science,” Nigel Toon, the C.E.O. and co-founder of Graphcore, told me. “It’s an incredible piece of engineering—a tour de force.” At the same time, another engineer I spoke with described it, somewhat defensively, as a science project—bigness for bigness’s sake. Companies have tried to build mega-chips in the past and failed; Cerebras’s plan amounted to a bet that surmounting the engineering challenges would be possible, and worth it. “To be totally honest with you, for me, ignorance was an advantage,” Vishra said. “I don’t know that, if I’d understood how difficult it was going to be to do what they did, I would have had the guts to invest.”

Computers get faster and faster—a remarkable fact that’s easy to take for granted. It’s often explained by means of Moore’s Law: the pattern identified in 1965 by the semiconductor pioneer Gordon Moore, according to which the number of transistors on a chip doubles every year or two. Moore’s Law, of course, isn’t really a law. Engineers work tirelessly to shrink transistors—the on-off switches through which chips function—while also refining each chip’s “architecture,” creating more efficient and powerful designs. . .

. . .  Cerebras’s first task was to address the manufacturing difficulties that bedevil bigger chips. A chip begins as a cylindrical ingot of crystallized silicon, about a foot across; the ingot gets sliced into circular wafers a fraction of a millimetre thick. Circuits are then “printed” onto the wafer, through a process called photolithography. Chemicals sensitive to ultraviolet light are carefully deposited on the surface in layers; U.V. beams are then projected through detailed stencils called reticles, and the chemicals react, forming circuits.

Typically, the light projected through the reticle covers an area that will become one chip. The wafer then moves over and the light is projected again. After dozens or hundreds of chips are printed, they’re laser-cut from the wafer. “The simplest way to think about it is, your mom rolls out a round sheet of cookie dough,” Feldman, who is an avid cook, said. “She’s got a cookie cutter, and she carefully stamps out cookies.” It’s impossible, because of the laws of physics and optics, to build a bigger cookie cutter. So, Feldman said, “We invented a technique such that you could communicate across that little bit of cookie dough between the two cookies.”

In Cerebras’s printing system—developed in partnership with T.S.M.C., the company that manufactures its chips—the cookies overlap at their edges, so that their wiring lines up. The result is a single, “wafer-scale” chip, copper-colored and square, which is twenty-one centimetres on a side. (The largest G.P.U. is a little less than three centimetres across.) Cerebras produced its first chip, the Wafer-Scale Engine 1, in 2019. The WSE-2, introduced this year, uses denser circuitry, and contains 2.6 trillion transistors collected into eight hundred and fifty thousand processing units, or “cores.” (The top G.P.U.s have a few thousand cores, and most C.P.U.s have fewer than ten.)

Aart de Geus, the chairman and co-C.E.O. of the company Synopsys, asked me, “2.6 trillion transistors is astounding, right?” Synopsys provides some of the software that Cerebras and other chipmakers use to make and verify their chip designs. In designing a chip, de Geus said, an engineer starts with two central questions: “Where does the data come in? Where is it being processed?” When chips were simpler, designers could answer these questions at drafting tables, with pencils in hand; working on today’s far more complex chips, they type code that describes the architecture they want to create, then move on to using visual and coding tools. “Think of seeing a house from the top,” de Geus said. “Is the garage close to the kitchen? Or is it close to the bedroom? You want it close to the kitchen—otherwise, you will have to carry groceries all through the house.” He explained that, having designed the floor plan, “you might describe what happens inside a room using equations.”

Chip designs are mind-bogglingly intricate. “There’s multiple layers,” de Geus said, with circuits crisscrossing and running on top of one another, like major expressway interchanges. For Cerebras’s engineers, working at wafer scale, that complexity was heightened. Synopsys’s software offered assistance in the form of artificial intelligence: pattern-matching algorithms recognized frequent problems and suggested solutions; optimization routines nudged rooms into faster, more efficient arrangements. If too many lanes of traffic try to squeeze between two blocks of buildings, the software allows engineers to play Robert Moses, shifting the blocks.

