Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

The statesman speaks

September 9, 2012

For two whole days, earlier this week, a storm of cheers and hurrahs rang out across the liberal commentariat  your Brad DeLong-types along with columnists from The Atlantic and The Nation  for what was described as the persuasive force and uncommon seriousness of Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.

Liberal writers have occasionally turned a critical eye on the style of such televised events, with their gaudy solemnity and razzmatazz religiosity.

Generally, however, the likes of Eliot Weinberger reserve their scorn for one wing of the US state leadership. Few professional rewards are sacrificed nor any social standing risked with such efforts.

Rare is the non-radical who will portray with real venom an entire assembly of establishment creeps and crooks, as did Philip Roth in his description of Richard Nixon’s 1994 funeral  at which Clinton delivered one eulogy:

[The] whole funeral of our thirty-seventh president was barely endurable. The Marine Band and Chorus performing all the songs designed to shut down people’s thinking and produce a trance state: ‘Hail to the Chief’, ‘America’, ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’, ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, and, to be sure, that most rousing of all those drugs that make everybody momentarily forget everything, the national narcotic, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. Nothing like the elevating remarks of Billy Graham, a flag-draped casket, and a team of interracial pallbearing servicemen – and the whole thing topped off by ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, followed hard on by a twenty-one gun salute and ‘Taps’ – to induce catatonia in the multitude.

Then the realists take command, the connoisseurs of deal making and deal breaking, masters of the most shameless ways of undoing an opponent, those for whom moral concerns must always come last, uttering all the well-known, sham-ridden cant about everything but the dead man’s real passions. Clinton exalting Nixon for his ‘remarkable journey’ and, under the spell of his own sincerity, expressing hushed gratitude for all the ‘wise counsel’ Nixon had given him. Governor Pete Wilson assuring everyone that when most people thing of Richard Nixon, they think of his ‘towering intellect’. Dole and his flood of lachrymose clichés. ‘Doctor’ Kissinger, high-minded, profound, speaking in his most puffed-up unegoistical mode – and with all the cold authority of that voice dipped in sludge – quotes no less a tribute than Hamlet’s for his murdered father to describe ‘our gallant friend’. ‘He was a man, take him for all and all, I shall not look upon his like again.’ Literature is not a primary reality but a kind of expensive upholstery to a sage himself so plumply upholstered, and so he has no idea of the equivocating context in which Hamlet speaks of the unequalled king. But then who, sitting there under tremendous pressure of sustaining a straight face while watching the enactment of the Final Cover-up, is going to catch the court Jew in a cultural gaffe when he invokes an inappropriate masterpiece? Who is there to advise him that it’s not Hamlet on his father he ought to be quoting but Hamlet on his uncle, Claudius, Hamlet on the conduct of the new king, his father’s usurping murderer? Who there at Yorda Linda dares to call out, ‘Hey, Doctor – quote this: ‘Foul deeds will rise / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes’?

Who? Gerald Ford? Gerald Ford. I don’t ever remember seeing Gerald Ford looking so focused before, so charged with intelligence as he clearly was on that hallowed ground. Ronald Reagan snapping the uniformed honour guard his famous salute, that salute of his that was always half meshugeh. Bob Hope seated next to James Baker. The Iran-Contra arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi seated next to Donald Nixon. The burglar G. Gordon Liddy there with his arrogant shaved head. The most disgraced of vice presidents, Spiro Agnew, there with his conscienceless Mob face. The most winning of vice presidents, sparkly Dan Quayle, looking as lucid as a button. The heroic effort made by that poor fellow: always staging intelligence and always failing. All of them mourning platitudinously together in the California sunshine and the lovely breeze: the indicted and the unindicted, the convicted and unconvicted, and his towering intellect at last at rest in a star-spangled coffin, no longer grappling and questing for no-holds-barred power…

The style of these official events has been honed to even more ghastly effect over the subsequent two decades, as the US president has actually acquired no-holds-barred power.

Since Washington made its strategic turn towards unrestrained belligerence to counteract the emergence of competitive rivals  and since the state’s executive branch arrogated for itself the right to conduct ‘military and national security operations’, such as killing people anywhere any time, without having to grant due process or ‘publicly disclose the criteria which guide its actions’  the praetorian flavour to proceedings, the loving attention devoted to the murderous deeds of the ‘finest warriors in the history of the world’, has become more pronounced. So has the vicious gangsterism of the speakers’ language (see John Kerry, Joe Biden, etc.)

Witness the vice president’s extraordinary performance.

Faced with this, it seems reasonable to quote Walter Benjamin’s 1936 remarks on the aesthetics of imperialist war: on the historical emergence of a social order that allows ‘war to supply artistic gratification’, and encourages the population to ‘experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.’

Elsewhere I’ve described the brutalizing effect on audiences of many contemporary mass-entertainment products (TV, films, video games), and the functional purpose such cultural decay serves.

In Nixon’s day, US society had room for professionally-successful ‘progressive’ antiwar intellectuals, producing material like Roth’s Our Gang. But our own time is rather different. Special historical circumstances are needed to make possible something like the following scene from the TV series The Newsroom, created by the Democrat servant Aaron Sorkin.

The right stuff

December 30, 2011

In a Washington Post feature article (‘Under Obama, an emerging global apparatus for drone killing’), Greg Miller writes that ‘no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals.’

I’ve discussed this fact before and considered what the drastic expansion of executive power reveals about the policy objectives of the US elite and its allies. There’s more to think about, though.

Use of remotely-piloted aircraft (as well as cruise missiles and manned gunships) for weapons delivery requires the presence, midway along the ‘kill chain‘ between sensor and shooter, of human operators and analysts.

These people must watch, with sustained attention, live video feeds or surveillance imagery of death and destruction as human targets are found, tracked and exterminated with high-explosive anti-armour (blast and fragment) munitions.

In other words, Washington’s global death program entails the existence of an extraordinary sort of workforce.

Members must be able to withstand both prolonged and acute exposure to horribly unpleasant stimuli while maintaining vigilance and task-specific focus and without experiencing the kind of negative emotional states or overwhelming affective responses that lead to performance degradation (e.g. failure to determine whether a target has been successfully ‘neutralized’ or merely incapacitated, inability to discriminate between the remains of targets and those of bystanders or non-humans, unwillingness to detect subsequent targets, etc.).

One method people use ordinarily to cope with distress is avoidance: diverting attention from the source of aversion as a way to alleviate anxiety. This is impossible for the drone operator, whose job description requires him never to look away.

Wayne Chappelle and Kent McDonald at the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine in Ohio have undertaken studies, using surveys, tests and peer reports, into the personality traits and behavioural dispositions, as well as the cognitive and psychomotor skills, needed by successful operators of unmanned weapons-deploying aircraft and their sensors.

