Book Review: Mark Mazetti, “Way of the Knife”

Mark Mazzetti, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, New York, Penguin. 2013.

In recent weeks we have seen much discussion of the US military drone programs, the expanding fleet of remote piloted aircraft operated throughout the world.

As a techie, I’ve always loved RC aircraft, robots, and remote operated devices. These toys have now been brought to use in the most serious ways, which moves them from “it’s so cool” to  “what the hell are we doing”.

The headline story is the use of drones to execute targeted killings (“signature” killings, specifically authorized by President Obama), in places not officially war zones, of people not in direct combat, and, most controversial of all, US citizens.

This topic is tangled in the overall “war on terror”, and the US secret wars everywhere (Sanger, D.W., Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, New York, Crown Publishers. 2012).  The secret war has danced on the edges of the law, developing parallel intelligence and paramilitary forces under the DOD and the CIA, as well as private forces available to both (Scahill, J., Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, New York, Avalon Publishing Group, Inc. 2007).

On May 23 we Heard President Obama speak on these issues, in a self-described effort to create a legal framework for future presidents (Baker, P., In Terror Shift, Obama Took a Long Path, in The New York times. 2013: May 27,

This speech, and its supposed policy implications, are much easier to understand if you read Mark Mazzetti’s “Way of the Knife”, written during the secret discussion leading to the speech. Mazzetti’s book could have been designed by the Obama administration to underpin the May speech.  (Given his earlier reporting, it appears that Mazzetti has been fed a lot of information by the administration, so it is not out of the question that they have used him to get their story out.)

To understand the drone wars, it is important to look back at where they come from.  Military use of pilotless aircraft has increased dramatically in the last 20 years, concurrent with technical developments.  Singer reports these developments, as the military and intelligence community came to understand the capabilities and economics of remote operated aircraft (Singer, P.W., [Wired for War}: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Centurey, New York, Penguin. 2009).

They must be extremely useful, since they are displacing piloted aircraft (pilots and aviators are a powerful force within the services), and even obsoleting spy satellites

The case is simple.  A drone can do the same job as a piloted aircraft, with almost no risk to US aircrews.  A drone is generally cheaper than a piloted aircraft, even neglecting the expense of aircrews.  Furthermore, drones can do the same job as satellites, usually a better job, and cost much, much less.

The advantages have relatively few drawbacks.  There are surely challenges for drone pilots, attempting to understand what is happening far away through electronic links.  Of course, remote operation faces latency issues, reducing reaction time and the ability to precisely track moving objects.

A bigger issue is that a drone operated at a distance blurs the conventional laws of war.  Theoretically, the joystick jockey commuting to an air-conditioned base at home is a legitimate military target—possibly endangering civilians.  (See, perhaps Singer 2007 on this point).

Finally, there is a psychological issue for decision makers.  Armed drones have proved to be effective at targeted strikes, making it possible to remotely execute lethal attacks on individuals no matter where they are. While remote killing is scarcely new, the effectiveness of drones has proved to be seductive.  If we can kill individuals with little risk, there is a temptation to turn national policy into a mafia-like hit list.

This last issue is what Mazzetti focuses on, and one of the points Obama wishes to legalize. (Mazzetti reports that when faced with the real prospect of leaving office in 2012, Obama was motivated to regularize the ad hoc decision making framework, rather than leave his successors a totally free hand.)

Actually, much of Mazzetti’s book is about the competition between the CIA and the DOD, on several fronts.  Originally, there was a separation of roles, with the CIA charged with gathering and analyzing information, and the Pentagon applying military force.  But effective war and international policy requires both, so there has always been pressures on the DOD to collect intelligence and the CIA to operate paramilitary forces.  Naturally, parallel, even duplicate activities developed, as the Pentagon deployed intelligence gathering units, and the CIA used paramilitary forces.  And various mercenary groups blur the distinction, by providing the same services to both DOD and CIA, possibly at the same time.

Mazzetti also points out that the two agencies operate under different legal authorities, giving each advantages and limitations in certain situations.  For example, US military forces cannot operate in friendly or neutral countries without serious repercussions. The CIA is under no such restriction. On the other hand, CIA activity is often deniable, which is a huge risk for their operatives.  While a captured soldier may expect to be imprisoned until exchanged or paroled, a captured spy expects to be tried for espionage or murder, best case.

Having duplicate programs is convenient then, enabling specific operations to be labeled as needed.  For example, the raid on Bin Laden was executed by Nave SEALs, which would constitute a military invasion of Pakistan (an act of war). So, voila, the SEALs were assigned to the CIA, making it an espionage operation–possibly still an act of war, but not a violation of US law.

In the case of drones, the Pentagon and the CIA have developed similar programs (i.e., duplicates), which obviously leads to the possibility of chaos and serious questions about who can legally operate drones where and for what purpose.

Drones have been called into play in areas outside declared war zones, for attacks that support “American interests”.  Again, the agencies have different legal frameworks.  The military has pushed the limits of its legal authority, asserting the right to conduct intelligence anywhere in the world that might become a battlefield—which is pretty much everywhere.  The CIA has become focused on man hunts to roll up terrorist groups, which would appear to violate its rules against assassinations.  (Neither the DOD or CIA are supposed to operate within the US. I’m sure there are legal loop holes when needed.)

From reading Mazzetti’s book, we can immediately understand Obama’s remarks, and the proposal to consolidate drones within the Pentagon.  The goal is to reduce the redundancy, reduce the CIA’s focus on targeted killings, and probably to get the CIA back on intelligence.  Also, placing lethal drones in the Pentagon makes them subject to a specific legal framework, rather than an ad hoc patchwork of authorities.