In the end, Feldman said, the mega-chip design offers several advantages. Cores communicate faster when they’re on the same chip: instead of being spread around a room, the computer’s brain is now in a single skull. Big chips handle memory better, too. Typically, a small chip that’s ready to process a file must first fetch it from a shared memory chip located elsewhere on its circuit board; only the most frequently used data might be cached closer to home. In describing the efficiencies of the wafer-scale chip, Feldman offered an analogy: he asked me to imagine groups of roommates (the cores) in a dormitory (a chip) who want to watch a football game (do computing work). To watch the game, Feldman said, the roommates need beer stored in a fridge (data stored in memory); Cerebras puts a fridge in every room, so that the roommates don’t have to venture to the dorm’s common kitchen or the Safeway. This has the added advantage of allowing each core to work more quickly on different data. “So in my dorm room I can have Bud,” Feldman said. “And in your dorm room you can have Schlitz.”

Finally, Cerebras had to surmount the problem of yield. The firm’s engineers use Trilogy’s trick: redundancy. But here they have an advantage over their predecessors. Trilogy was trying to make a general-purpose chip, with many varied components, and so wiring around a single failed element could require connecting to a distant substitute. On Cerebras’s chip, all the cores are identical. If one cookie comes out wrong, the ones surrounding it are just as good.

In June, in a paper published in Nature, Google developers reported that, for the first time, they’d fully automated a process called “chip floorplanning.” A typical chip can contain thousands of memory blocks, tens of millions of logic gates, and tens of kilometres of microscopic wiring. Using the same techniques that their DeepMind colleagues had used to teach a neural network to win at Go, they’d trained an A.I. to floorplan a tensor-processing unit, arranging these elements while preventing data congestion; when they tested the A.I.’s T.P.U. against one that a team of experts had spent several months creating, they found that the computer’s design, drawn up in a matter of hours, matched or exceeded the humans’ in efficient use of area, power, and wire length. Google is currently using the algorithm to design its next T.P.U.

People in A.I. circles speak of the singularity—a point at which technology will begin improving itself at a rate beyond human control. I asked de Geus if his software had helped design any of the chips that his software now uses to design chips. He said that it had, and showed me a slide deck from a recent keynote he’d given; it ended with M. C. Escher’s illustration of two hands drawing each other, which de Geus had labelled “Silicon” and “Smarts.” When I told Feldman that I couldn’t wait to see him use a Cerebras chip to design a Cerebras chip, he laughed. “That’s like feeding chickens chicken nuggets,” he said. “Ewww.”

Designing and manufacturing the chip turned out to be just half of the challenge. Brains use . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Emphasis added.

Written by Leisureguy

20 August 2021 at 6:23 pm

Two perspectives on the designer who Steve Jobs could not hire

leave a comment » has a very interesting (and well-illustrated) article on Richard Sapper, comparing and contrasting his work with that of other great designers. The article begins:

Richard Sapper isn’t a household name like Jony IveDieter Rams, or Phillipe Stark. Yet, his impact on the world earns him a place in the pantheon of design.

When Apple was still a fledgling manufacturer of personal computers, Steve Jobs tried to hire him. The job would have required Richard to move from Milan to the Bay Area and abandon his exclusivity contract with IBM, two things he could not do.[1]

Apple’s motto may have been “Think Different” at that time, but its design philosophy was certainly “Less but better.” Its products have continued to become more and more minimal.

“Less but better” didn’t germinate at Apple. It came from the legendary Dieter Rams at Braun. Jony Ive unabashedly points to Rams as one of his inspirations. When Gary Hustwit asked him what a computer would look like if he designed one today, Dieter said this.

It would look like one of Apple’s products. In many magazines or on the Internet, people compare Apple products to things which I designed… …In terms of aesthetics, I think their designs are brilliant. I don’t consider it an imitation I take it as a compliment.[2]

That mutual admiration between Jony and Dieter solidifies the philosophical link between Apple and Braun. It’s a philosophy that finds its roots in Dieter’s early collaboration with HfG Ulm, a school that many consider the spiritual successor to the Bauhaus.

While Richard Sapper didn’t attend HfG, he found himself in its orbit through contact with its founders and students. Coincidentally, he was also born in the same year as Dieter Rams and two other influential Germans, Ingo MaurerGerhard Richter.

Dieter Rams vs Richard Sapper

Apple took the proverbial baton from the hand of Dieter Rams. How different would history be if it instead took that baton from the hand of Richard Sapper? We need to look no further than the period when both men were at the heights of their careers.