Among other things, this has involved rating participants along the Big Five personality dimensions (openness, agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness and neuroticism) and comparing results to those from the civilian population and the aircrew of manned gunships. (Other recent papers can be found here, here and here).

UAV crew members unsurprisingly must possess all the usual traits: self-confidence, assertiveness, excitement-seeking, internal locus of control, a high degree of intrinsic motivation, etc.

But given their specific combat role, the final attribute in the Big Five domains – emotional stability or composure in the face of induced transient stress – becomes especially important if personnel are to perform successfully and avoid burnout or impaired performance. (Predator/Reaper and AC-130 gunship operators both score lowest, relative to the general population, on neuroticism.)

According to McDonald and Chappelle, those who adapted to the ‘operational environment’ displayed ’emotional stamina’, lack of vulnerability to negative mood states, were ‘tough-minded’ and not prone to distress. They found that ‘higher than average levels of  resilience to stress (or other negative emotional states), need for excitement-seeking, and compartmentalization of emotions are required to adapt to the operational demands’:

According to SOs [sensor operators], the deployment of weapons also requires well-developed skills for compartmentalizing their emotions.

The rigors of training and operational demands of the RPA [remotely-piloted aircraft] platform (e.g., targeting and destruction of enemy assets, taking the lives of enemy combatants, as well as surveillance of battle damage) can be emotionally taxing.

SMEs [subject-matter experts, i.e. superiors] reported the ability to compartmentalize the emotional rigors of one’s job in order to conserve emotional reserves when returning home from work or interacting with others outside the military installation can be an important trait for long term stability.

It is well-known that resilience to stress and emotional difficulties (often known has psychological hardiness) is considered a core attribute of those within high risk military occupations.

Furthermore, some airmen may emotionally struggle with their role in the killing of enemy combatants.

Interviews with SMEs reported a small number of incidences (i.e., four to five) of SOs voicing their discomfort with their duties and/or requesting to leave the career field after their role in the deployment of weapons. They reported such SOs performed their surveillance and reconnaissance duties well, but emotionally struggled with their role in taking the lives of others, regardless of the threat enemy combatants posed to U.S. and allied forces.

SMEs reported such SOs experienced significant internal conflict with their role, and that such a conflict did not become apparent until the SO was faced with a real-life situation or fully educated about the nature of their combat-related duties.

It is important to ensure that airmen selected for RPA SO duties are fully aware of, and understand, their role in the targeting and destruction of enemy combatants and assets prior to entry into training. It is likely that some SO candidates will decline the opportunity to pursue such duties once they fully understand their role in precision strike operations.

In other words, remote operators of weapons-deploying aircraft must be unusual people, many of them several standard deviations from the population mean on various personality dimensions.

The most important of these dimensions is neuroticism and its components: susceptibility to sadness, regret and depressed mood. If they feel at all queasy, guilt-ridden or troubled when observing burnt and mangled corpses, they must manage to suppress such feelings and get on with the job without any noticeable decrement in performance or distraction from task engagement.

In seeking to retain incumbents and find suitable recruits to work as happy killers, Washington’s expanding assassination program thus must fish in shallow waters for rare species (certainly including sociopaths) displaying the desired personality traits.

One way of achieving sufficient numbers at the extremes (i.e. tails) of a distribution is to shift the population mean for the trait in question. If the average person becomes less prone to a negative affective response upon witnessing scenes of extreme violence and destruction, then the ‘less neurotic’ types will be more stoic still, and their numbers more plentiful than otherwise.

Similarly, such a population-wide shift would raise the stress threshold beyond which task demands (such as remote killing) were experienced by operators as unfamiliar, unbearable and exceeding the operator’s capacity to cope.

Finally, an increase in the median voter’s ability to withstand the sights and sounds of extreme violence, without lapsing into appalled paralysis or low moods, would presumably increase public tolerance for large-scale killing, by those at the extremes, in pursuit of elite objectives.

How might this be achieved?

Applicants with the desirable traits and states obviously self-select for the job. But the above quotation shows that candidate recruitment isn’t perfectly reliable.

In such cases, and generally, affective response and emotional disposition can also be modified and reinforced by training. People from the University of Central Florida psychology department (Mustapha Mouloua, Peter HancockEduardo SalasDeborah Billings, James Szalma, etc.) have explored how stress-exposure or stress-resiliency training can “harden” personnel who must use UAVs in combat, so that their ability to acquire and engage targets is not overwhelmed by emotional and physiological response.

The basic technique works via graduated-intensity exposure to battlefield stressors and realistic perceptual cues, including through high-fidelity simulation and games. The trainee is habituated to environmental cues that initially were aversive and debilitating, thus becoming ‘inoculated’ against combat stress.

Similarly, by exposing the general population to an unceasing barrage of (imagery of) extreme violence (e.g. by allowing it to saturate popular entertainment), one may presumably shift in a convenient direction the population distribution of relevant dispositions and attitudes, bestowing an everyday familiarity (sanitized, to be sure) and tolerability on what is pursued in secret.

This, too, I’ve discussed in greater detail in another post.

Becoming stress hardened through training and through entertainment

August 24, 2011

Christopher J. Ferguson is a young associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M. For the most part, his published work has been devoted to defence of violent video games and other visual media.

He contests the research findings of disciplinary colleagues that such games desensitize users to violence, attach rewards to aggression and increase their players’ propensity for violent behaviour.

The disparity in the balance of scholarly opinion has demanded from him great feats of argumentative and publishing energy.

Eleven of his papers were cited, and his signature attached to the list of amici curiae (who also included figures like Todd Gitlin and Steven Pinker), in the pro-games-association brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court before its recent decision on a Californian law restricting sales to minors (Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association).

I have no great taste for comment on Ferguson’s work; to each his chosen niche.

But the following astonishing remark, which he delivered earlier this year, was a little too much to ignore:

Another common urban legend is that the US military uses video games to desensitize soldiers so that they will kill more reliably…

Never mind that the US Army has denied these claims (video games are used for vehicle and team training and decision making and even recruitment, but not desensitization) or that police organizations use similar simulations to reduce impulsive “bad” shootings.

Nor does it seem to matter that today’s youth, consuming far greater amounts of violent games than any past generation possibly could, are the least violent youth in 40 years.

The sound byte is repeated often, presumably because of its emotional appeal.

Elsewhere he has scorned what he calls ‘the false notion that the military uses video games to desensitize soldiers to killing (they do use simulators for visual scanning and reaction time and vehicle training, but they seem more effective in reducing accidental shootings than anything else).’