It goes like this. In the 1970s and ’80s, the soul of product design was in the hands of two Germans. One was a minimalist who reduced products to seductive shells with their features rubbed smooth, and occasionally gave them nicknames like Snow White’s Coffin. The other, far from hiding the technical nature of these products, revelled in it. His designs were black and boxy, they had sophisticated moving parts, and they wore their technicality on their sleeve.[3]

This contrast is evident when comparing Richard’s IBM Thinkpad 701 of 1995 to Jony Ive’s PowerBook G4 of 2003.

When the Thinkpad is closed, it looks like a simple black slab. When opened, a cam at the hinge theatrically rearranges two keyboard halves to extend out of the computer. There are numerous colorful accents, including an IBM logo in red, green, and blue, and of course, the red Trackpoint. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more — including lots of photos and examples.

Written by Leisureguy

20 August 2021 at 4:52 pm

Why Did the Afghan Army Evaporate?

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Tim Willasey-Wilsey, a Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London and a former senior British diplomat, has an interesting analysis that begins:

There are several reasons for the collapse of the Afghan army, but a duplicitous US negotiation with the Taliban was the most potent, and the insurgents exploited the uncertainty brilliantly.

President Joe Biden’s claim that the Afghan army ‘did not have the resolve’ to fight for its own country would seem to be true following its disintegration. But it is as much a misrepresentation of the truth as US and UK ministerial claims in recent days that the collapse came as a complete surprise.

By early June it was already clear that the Afghan army had been ineptly deployed in the wrong places. I wrote for a Washington website, widely read within the Beltway: ‘The Afghan army is spread across the country in piecemeal district centres (often surrounded by Taliban-controlled countryside) and have to be resupplied by air. This is not a sustainable model.’

It also became apparent that the Taliban had embarked on a covert programme to undermine Afghan army morale: ‘Afghan security forces have begun to surrender to the Taliban. The procedure is quick and simple. Tribal elders are used to deliver a stark message to Afghan troops often holding positions in district centres. The message is usually; “The non-believers are leaving Afghanistan. They are defeated. Your leaders are corrupt. You can surrender now and we will protect you; or you can fight and we will kill you.” Recently the Taliban appear to have honoured their promise not to punish Afghan soldiers who surrender. News of this new-found leniency is likely to encourage other units to follow suit and lay down their arms.’

I added: ‘Furthermore, a number of today’s Afghan leaders, officials and military officers have received offers to relocate to the United States, Germany and elsewhere. As the security situation continues to deteriorate, the gradual trickle of departures is likely to gather pace. In such circumstances, the government could implode quite suddenly.’

This should have rung warning bells inside the Pentagon and the UK’s Ministry of Defence. In June 2014 Islamic State insurgents attacked the Iraqi army in Mosul. After only four days of fighting, the 30,000 Iraqi troops of the 2nd Division fled in disarray. It took three years and cost tens of thousands of lives and billions of US dollars to retake Mosul after this catastrophic failure. There have been studies as to why this happened and doubtless the case has been debated at staff colleges worldwide. But have the lessons been learned?

Before we analyse the particular reasons for the Afghan army’s disintegration, we should acknowledge that this phenomenon happens to First World armies too. A classic case was when a British army (including Indian and Australian troops) collapsed after the Japanese invaded Malaya, leading to the humiliating surrender of Singapore in February 1942. One aspect of that defeat which chimes with Afghanistan was the disconcerting speed of the Japanese advance (in their case using bicycles rather than the Taliban’s 125cc motorbikes) and the unease caused to regular troops when an enemy comes between them and their rear supply base.

A paradox is that Afghans are famed for their fighting prowess. However, as Antonio Giustozzi has argued, ‘The real strength of Afghanistan is the armed population not the regular forces’. Indeed, Afghanistan’s traditional expertise has always been asymmetric warfare. Afghan Special Forces, such as Units 333 and 444 – both created and trained by the British since 2001 – have been superb and have built on the Afghans’ natural propensity for irregular warfare. By contrast, the Afghan National Army has a mixed record, as the Soviets also found out. Giustozzi comments that ‘corruption, desertion, drug-taking, ethnic tensions, poor administration, nepotism, occasional collusion with the enemy, and impunity were all factors which the Soviets and NATO both encountered’.

Both the Soviets and NATO built Afghan armies that were far too large. The Soviets tried . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the article:

But the key element that undermined Afghan army morale was the US beginning negotiations with the Taliban behind the back of the elected Afghan government. This clear act of bad faith was not lost on the soldiery, who realised the likelihood of a future Taliban takeover. Donald Trump tweeted on 8 October 2020: ‘We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!’ Once Trump’s intention (if not the date) had been confirmed by Joe Biden on 13 April 2021, the die was cast. Every Afghan soldier would have been calculating his own safety and that of his family in the likely event of a Taliban takeover.

The US effort in Afghanistan seems shot through with dishonesty from the US government, both to the US public and to the Afghan government.

Written by Leisureguy

20 August 2021 at 4:17 pm

The puzzle of ownership and the rules about it

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On a recent episode of Amicus,  Dalia Lithwick spoke with law professor Michael Heller aboutMine!: How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives, which he co-wrote with James Salzman.

Mine! seeks to do for ownership what Freakonomics did for incentives and what Nudge did for our cognitive biases. It opens up a new, counterintuitive, and fascinating way to think about the world that we all take for granted. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate has an edited and condensed version of the conversation worth reading, but the first example struck home to me: the space in back of a passenger seat on an airplane has dual ownership. It belongs to the person in the seat, who can lean back into that space, and it also belongs to the person in the seat behind, who will use that space for (say) knees and laptop.

Often, as you can imagine and perhaps have experienced, the two putative owners dispute ownership, but they overlook the fact that they both own the space because the airline sold that space twice, getting money both from the person who has the right to lean back (as shown by the button the chair) and the person who has a right to have knees and laptop.

Although the two passengers often end up angry at each other, the proper target of their ire should be the airline. If a realtor sold a house simultaneously to two different families, they would quickly understand that the person who is at fault — the person, not to put too fine a point on it, is dishonest — is the realtor. Both families are blameless, because both made the purchase in good faith. It was the thieving realtor who will (or at least should) go to jail, just as it is the thieving airline that should suffer consequences.

The consequences for the airlines should be a law that defines the amount of space an airline passenger has for undisputed use, and that should include the seat, a space in front for knees and laptop, and a space behind for reclining. Unfortunately, US business corporations pretty much control Congress, so that Congress usually works on their behalf rather on the behalf of the public. Still, the party at fault is clear, and the solution is clear. And nothing will be done.

Written by Leisureguy

20 August 2021 at 4:09 pm

A look at Afghanistan in 2009

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I blogged earlier Sarah Chayes’s hard look at the Afghanistan War. Her post today comments on whether anyone had any idea at the time of the nature of the situation. She writes:

A number of people have wondered whether any of the things included in my previous post were being said when it was soon enough to make a difference. They were. I wish I had to hand documents that others wrote or notes of arguments they made. May I assure you: I was not alone.

It is unsightly to witness former officials and current experts arguing about who said what when, and who should be held accountable for the suffering, frustration, and deep disenchantment now unleashed. May I just say that a further parallel between Afghan and U.S. leadership seems to be an imperviousness to the human emotion of shame.

I feel shame. I feel a deep foreboding for what lies in store if American elites refuse to look at the mirror now held out. Afghanistan is a reflection of us.

But just to return to the historical record, the attached PDF was recently sent to me by a British officer with whom I shared it at the time. I had passed it throughout the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force, and to the commander in chief of NATO, for whom I worked at the time, along with the incoming Obama team. Please forgive the wordy style. I hadn’t yet learned succinct military headquarters speak.

Written by Leisureguy

20 August 2021 at 1:46 pm

Beware Blob talking points on Afghanistan

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“The Blob” seems to be Robert Wright’s name for the US foreign-policy establishment, which includes the White House and State Department, and also an amorphous mass of think tanks, talking heads and opinionators on cable and TV, mainstream media both on the editorial and opinion pages and in slanted reporting.

In this post, Wright lists some talking points the Blob is currently using:

“A disastrous American exit” was the title of Monday’s edition of The Washington Post’s flagship podcast, which was devoted to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. In case you missed the point, the podcast revisited the subject of Afghanistan the following day and featured Post National Security Correspondent Shane Harris issuing this lamentation: “It’s so hard for us as Americans to believe that an American president would knowingly walk away from a country, understanding that it was just going to descend into chaos and be overtaken by militant fundamentalists. But that’s what happened.”

Is it? Did Afghanistan really “descend into chaos”? It’s true that there were scenes of chaos, most notably near Kabul’s airport, where Afghans who fear Taliban rule rushed to flee. That’s a genuine problem, a problem actually worthy of lamentation, and it may yet portend a humanitarian disaster.