Ferguson teaches a subject called Psychology of War at a military college, so his remarks (games as the path to purity of arms!) cannot plausibly be explained by ignorance.

More importantly, Ferguson undertook his doctoral research at the University of Central Florida, a member of the Team Orlando collaborative alliance of defence contractors, branches of the armed forces, DoD agencies, and scholars in the fields of simulation, training and human performace.

The motto of Team Orlando is improving human performance through simulation. The psychology department at UCF, with its Institute for Simulation and Training, is heavily involved in this project. A departmental laboratory is sponsored by the Office for Naval Research (ONR).

Ferguson surely is familiar with the work of faculty members such as Eduardo Salas, Peter Hancock, Clint A. Bowers and Janis Cannon-Bowers, and perhaps that of their regular co-author James Driskell, researcher from the Florida Maxima Corporation.

These scholars and their grad students  Ferguson must know this, too  have devoted themselves to exploring how the operational training of combat soldiers can best ‘moderate the performance effects of stressors’.

In other words, they investigate how training can reduce the decrement in proficiency (of e.g. shoot/no-shoot decisions and marksmanship) caused by the acute stress of the ‘battlefield environment’.

And this goal, their advice runs, is best achieved through ‘arousal habituation’, i.e. desensitization to the violence that troops are expected to undertake.

Training delivered via simulation, games and virtual environments is a big part of this.

Clarke Lethin from the ONR, technical manager of the Future Immersive Training Environment, has described the purpose of his simulator. It involves delivery of  ‘sensory overload’, to inoculate the instructee against combat stress, then to ‘determine if Marines have a diminished stress reaction… during follow-up exposures.’

The newfound ‘resilience’ acquired during pre-deployment training helps to increase the lethality of personnel in operational situations, preventing them from freezing in combat.

The UCF psychologists have described how stress reactions (trembling, feelings of anxiety, increased heart rate, sweating, laboured breathing, decreased fine motor skills and other physiological symptoms of extreme arousal), especially novel and unfamiliar ones, present ‘off-task stimuli’. These distract the soldier or marine from task-relevant details, and increase demands on his or her attentional resources.

Assuming that attentional resources are finite and must be allocated between competing uses, they explain, a higher ‘cognitive load’ can impair task performance. The symptoms of acute stress (auditory blocking, tunnel vision, rigidity, nausea, etc.) can entirely prevent execution of the task.

They describe, finally, how stress can cause loss of both motivation and ‘team perspective.’ A U.S. Army field manual (22-51, 1994) and an ADF research paper each detail a range of symptoms by which combat stress renders soldiers ‘ineffective as members of combat units’, from failure to engage the enemy (‘combat refusal’) to shirking, panic running and malingering.

Numerous contemporary studies (as well as the work of Zahava Solomon with IDF veterans of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and earlier wars) have shown that the best predictor of suffering ‘combat stress reactions’, PTSD or other mental-health problems is a soldier’s having witnessed persons being wounded or killed, along with having engaged in direct combat during which they discharged their weapon; killing an enemy combatant or civilian; seeing, smelling or handling dead or decomposing bodies; and seeing fellow soldiers or friends dead or maimed.

(As is well known, Himmler discovered that the killing efficiency of his Einsatzgruppen was limited by the debilitating stress reactions suffered by those troops who performed mass executions by shooting. This fact apparently motivated the switch to using gas vans and later gas chambers to undertake the Vernichtungskrieg).

Yet current US military combat operations are highly dependent on kill/capture missions, remotely-directed assassinations and ‘irregular warfare’ (so-called stability operations, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency).

These programs have recently been described approvingly by John Nagl, a West Point alumnus with close ties to the Obama administration and a hand in writing the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual, as an ‘almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine.’

See also the recent warning in The Australian newspaper of ‘the enormous personal price’ paid by special forces soldiers and their families as they faced repeated deployment and ‘a much more aggressive and assertive role.’ According to one former special forces officer: ‘Some 600 guys have done most of the killing in the past 10 years. That’s a terrible burden to place on a small number of soldiers and they keep getting rotated back.’

If this killing machine is to operate effectively, it must overcome the emotional and physiological barriers erected by the human nervous system and the wider culture against the killing of conspecifics.

Therefore the pre-eminent training objective, pace Ferguson, is to ensure that troops ‘will kill more reliably’, that lethal behaviour can be elicited and executed properly even when, for most people, this would produce overwhelming and debilitating stress reactions.

The relationship between arousal and combat performance is commonly modelled as an inverted U-shaped function. Peak performance is reached and maintained when the soldier is neither too inhibited (hypostress) nor too excited (hyperstress), and falls away either side of this middle ground.

‘Positive stress’ helps to ‘motivate’ the warfighter, and this may be elicited by stoking a sense of gamesmanship or eliteness. But UCF’s Peter Hancock warns that stress increments above a ‘tolerance threshold’ lead to catastrophic performance breakdown (he cites as an example Marshall’s WW2 report of many soldiers’ failure to fire weapons in combat).

Training should therefore aim to raise the maximal stress load that an individual can bear before he is overwhelmed. This is known as stress hardening or resilience training; both terms are semantically indistinct from desensitization.

The UCF psychology team, and many other researchers into military psychology, have stated that the degree of hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activation, during exposure to stressful environments and activities, depends on the soldier’s prior experience of relevant procedures and familiarity with the perceptions involved.

Habitual and graduated exposure to novel and aversive stimuli during repeated skills-acquisition drills, before deployment to combat theatres, allows ‘inoculation’ against stress. (There is evidence that special-forces personnel can tolerate higher levels of acute and chronic stress than can general infantry troops.)

They have therefore recommended ‘overlearning’, allowing acquisition and retention of sensorimotor skills (e.g. shooting), and their maintenance in high-stress environments, so they can be executed ‘automatically’ without the warfighter’s needing to explicitly devote attentional resources.

Rehearsal, they have explained, in training settings that closely approximate the operational situation, builds a repertoire of ‘routinised’, familiar actions that are rapidly accessible, with the desired response triggered when driven by the relevant environmental cues or patterns.

For this purpose, they have explained that games and battlefield simulations can replace time spent on live firing and gunnery ranges. Bowers, in an address at this year’s GameTech conference in Florida, explained how games allowed increase in the ‘fidelity of traumatic cues’ that are ‘likely to be encountered in the operational setting.’

The Pentagon’s main provider of video target walls for simulating dismounted-infantry operations and special-operations close combat (e.g. target acquisition and house clearing), explains the innovative worth of its ‘realistic virtual targets’. The latter open up ‘a whole new realm of training by replacing antiquated static targetry, as traditionally found in a CQB [close-quarters battle] training environment, with large, immersive target walls displaying projected images of life-size, full-motion moving targets’ which ‘mimic the life-like movements and reactions to that of real humans.’ Its publicity brochure notes that ‘skeleton and organs can be viewed to show severity of wound.’

Such a system is used to project targets and the avatars of participants in mixed-reality close-combat exercises at USMC Camp Pendleton. The Director of the Battle Simulations Centre there, Tom Buscemi, has explained that the Infantry Immersion Trainer is ‘designed to inoculate deploying Marines with the sights, sounds, and smells of a gun battle… We’ve had people go into shock. We’ve had people completely stunned.’

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, marvelled that the trainer used simulation to help ‘all of our conventional forces…to have more special forces attributes.’

The latter has been a key objective since a December 2008 Pentagon directive recognised irregular operations to be ‘as strategically important as traditional warfare.’ The training of general-purpose infantry was henceforth to assume a new focus on the ‘grim skills’ of ‘close combat, where intimate killing is the norm’, according to CENTCOM Commander James Mattis.

How this instruction was to proceed was the topic of an Irregular Warfare Training Symposium, hosted by the University of Central Florida during September 2009, its tagline being The Future of Small Unit Excellence in Immersive Cognitive Training. Participants agreed on the need to develop ‘supporting technology: an immersive, high-stress, near-real decision-making capability that is scalable, infinitely repeatable and unique.’

In games, simulations and virtual environments, UCF and other military-training researchers have found, aversive and novel stressors (unpleasant noises such as screaming or engine sounds, the visual and olfactory stimuli of death and destruction, heat, haptic feedback of fired weaponry, etc.) can be replicated with high fidelity, at low cost and allowing high-frequency repetition.

Trainees can be attached to real-time sensors, and undergo post-drill tests, to measure their eye-blink duration, respiration rate, palmar sweating, salivary alpha-amylase (a proxy for noradrenaline), cortisol and blood-glucose levels (to measure activation of endocrine response), body temperature, heart rate and skin conductance.

Monitoring these indicators of autonomic nervous-system activity allows instructors to check their key concern: the ‘ability to induce and modulate high stress.’

A 2002 report into ‘cognitive readiness’ undertaken for the DoD noted:

[One] would predict that performance under emotionally arousing combat conditions would be improved by training under identical, or at least similar, arousing conditions…

In the past, technology and ethical constraints have acted to limit the degree to which training evokes the strong emotions associated with combat. Some have claimed that immersive simulation technology (i.e., simulations that involve multiple sensory modes — sounds and smells as well as visual stimuli) has the ability to evoke strong emotions…

It remains to be seen, however, whether the emotions evoked in immersive simulation are similar in quality and intensity to those experienced in combat.

This 2005 report, prepared for DARPA following a three-year study, compared the subsequent performance in live combat exercises of subjects who had previously trained, using laptops or head-mounted displays, in ‘virtual shoot houses’ and simulated Iraqi villages, with that of a control group who had not used the virtual-world trainers before entering the real shoot house or village.

Along with other improved performance metrics, the first group was found to have exhibited superior stress management, ‘combat breathing’ and arousal-control techniques. The control group, on the other hand, exhibited some behaviour characteristic of confusion and panic, e.g. taking cover behind propane tanks when under fire.

The report concluded regarding the three-wall CAVE projection: ‘The life-size dimensions and projection must be impacting the synthesis of information. Furthermore, participants of the [immersive virtual trainer] group commented that once in the real shoothouse, they felt as though they had “already been there.”’

The authors concluded that training delivery by these means would allow associative learning (i.e. use of cues to elicit the desired behaviour) and help instructors ‘automate a response through repetition.’

The authors of that report  Mark and Brenda Wiederhold, whose Virtual Reality Medical Centre is a recipient of ONR project funding  expanded elsewhere on the worth of simulated environment in desensitizing and ‘stress hardening’ trainees:

Deployed personnel must often perform in extremely stressful environments, and optimum performance under such conditions requires effective management of physiological, psychological and emotional responses to stimuli. An acute stress reaction (ASR) or combat and operational stress reaction (COSR) can occur during exposure to exceptionally stressful events like those encountered in combat, resulting in extreme sympathetic nervous system arousal and impaired performance…

During VR-enhanced preventative SIT [stress-inoculation training], military personnel “experience” highly stressful situations in a virtual environment while being physiologically monitored. Repeated exposure enables personnel to gradually become desensitized to stimuli that may initially elicit such strong physiological arousal that performance is impeded (i.e., “freezing in the line of fire”) …

Naval research has also concluded that stress-exposure training in ‘virtual environments’ decreases the trainee’s physiological response to stress and thus mitigates the adverse performance effects of stress on aviators.

UCF faculty member Peter Hancock, on the other hand, argued in a paper for the journal Military Psychology that high-fidelity simulations were not necessary for effective combat training.

When the elements of a game are present, part of the physical fidelity or reproduced realness of a simulated environment may be sacrificed while immersion itself still remains at an optimal level for training effectiveness. Thus, personal computer (PC)-based gaming tools can be highly effective training tools.

Experiments were conducted ‘supplementing an OTS [off-the-shelf, i.e. commercial entertainment] infantry game training session with an intense and vivid video depiction of a front-line infantry battle’ (15 minutes of realistic and ‘graphically intense war scenes from the beach invasion portion of the movie Saving Private Ryan‘).

Instructors were able to induce in their subjects ‘increased arousal via movie-like special effects’. Compared to a control group who watched a ‘non-stimulating’ black-and-white clip of actual documentary footage from the Normandy landing, individuals whose ‘were exposed to realistic warlike stress images and reacted with positive arousal… effectively retained training and had higher performance scores overall.’

Writing in 2004, he concluded: ‘With recent world events, it is evident that PC-based game training combined with effective supplementary stress might be used to assist rapid-deployment troops who will face immediate immersion in real-world conditions.’

And what of the visual-attention proficiency that Ferguson mentions?

Such skills (which underlie e.g. shooting accuracy, friend-or-foe discrimination) are known to degrade with stress. The US Army Research Laboratory suggests the capacity of video games to improve visual focus, enhancing the ability of troops to filter out distracting information and attend selectively to task-relevant stimuli (i.e. enemy targets) in combat environments, is explained by stress habituation.

Experiments reveal participants trained to play first-person shooter video games featuring ‘intense battlefield violence’ perform better at subsequent attentional-focus and object-tracking exercises than those trained to play similar games with the combat violence removed.

The same physiological measures of arousal and autonomic nervous system activation (skin conductivity, heart rate, etc.) show that violent video games played for entertainment purposes have a similar effect. Their users become habituated and gradually develop tolerance for stimuli (e.g. footage of real-life stabbings) and activities that initially provoke a stress response.