But the reason these Afghans had to rush to the airport on such short notice was that the Taliban had taken control of Afghanistan without the country descending into chaos. Most observers had assumed that, though an eventual Taliban victory was somewhere between likely and inevitable, it would involve a sustained fight and possibly a long civil war—even a nationwide descent into chaos. But it turned out the Taliban had quietly negotiated, region by region, a shockingly non-chaotic takeover of Afghanistan.

It’s not reassuring that Harris—a senior “straight-news” reporter at one of the country’s most important newspapers—calibrates his language so carelessly. But he’s not alone. Reporters and commentators on pretty much all mainstream media platforms have more and more, in recent years, been incentivized to dramatize. And the fall of Kabul further heightened the incentive.

It’s important to resist this tide—to stay as calm and clear as possible amid what is undeniably a tragic situation. One reason is that there’s a chance of this getting much more tragic and much more chaotic. And a panicked American overreaction to melodramatic reporting from people like Harris could make such an outcome more likely. With that in mind, here is a list of four talking points that will be circulating in the coming days, partly on the strength of their dramatic tenor, and shouldn’t be accepted without critical inspection:

1. This is going to be a win for Russia! The New York Times pushed this line via the headline “With Afghan Collapse, Moscow Takes Charge in Central Asia”—followed by a subhead which tells us that this Russian gain comes “at the expense of the United States.” It’s certainly true that America’s withdrawal, and the ensuing transition of power, will reduce direct US influence in Afghanistan and its vicinity. But the Times piece offers no good reason to think that any attendant expansion of Russian influence will come at the expense of America’s national interest. Indeed, Arkady Dubnov, a Russian expert on the region cited in the piece, offers this view:

All things being equal, Mr. Dubnov said, Moscow would have been happy for the United States to remain in Afghanistan and for Washington to continue to shoulder the burden of preventing the country from becoming a haven for international terrorist groups. The Kremlin sees the possibility of Islamist extremists and drug traffickers crossing into post-Soviet republics in Central Asia, and from there into Russia, as a serious threat. “It was of course a great deal for us when the Americans were doing the work of dragging the hotheads out of the fire over there,” Mr. Dubnov said.

In other words, the US and Russia have some shared interests in Afghanistan, and now Russia will pay more of the cost of pursuing them. Another term for that is: a US win!

It’s not clear why you would think expanded Russian influence in the region automatically brings net damage to American interests—unless, of course, you’re locked into a Cold War mindset. Which leads to:

2. This is going to be a win for China! Well, it may be a kind of win for China. The question is whether every win for China is a loss for America. Certainly China sees opportunity in the replacement of an Afghan regime that was allied with China’s nemesis India by an Afghan regime that isn’t. And certainly China believes it has real interests at stake. For one thing, Afghanistan shares a border with China’s Xinjiang Province, home of the Uyghur Muslim population that Beijing views (however irrationally) as a threat to China’s national cohesion. For this and other reasons, expect China to court the Taliban and provide them with various goodies in exchange for, among other things, keeping weapons from flowing across that border.

There are various unwelcome things that could flow from all this. China may, for example, offer the Taliban surveillance software to help it control a restive population. But beware what is likely to be the prevailing Blob overreading of a close China-Taliban relationship: that it’s an example of China supporting the spread of authoritarianism as part of a global war against democracy. A simpler interpretation is that it’s China pursuing what it sees as its national interest via tit-for-tat cooperation with a country that happens to be authoritarian. Sure, China will want that friendly regime to stay in power, and so will abet its authoritarianism—just as the US did many times during the Cold War and still does. In neither case is this support of authoritarianism strong evidence of a plot to subvert democracy globally.

3. This is going to turn Afghanistan into a giant platform for anti-American terrorists! On NPR, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said of the Taliban, “There is no question in my mind that they will provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda, for ISIS and for terrorism in general. And that constitutes, frankly, a national security threat to the United States.” No question at all? That’s a strange degree of confidence given that the Taliban has fought ISIS repeatedly in recent years. A Taliban alliance with al-Qaeda is more likely, but even that isn’t assured. And the first step toward reducing the chances of that happening is to muster a clearer comprehension of the situation than (former Pentagon chief!) Panetta seems to possess.

Meanwhile, there’s a war-on-terror upside to withdrawal from Afghanistan that you probably won’t hear about in mainstream media. The only kind of post-9/11 jihadist terrorism that has been successful in America on a significant scale—“homegrown” terrorism, committed by people who were in America before being radicalized—has often been inspired by US wars conducted in majority-Muslim countries. The 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting—which, with a death toll of 49, was the second most lethal mass shooting in modern American history—was conducted by an Afghan-American who, while the shooting was unfolding, mentioned American interventions in Iraq and Syria and “my country.”

4. We must stop the Taliban at all costs! Various people—some of them energized by one or more of the above three talking points—are proposing continued struggle against the Taliban of a kind that could take a big toll on the Afghan people. The forms of proposed struggle range from proxy warfare (as suggested in a Washington Post op-ed by an aspiring proxy warrior) to the use of economic punishment (which is already happening).

Both kinds of sticks, though typically justified in terms of human welfare, tend to bring human suffering. And there’s a second irony: They would make more likely the kinds of outcomes their proponents tend to warn against—like driving the Taliban closer to Russia or China or al Qaeda. (It’s in principle possible to use economic sticks and carrots wisely, inducing desired change via sanctions and then relaxing them as a reward—and if we can pull that off, fine. But American politics tends to turn sanctions into perma-sticks.)

There can be no doubt that the Biden administration mishandled the withdrawal from Afghanistan, imperiling tens of thousands of Afghans who had aided the US military effort. And, though the administration has its excuses (the Afghan government opposed early evacuation and did so for non-crazy reasons), none fully absolves Biden of blame.

It’s fine for journalists and commentators to highlight this failing and its possible consequences, including any heightening of human suffering and any damage to American interests. What’s not fine is for them to turn it into an occasion for melodramatic preening of a kind that could bring more suffering and do lasting damage to American interests.


  • In the Washington Post, Susannah George looks into why the Taliban beat the Afghan government so quickly. The answer begins last year, when the US agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan in a deal with the Taliban. After the deal was signed, members of the Afghan security forces—many of whom weren’t being paid or adequately supplied by Kabul—began negotiating surrenders with local Taliban leaders. Negotiations gradually expanded from the local to the provincial level, setting the stage for the dramatic series of capitulations that culminated in the government’s fall. In Politico, Anatol Lieven argues that US officials—who estimated that Kabul would hold out for at least a month after withdrawal—should have seen this coming. “That the U.S. government could not foresee — or, perhaps, refused to admit — that beleaguered Afghan forces would continue a long-standing practice of cutting deals with the Taliban illustrates precisely the same naivete with which America has prosecuted the Afghanistan war for years,” Lieven writes.
  • In Popular Information, Judd Legum criticizes mainstream media’s reliance on hawkish pundits for analysis of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. These former generals, diplomats and policymakers have “focused criticism on Biden” and obscured how their own failures helped create the current crisis. “While there are legitimate criticisms of the way Biden executed the withdrawal, the result is an extremely distorted narrative,” Legum writes. In the Washington Post, Stephen Wertheim argues that these players-turned-commentators are unwilling to face two facts: The US lost to the Taliban, and it never had a chance to win. “Instead of accepting and learning from loss, some foreign policy leaders prefer to perpetuate the very myths that inspired the tragedy in the first place, beginning with the proposition that the United States should and could transform Afghanistan, if only it tried long and hard enough,” Wertheim writes.
  • Also in the Post, immigration reporter Felipe De La Hoz explains that Biden has the power to let in as many refugees as he deems necessary using “humanitarian parole”—a designation that empowers Biden to “temporarily admit almost anyone into the country on the spot.” De La Hoz notes that Gerald Ford used this pathway to accept over 100,000 Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon.
  • One of the biggest questions following the withdrawal has been how the Taliban takeover will affect women in formerly government-held areas. While the Taliban has tried to appear more moderate in recent months, most observers believe that women’s rights will take a significant hit under its rule. In the American Prospect, Afghanistan expert Marya Hannun argues that the narrative that the US was saving—and is now abandoning—Afghan women is flawed. Hannun notes that the 70 percent of Afghan women who live in rural areas have suffered disproportionately from the last 20 years of war. Their frustration, she argues, is less about the withdrawal and more about being excluded from US-Taliban talks. In InStyle, Shireen Ahmed offers a few non-military ways Americans can help Afghan women, including learning more about them before weighing in on what they need, donating to charities working in Afghanistan, and pushing US politicians to accept more refugees.
  • The US and other rich countries are . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