This fact suggests that violent visual-entertainment products (some computer and console-based games, as well as films and TV programmes) may inadvertently function like stress-exposure training for their audience and users.

For combat and marksmanship training, the goal of imparting ‘resilience’ is to increase the survival and lethality of troops. This is of course not the point of entertainment products, where the only concern besides the commercial one is the usual pride of producers in their work.

But these products seem nonetheless to involve a similar brutalization or ‘hardening’. They arouse their audiences and users and then gradually lower the latter’s affective and physiological responses to extreme violence. Violence thereafter can be appreciated on higher cognitive planes: as satiric, intriguing, comic, food for thought, artfully presented, exhilirating, etc.

This will be an unpalatable conclusion for anyone fond of such products or with a professional interest in their continued good standing, production, sale and use. But it simply isn’t honest to deny the antecedent proposition (i.e. that combat training uses games/simulation to desensitize instructees) in order safely to reject the consequent.

A poser

May 17, 2011

Having been asked to comment on the Bin Laden assassination, Benjamin Ferencz (a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials) ends his interview with CBC radio by describing the US state elite’s turn towards strategic criminality (see last two decades, passim).

This, he makes clear, consists not merely (or mostly) of using roaming extra-territorial hit squads, a bit of the old non-judicial detention, attempted assassination of political leaders (e.g. Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein), and a sensitive new (post-speech-in-Cairo?) commitment to the traditional Islamic burial rite of Ståplats i Nybroviken.

Ho hum.

The assessment rests, rather, on culpability for crimes against peace, i.e. belligerence to advance policy objectives, viz. yer actual hanging offence c. 1945:

I’m afraid most of the lessons of Nuremberg have passed. Unfortunately, the world has accepted them but the United States seems reluctant to do so.

The principal lesson we learned from Nuremberg is that a war of aggression  that means, a war in violation of international law, in violation of the UN charter, and not in self-defense  is the supreme international crime, because all the other crimes happen in war. And every leader who is responsible for planning and perpetrating that crime should be held to account in a court of law, and the law applies equally to everyone.

These lessons were hailed throughout the world  I hailed them, I was involved in them  and it saddens me no end when Americans are asked: why don’t you support the Nuremberg principles on aggression? 

And the response is: Nuremberg? That was then; this is now. Forget it.

As previously discussed on this blog, various court philosophers have been complicit in the diminishing of aggressive war’s status as ‘the supreme international crime’ (the phrase dates from the Nuremberg judgements themselves), e.g. by re-casting it as an auxiliary offence (i.e. one with no distinct independent existence) conditional on the prior or concurrent commission of war crimes or crimes against humanity, or by shrugging it off as hopelessly indefinable.

Among these are numbered not just straightforward regime stooges like Bernard-Henri Lévy, but more ‘serious’ scholarly figures like Jürgen Habermas and Larry May.

To this list of the culpable may be added a mainstream media that has, with no great subtlety, deliberately cultivated a war-loving Sammlungspolitik amongst the broader US population, with ‘reporters’ from Entertainment Tonight unaccountably visiting training facilities at Fort Irwin for fawning photo ops, and professional sportsmen such as LeBron James and Lance Armstrong conscripted into the post-OBL-death celebrations.

How is one to understand this situation, in which rules set up over centuries to govern lawful international conduct have been trumped by some perceived imperative or strategic emergency (which ’emergency’, on any fact-sensitive assessment, plainly does not resemble the official line about terrorist threats or humanitarian crises)?

Liberal analysts like Glenn Greenwald, whose column in Salon has valiantly tracked the bipartisan criminalization of the US political class (it’s where I found the Ferencz interview), offer no adequate way of interpreting it, outside of vague mutterings about the Mil-Ind Complex, the National-Security-&-Surveillance State, etc.

I know I do harp on about this, and frankly it’s all a little downbeat and something one attends to only grudgingly.

But it’s a reasonably pertinent question: just what do non-radical folks think the boys in Washington, and their allies, are up to with this routine (i.e. overthrowing governments in various energy-rich regions and disposing of their leaders in more-or-less mobsterish fashion, establishing and retaining military garrisons close to key infrastructure, ensuring that successor regimes have various desirable characteristics, wiping out and mutilating people in huge numbers, not to mention the whole arbitrary-detention-and-torture business)?

It’s happening, right?

So what are they so-to-speak getting at?

Common dreams

April 6, 2011

The Joint Fires and Effects Training System, created by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), has received some attention for using what its makers describe as ‘the creative talents of Hollywood and the game industry’ plus ‘movie-industry effects’ to mix simulation with ‘story-driven content’.

The ICT was established in 1999 as a defence-affiliated research lab following a report published in 1997 as ‘Modeling and Simulation: Linking Entertainment and Defense’.

ICT has since also produced UrbanSim, a game that trains in ‘complex counterinsurgency and stability operations’, and Full Spectrum Warrior, an entertainment game that grants users tactical command of a light-infantry platoon.

The JFETS trainer is one of many dismounted forward-observer simulators that allow users to practice calling for indirect fire (artillery and close air support). Similar generic products are freely available online for entertainment purposes.

The more broad trainers, ‘synthetic battlespace rehearsal systems’, are themselves modified from off-the-shelf commercial games. Virtual Battlespace Systems (VBS) 1 and 2 were based on a commercial game called Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis, adapted by Bohemia Interactive Australia and distributed worldwide by the Florida defence contractor Coalescent Technologies.

Meanwhile all four branches of the US armed forces, together with the DoD, Homeland Security and other government agencies, have pooled training-systems resources and commands in a ‘unique military collaborative alliance supplemented, supported and augmented by academic and industry leaders in the modeling and simulation, human performance, and training domains.’

This sixty-year-old alliance between defence contractors, universities and military is now called Team Orlando, and is based in the Central Florida Research Park.

The latter is home to the National Center for Simulation. It also contains the headquarters of IDEAS, a subsidiary of entertainment giant Disney, an ‘innovation studio’ that produced products for the US Navy’s ‘Revolution in Training’. Lockheed Martin (which produces a series of games under the DARWARS programme) has its regional office there, as do Boeing, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems (the world’s largest military contractor) and videogames companies EA and n-Space.

Another resident firm, AVT Simulations, lists as a key activity its adaptation of commercial game engines to meet the training requirements of military customers.

Each year Team Orlando holds and participates in events like I/ITSEC (the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference), GameTech and Otronicon.

These are intended, firstly, to facilitate cooperation between armed services, government agencies, academia and private firms in developing military training products and services. They are also supposed to showcase ‘how some artists are crossing over from military to entertainment to military applications’, and to attract ‘current and future gamers to add the defense industry as a career option.’

At last year’s GameTech Will Wright, creator of the Sims series of games, gave the keynote speech; this year the honorary address was delivered by the head of game-development firm Zombie Studios. The 2011 event was held during the same week in late March at the same Orlando hotel as the Army Games for Training Conference.

Indeed, insofar as the US Defense Department and the various armed-forces agencies take a serious interest in games and virtual simulators, it almost exclusively is as training instruments that can meet much the same needs as do live exercises.

Altogether, the US Army’s Warfighter Training Alliance, led by military contractor Raytheon, integrates three kinds of training: Live, Virtual (‘immersive’ simulations, operated by Computer Sciences Corporation) and Constructive (game-driven simulations, administered by General Dynamics).

Wright, in his keynote address to GameTech 2010, listed a bunch of trendy topics (network theory, complex adaptive systems, cellular automata, power-law distributions, chaos theory, nested hierarchies, etc.) in which, he claimed, the concerns of games design and those of counter-insurgency planning intersected.

But Wright’s talk was followed immediately by some quick words from Frank C. DiGiovanni, Director of Training Readiness and Strategy at the Pentagon’s Office of Personnel and Readiness. DiGiovanni is the policy coordinator and overseer of training for all four branches of the US armed forces; his office was the co-sponsor, together with Team Orlando, of GameTech.

DiGiovanni oversees development of Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiatives.

ADL emerged during the Clinton administration as an attempt to ‘support geographically unconstrained training’ in a future operating environment of ‘persistent conflict.’ The ADL website asks: ‘Why is the DoD putting so much effort into advanced learning technology?’

The increased rate of deployments of the DoD’s forces in recent years, which often involve rapid, unplanned movements to locations around the world, highlights the need to provide training on demand to individuals and units deployed worldwide. Accordingly, because of more demanding deployment criteria and other time-sensitive constraints, the DoD recognizes that yesterday’s framework of “right time, right place” learning, with its use of set times and places, may not meet future requirements. It also recognizes that providing “anytime, anywhere” instruction is essential to maintaining military readiness in the information age; future forces and their support activities must be highly adaptive to address threats effectively and rapidly.

The Pentagon’s 2010 Strategic Plan for the Next Generation of Training declared that one of the two training revolutions to have occurred in the previous 40 years was ‘the development of large scale ranges that allowed large force exercises and high fidelity conflict simulation in the late 1970s, early 80s.’ This referred to the giant National Training Centre at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert.

But this site was no longer adequate. Parts of it had recently been leased out for solar thermal and PV installations, and as a fixed location it no longer met strategic needs, which tended towards military expansionism and global power projection. This would leave hundreds of thousands of US soldiers and marines deployed in combat zones and stationed at overseas garrisons, rarely rotated back home:

Not only are U.S. forces deploying more often, they are experiencing an increasingly diverse range of missions when they do…As current operations, major materiel acquisitions and personnel related expenses continue to consume an increasing portion of defense budgets, funding for training will face significant budget pressures. Training facilities and other resources may often be underfunded, especially in relation to the increased demand described above. Meanwhile, competing demands for air, ground and maritime maneuver space, the growing reach of sensors and weapons, and environmental constraints on the use of existing ranges and maneuver areas increasingly challenge our ability to conduct live training, especially on a large scale….The long-term objective is to produce an immersive training environment… This environment must be…globally accessible 24/7…Because DoD is a global enterprise, access to that environment should be persistently available via the Global Information Grid (GIG) to the full range of users.

The 1999 DoD Strategic Plan for Advanced Distributed Learning put it thus:

In tomorrow’s dynamic threat environment, America’s forces may have to deploy on a moment’s notice…They must continuously learn, simulate, and rehearse, whether they are in school, at home station, at home, en route to, or in the theater of operations…While yesterday’s right-time, right-place learning paradigm met yesterday’s military requirements, it can not meet future requirements based on more demanding deployment criteria and other time-sensitive constraints…[Meeting] the more complex readiness needs of the future will require the Department of Defense to re-engineer its ability to deliver learning to an anytime-anywhere objective.

DiGiovanni thus made clear that the ‘strategic trends and pressures’ turning military instructors towards games and simulation were ‘high demand on our live-training resources’ from ‘competing demands.’ In such circumstances, games and simulations were a direct subsitute.

So just to be clear: what ultimately has prompted the Pentagon’s turn towards games and simulations as ‘distributed’ trainers? What lies behind the growth of institutional, funding and personnel links between armed services, giant defence contractors and private entertainment firms in the area of modelling-and-simulation R&D? (There are, of course, countless other examples of broader integration between entertainment firms and the DoD, from recruiting tools like the Army Experience Center and America’s Army, to the Catalyst workshop for aspiring screenwriters.)

According to the policymakers themselves, it is less the demands of network-centric warfare than the state of US grand strategy.

The latter was described two weeks ago by the Harvard International Relations theorist Stephen M. Walt on the Foreign Policy blog: ‘Most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has become addicted to empire, it seems, and it doesn’t really matter which party happens to be occupying Pennsylvania Avenue.’ As much has been clear at least since the Clinton Administration, the first to openly proclaim the territorial sovereignty of other states to be a revocable licence, granted by the “international community” (for which read Washington and whatever alliance it saw fit to cobble together) and enjoyed only at the latter’s pleasure.

The active citizens of the US polity – the business class, the political class itself, the Security State, the echo-chamber of thinktanks and journalists – are committed to the establishment and retention of military protectorates over the world’s energy resources, sealanes and other zones of strategic importance as a means to prevent the emergence of peer competitors, maintain the position of US firms, preserve the dollar’s privileged position, etc.

In such conditions, the dispersed masses of US ‘Warfighters’ – hundreds of thousands of them penned in fortified garrisons or engaged in combat operations around the world – can no longer be assembled reliably and periodically at home bases or live training ranges. They must find new tools by which to learn and retain their skills.

The US Army’s Research Institute for Behavioral and Social Sciences (ARI) undertakes research into training and personnel matters; its mission is to ‘maximize individual and unit performance and readiness to meet the full range of Army operations.’ Much of its recent work explores the worth as combat training exercises of games, virtual ‘immersion’ and simulation.

The psychology department at the University of Central Florida (UCF, part of the research cluster together with Team Florida) has also devoted itself to such questions. Psychomotor combat performance (marksmanship, shoot/no shoot decisions, etc.) is known to diminish with the application of stress (noise, sleep deprivation, enemy attack). Increased heart rate, sweating, shallow breathing and higher cortisol levels may lead to ‘unpleasant or intrusive physical or emotional reactions’: tunnel vision, auditory blocking, distraction from task-relevant stimuli, muscle tension and rigidity, and ultimately freezing and non-execution of the task itself.