20 August 2021 at 1:37 pm

The enigma of Enceladus

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Researchers created this enhanced view of Enceladus’ south polar region by combining Cassini images taken through infrared, green, and ultraviolet filters. The tiger stripe fractures, the source of the plumes venting gas and dust into space, are prominently visible at center.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Lunar and Planetary Institute/Paul Schenk (LPI, Houston)

Morgan L. Cable and Linda Spilker have a fascinating article in Astronomy magazine about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life within the solar system. They write:

Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, Enceladus has a diameter of only 310 miles (500 kilometers), and a mass less than 1/50,000 that of Earth. When it comes to places to look for life, however, Enceladus is at the top of the list, and it’s right in our cosmic backyard.

A bit ignored at first

English astronomer William Herschel discovered Enceladus in 1789, but it remained an enigma until the Cassini mission began orbiting Saturn in 2004. Prior to Cassini, Enceladus was a bit ignored. We didn’t know liquid water could exist that far out in the solar system, so why would anyone be that interested in another boring, dead ball of ice?

That all changed one year later, when Cassini’s magnetometer (think: fancy compass) detected something strange in Saturn’s magnetic field near Enceladus. This suggested the moon was active. Subsequent passes by Enceladus revealed four massive fissures — dubbed “tiger stripes” — in a hot spot centered on the south pole. And emanating from those cracks was a massive plume of water vapor and ice grains. Enceladus lost its label of being a dead relic of a bygone era and leaped to center stage as a dynamic world with a subsurface ocean.

But was it really an underground ocean, or more of a local southern sea? Thankfully, Cassini could answer this question, too. By verifying excess wobble over Enceladus’ orbital period, the imaging cameras confirmed that the icy crust is not connected to the world’s rocky core. This could only be possible if the crust is floating on a global, subsurface, liquid-water ocean.

And Cassini didn’t stop there. Mass spectrometers aboard the spacecraft analyzed the gas and grains during multiple flythroughs of the plume. These instruments, the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) and Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA), found the plume contains mostly water, but also salts, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and small and large organic molecules. These findings help us paint a picture of the world underneath the ice: a possibly habitable ocean that’s slightly alkaline, with access to chemical energy in the water and geothermal energy at the rocky seafloor.

Possible energy sources

One of the greatest legacies of the Cassini mission is that it established Enceladus as possessing all three ingredients for life as we know it: water, chemistry, and energy. Water in the ocean — check. Chemistry in the simple and complex organics detected in the plume — check. These could be utilized to form the molecular machinery of life. 

Energy takes a bit more explaining.

It is likely that hydrothermal vents are present at the seafloor of Enceladus. We know this because . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

20 August 2021 at 10:34 am

Vivaldi is the browser for me

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I was having Firefox problems after the most recent update, so I went browsing for browsers and happened upon an article in Wired that proclaimed the greatness of Vivaldi 4.0. Nothing loath, I downloaded and installed it, and after using for a couple of days, I have to agree: it’s a wonderful browser.

When you are installing it, you are asked to customize it somewhat. It has a side panel that opens and closes with a click, and this side panel can host any of several functions (selected by clicking the appropriate icon in the left margin):

Notes — I often want to make a note during browsing, so this is a godsend.
Calendar — It’s very convenient to be able to check a date without leaving the browser
Window — You can open another URL in the side panel so that, with the panel open, you have a side-by-side view of two sites.

There are other functions, but be sure to get Notes and Calendar when you customize. (You can add them later — which is what I had to do when I realized I was opening another app to make a note and opening Calendar to check a date).

It will import all you bookmarks etc. from your current browser, so you can hit the ground running.

The more I use it, the more I like it. Worth the switch effort, IMO.

Written by Leisureguy

20 August 2021 at 10:02 am

Tobacco-themed shave

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Tobacco is today’s theme. Chiseled Face Sherlock fits the bill, since it has

a warm tobacco based scent blended with toasted caramel, black pepper, moist dirt, and finished with a touch of leather, moss, mandarin, honey, and rose.

My Solar Flare brush brought forth abundant lather, and the RazoRock Game Change .84-P wiped it away along with the stubble. Three passes left my face exceeding smooth, and a splash of Tabac aftershave finished the job in theme.

Friday is here and has started well.

Written by Leisureguy

20 August 2021 at 9:40 am

Posted in Shaving

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