According to research published in the journal Military Psychology in 1989, based on studies of Israeli veterans of the 1982 Lebanon invasion, the strongest predictor of combat stress reactions (which manifested clinically as compulsive crying, sleep disturbances, screaming, vomiting and diarrhea, numbing or levelling of affect, trembling, paralysis, withdrawal from surroundings etc.) was the sight of death (whether that of a comrade, enemy or officer).

Given that inflicting enemy casualties is the basic measure of combat proficiency, this presents a problem.

According to research from UCF psychology professor Eduardo Salas and James E. Driskell from the Florida Maxima Corporation, ‘the primary purpose of stress training is to prepare the individual to maintain effective performance in a high stress operational environment.’ The first way of inoculating against stress reactions, and thus making combat skills resistant to stress-induced degradation, is to ‘enhance familiarity with the target environment.’ This will render an ‘aversive event…less novel and unfamiliar.’

Familiarity is provided by preparing the trainee with the relevant sensory information in conditions that realistically approximate, to a reasonable degree of fidelity, the task/stress environment. The second way is by ‘overlearning’ the relevant skill or task, so as to make it a routinized habitual response to the context or stimulus.

Various DoD training outlines have emphasized that simulations, games and immersive trainers must produce ‘realistic stimulation of sensors, replication of visual cues’ and ‘stimulation of more than one sensory capacity’.

Predeployment stress inoculation is one purpose of the ‘mixed-reality’ Infantry Immersion Trainer at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendeleton, and of the Future Immersive Training Environment at Camp Lejeune. The latter uses both head-mounted displays and suits equipped with sensors, enabling projected avatars to replicate the movements and actions of the participants. Rifle shots are wirelessly relayed to a receiver which incorporates the firing data into the virtual environment.

At these and similar sites, trainees are exposed to high-fidelity simulations of the ‘visual, auditory, haptic, and olfactory elements of the operational environment’: ‘sudden explosive impact, loud ambient noise, depiction of casualties, post-event chaos, presence of insurgents, and other stimuli’ including weapon signatures and ‘virtual characters [responding] realistically to being hit by small-arms fire.’

This is designed to produce an acute stress response from the infantrymen. Stress-response profiles are gathered by administering salivary-hormone tests that measure adrenal (cortisol) and alpha-amylase secretions, and by monitoring heart rates.

According to an evaluative report presented at I/ITSEC 2010, ‘exposure to realistic stressors may provide a degree of inoculation to the stress of the environment before it is experienced in theater, leading to better performance under stress’. This will, according to another I/ITSEC paper on the effect of training on mitigating stress, increase ‘the ability of forces to deliver the outputs for which they were designed’.

Such research retains the preoccupations described by former West Point psychology professor Dave Grossman in this blog’s previous post (i.e using repeated realistic drills to overcome the resistance towards killing of ‘warfighters’). But it translates the old behaviourist language into an up-to-date cognivitist account of how lethal behaviour can be learned then later elicited with ‘increased speed, increased accuracy, immunity to environmental stressors, and greater retention’.

The trick is to save (scarce) processing capacity by making automatic what would otherwise be a deliberate, consciously-willed action:

Controlled processes are those strategic processes required for novel tasks or those tasks requiring the devotion of attention. Controlled processes have been considered serial in nature and are carried out in a stepwise fashion. They have also been thought to be carried out much like a recipe, do this- then this, etc. Controlled processes have been described as being performed more slowly and under the explicit control of the individual. After much consistent practice, some tasks no longer require the devotion of attentional resources and are performed to completion in the presence of the initiating stimulus unless there is a conscious effort to inhibit them. Automatic processes are characterized by this decrease in the cognitive/attentional resources allocated for these tasks…An automatized motor-skill may operate at a level not associated with awareness, or not directly under conscious control…[Automatic] processing…is difficult to alter, to ignore, or to suppress once learned…An automatic sequence will tend to reoccur in response to the previously trained initiating stimuli.

And further:

[If] a person consistently chooses to pursue the same goal within a given situation, over time that goal structure becomes strongly paired with the features of that situation. After this consistent pairing of the situation with the intended goal, eventually, the goal itself is activated on the perception of features of the situation in a preconscious analysis…Performance improvements will occur in situations where stimuli are responded to in a consistent manner across exposures…Contextual cues should be used to mimic the effects of consistency and may activate automatic sequences of behavior…Training to levels of automaticity will also make performance reliable under environmental stressors such as alcohol, fatigue, heat, noise, and so on…In some cases, consistent practice can lead to direct memory access, such that the execution of the recipe or algorithm is no longer needed.

In short, ‘repeated experience is the best way to train decision-making skills so that a required cognitive process that might initially be analytic and labored can become more intuitive and automatic.’

UCF, alongside other institutions in the Team Orlando orbit (e.g. ARI and Lockheed Martin), has declared positive findings on the usefulness for this purpose of games and simulation. They make familiar to the trainee what would otherwise be novel and highly aversive sensory environments (i.e. all the perceptual information involved in killing another person in combat). And they allow behaviour modification via the same well-worn neuroendocrine pathways that are engaged during close-combat training and repetitive markmanship drills.

Visual-attention tasks are known to stimulate cholinergic release and thus allow rapid perceptual learning. People who engage in such repetitive, high-stimulus activities for extended periods are known to experience visual and auditory hallucinations that accurately replay the activity as they fall asleep (hypnagogic imagery, or the so-called ‘Tetris effect’). Such images are not limited to sleep onset but intrude during wakening; there is a lag between sensory stimulus and hallucination. This is known even to affect amnesics: those with deficits in conscious declarative memory.

Those kinds of training that elicit some instrumental motor response from the trainee or player (in a virtual environment, desktop computer, console or head-mounted display) are usually also designed for constant feedback and engagement of the user’s reward system, allowing proprioception and self-correction. In their most advanced form, such media gather precise activity data via click-stream logs, track sequences of decisions, detect anomalies or failure, and build behavioural profiles of the trainee or player.

Perhaps most importantly for training purposes, the user is desensitized by repeated exposure to high-fidelity depictions of physical violence against other humans: photorealistic vision of gruesome deaths, directional audio including ‘human distress noise’, scent machines, haptic feedback, wind, heat, and motor control over the action.

The boundary between processing of visual (and to a lesser extent auditory, tactile etc.) information and planning of movement is fuzzy. It seems likely that the primate brain’s comprehension of observed behaviour (say by an avatar) involves performing a ‘covert rehearsal’ of that activity in the parietal and premotor cortex. The evidence of facial imitation and automatic prereaching by human neonates shows a link between visual information and motor movements at the very outset of development, i.e. immediately after birth. But the learning of older children and adults also involves involuntary imitation and emulation of the perceived actions and gestures that are performed by those around them.

These are the biological correlates of the conditioning and social-learning process by which military recruits are made into technically proficient killers.

So, just as with the post-WW2 innovations in live marksmanship drills and operations training discussed in the previous post, some of the useful features of virtual battlefield simulations and videogame combat training (from the viewpoint of the instructors) are those that overcome a resistance to killing that otherwise incapacitates frontline ‘warfighters’.

But this raises an obvious point. Many or all of these features are also shared by popular visual-entertainment products: TV, movies, and interactive media including videogames.

These, taken as a whole and on any reasonable measure, expose users to an extraordinary barrage of realistically-depicted violence. Consequently their audience judges acts of violence against people to be less novel, aberrant and repulsive than they would do otherwise.

The ubiquity of salient and vivid mental pictures of aggression prompts people (by the availability heuristic) to overestimate the frequency of such events (in reality, though not at the cinema, homicide occurs less often than suicide). But this is a self-fulfilling judgement. If an individual fearfully supposes he is engaged in a perpetual Hawk-Dove game (a reasonable conclusion to draw from the entertainment media’s p0rn0graphy of violence), and that other players are likely to have chosen an aggressive strategy, then his best response too is to be aggressive rather than meek. The result is a breakdown in cooperation.

Of course, adopting such a strategy and executing it are two distinct things (there’s also a difference between signalling aggression, i.e. making credible threats of inflicting damage, and actually following through with violence).

The latter only occurs, as the above military research shows, when violence is made automatic and reflexive by instense and persistent brutalization. Such a programme can over-ride the social and natural barriers that otherwise keep conspecifics (including fellow humans) from killing each other, even when instrumental rationality tells them to do so.

Conflict between animals of the same species is commonly described as ‘limited war’, involving insufficient force, ritualized tactics, withholding of offensive weapons, and seldom causing serious injury to the participants. ‘Escalated fighting’ is generally absent from intraspecific battles, e.g. snakes merely wrestle each other.

But, to judge by skyrocketing rates of aggravated assault in most industrialized countries over recent decades, humans are trying to kill each other rather a lot more than they used to. All this is suboptimal, to say the least.

But is it just another regrettable case of market failure: a poor aggregate-welfare outcome resulting from individual firms each trying to make a buck, whichever way they can? Or does it serve some functional purpose?

Anyone? Anyone?

October 8, 2010

Wouldn’t it be delicious if, as predicted by Martin Prince on The Simpsons, Jadgish Bhagwati finally wins the economics ‘Nobel’ prize next week?

In today’s United States, full-throated advocates of multilateral trade liberalization suddenly seem almost pitiful. They have quickly become marginalized figures, shouting into the gale.

Exigencies forced upon the national elite by competitive decline mean that even the ‘multilateralist’ wing of state managers — from the Treasury Secretary to the President and the ‘New Democrats’ in Congress — no longer likes the idea of the world’s low-cost producers competing with domestic firms.

Formerly favoured instruments like the WTO have (except where TRIPS are concerned) lost their appeal. The Doha round is abandoned. In the last week, the House of Representatives has shown its disdain for the WTO, and its growing taste for discriminatory measures against China. (In recent years, protectionist measures worldwide have targeted firms from China more than those of any other country.) This includes a string of spurious anti-dumping and countervailing-duty petitions.

Opinion makers have joined in. Paul Krugman has decided ‘there are worse things than trade conflict.’

Robert Samuelson says:

[Trade] war with China… seems to be where we’re headed and probably should be where we are headed…

Confronting China’s export subsidies risks a similar tit-for-tat cycle at a time when the global economic recovery is weak. This is a risk, unfortunately, we need to take…

As the old order’s main architect and guardian, the United States faces a dreadful choice: resist Chinese ambitions and risk a trade war in which everyone loses; or do nothing and let China remake the trading system.

The first would be dangerous; the second, potentially disastrous.

Given this setting, it would be terribly funny and sporting for Bhagwati to be given the prize. The odds are long, though, on the academy anticipating the joke and delivering the punchline.

‘Did it work? Anyone? Anyone know the effects? It did not work, and the United States sank deeper into the — Great Depression.’

A peculiarly well-adapted parasite

August 10, 2010

This famous description of ALP leaders, written by Zinoviev in 1916, stands up rather well I think:

[The] reactionary role of the “socialist bureaucracy” appears nowhere so ostentatiously as in Australia, that veritable Land of Promise of social reformism. The first “labor ministry” in Australia was formed in Queensland in December, 1899. And ever since then the Australian labor movement has been a constant prey of leaders on the make for careers. Upon the backs of the laboring masses there arise, one after another, little bands of aristocrats of labor, from the midst of which the future labor ministers spring forth, ready to do loyal service to the bourgeoisie. All these Hollmans, Cooks and Fishers were once workers. They act the parts of workers even now. But in reality they are only agents of the financial plutocracy in the camp of the workers. The caste of the “leaders” here appears quite openly as a unique type of job trust. The labor party as such comes to the surface only during the parliamentary elections. Once the elections are over, the party disappears again for three whole years. The party conventions are only conventions of party functionaries. They never include a trace of real representatives of the mass of labor. The party leader is elected in conference and functions as such until the next election at the succeeding conference. If he is elected to Parliament, he also becomes the leader of the parliamentary fraction. If the party gets a majority in Parliament, the leader becomes prime minister and forms a “labor ministry.” The powers of this leader are almost unlimited. It went so far that the “labor” minister of New South Wales, Hollman (a former carpenter), proposed at the party conference of 1915 that the leader be given the power to change the program of the party at his own discretion, if this should be necessary for its “salvation.” We have recently had quite a striking example of the means whereby Fisher, Hollman &co. “save” the labor party. These “leaders” have proved to be the worst sort of chauvinists.

I wonder what my old cultural studies lecturers are saying about Alejandro?

June 28, 2010

I want to initiate some audience participation. Give me your best cultural studies “lecture” on Lady Gaga and Alejandro in the comments below! An H1 will be awarded for the most cultural studies-ish rant.

Here’s what I came up with:

“Feminist reading this. Psychoanalysis Freudian abject body that. Lacanian “I”, subverting the dominant gaze. Queer aesthetic, inverted homoeroticism. Heteronormativity etc. History of cinema this, evolution of MTV that. Proto-Madonna, celebrity. Arbitrary question about what Gaga is “actually doing” that no one really cares to think about? In conclusion, postmodernism. Class dismissed.”


December 29, 2009

This pool-safety ad is running on Australian TV.