I don’t know enough about the details to judge them.  In any case, the President can propose whatever he wants, we’ll have to see how the Pentagon and CIA fare in the bureaucratic fights to come.

One last comment.  Mazzetti has two chapters on Somalia that are worth reading the book for alone.

Notes from the Inferno (satire)

Recent upgrades have added several circles of Hell, to punish to the sins of the software industry.

Any soul who has developed widely-used software will be required to participate in ALL of the Hells below, simultaneously, as well as any other Hells they have earned, for eternity.  You will be assigned to appropriate sections, according to your sins.

Your participation, while completely mandatory, is “voluntary”, in that you are required to agree to a 50 page EULA, which is updated approximately daily. It is important to note that each circle requires its own EULA (in some cases, a separate agreement is required for each torment), though the EULAs are mutually incompatible, so you will be litigated throughout all eternity.

An incomplete list of new Circles follows.

Circle of iHell

The elegantly designed torments of Hell will be provided to you in special, proprietary iHell versions, which are only available through the iSouls program, the license for which is only available through the HellStore.

Note that the integrated torture system (iTS) requires the use of iHell™ components.  The tortures are completely programmable (provided you join the proprietary iTorture Developer Program), though they are written in Subjective C, which iHell’s unique and undocumented programing environment.

Circle of WinHell

Expensive, yet poorly designed torments wlll be provided to you through the WinHell associates program.  A complete array of tortures are bundled, so there is no possibility to avoid even one excruciating pain.  See the overview, in a MindSucking OwiePoint presentation (reading time 25 hours).

Note that there are 32-bit, 64-bit, and mobile versions, as well as backward compatibility for a half dozen mutually incompatible older versions of WinHell—amounting to at least 256 different versions of each WinTorture.  Each day, you will experience each version of each torture.

Circle of Hell++

Perhaps using the motto about “do no evil” was ill considered, as we thinks you didst protest too much.

In Hell++, the torture is “agile” and decentralized and networked. No torment lasts longer than a few hours, at which point it begins again, perhaps the same, perhaps changed.  Many torments build on other circles of Hell, aggregated for your benefit in Hell++.

All tortures are freely available (though mandatory), and you will also receive the benefit of advertisements while you suffer throughout eternity.

Your excruciation is subject to constant, data based improvement. This means that you will be subjected to the same torment repeatedly (for all eternity), with slight variations that will allow Hell++ to refine the pain.

Using “Big Torment” techniques, Hell++ uses the torments of all the damned to fine tune and amplify your own experience, and to target advertisements to fit your own individual Hell.  Personalized torment, for eternity.

You will receive daily missives explaining how Hell++ represents the model for the future of Hell, solving all problems.

Circle of The OpenHell Consortiun

Completely open source, the OpenHell enables (and requires) you to suffer in a Hell of your own construction.  Sadly, there are thousands of openHell components, most of which do not work, though you will spend eternity attempting to make them work together.

Not only will you spend each hour of eternity assembling your own torments, you will work as part of an infinitely large “community” of similarly damned souls, arguing about features, schedules, and arcana, without reaching any useful result.

You will be required to agree to EULAs that assure that the fruits of your torture is given away for free, to the benefit of all souls in Hell. Sadly, that means that your kharmic debts can never be paid, no matter how long you contribute to OpenHell.



Cool Augmented Reality at University of Illinois Graduation

JUST IN:  A documentary about this project, broadcast on the Big Ten network.

The Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab contributed to a special Augmented Reality installation for the University of Illinois graduation ceremonies.

See the official press release and ‘about‘ page, and the students’ pix.

The Alma Mater statue is being restored, which created a crisis:  this would be the only year for decades in which graduates could not get their picture snapped under Alma’s wide arms.

The campus powers that be wanted to do something, and asked Alan Craig if it would be possible to us Augmented Reality to put Alma–restored–on her pedestal, so people could get a snapshot.  Alan and I conferred, and the conclusion was YES WE CAN, and more over, WE MUST.

The image was based on high resolution scans of the statue in the restoration process (which the University should have done for documentation anyway), cleaned up and rendered by the Beckman Institute Visualization Lab led by our colleague Travis Ross.

Besides my own contribution as software integrator, Andrew Knight of the CUCFL created a custom rig to hold an tablet computer on a camera tripod.  You can buy similar products, but why would you buy one when you have a Fab Lab? 🙂

I was particularly happy to contribute to this project because it is a great example of using contemporary IT to create experiences that strengthen our social and human bonds.  This installation was meaningful mainly as part of a social ritual (largely invented bottom-up by generations of students), and could only be experienced–together–at the specific time and place.

And I learned a bit about the particular challenges of life size (larger than life size in this case), outdoor, Augmented Reality.

I was surprised how well the AR worked.  The large target far from the camera worked as well or better than small versions in the lab.  The outdoor lighting didn’t seem to be a big problem, though obviously there are lot’s of conditions that will fail.

On the other hand, it was difficult to test, since the site was not under our control, and wrangling the rig was not trivial. So we had only one actual test of the final product, with no chance to iterate.  Fortunately, it worked well enough we didn’t need to iterate.

We also found a number of technical problems we need to understand, such as how to map the virtual geometry to a complex setting in the real world.  More on these issues later.

I should note that Joel Steinfeldt of the University Public Affairs Office was the key organizer who made it all happen.  This project was a collaboration of many departments at the UI, and had a really tight schedule (with a very immovable deadline), so many things had to come together just right to get enough working to be useful. Joel was essential to this process:  well done!

Draft White Paper: Community Fab Lab Experience and Perspectives

Here is a draft of a White Paper I’ve been working on this year.  This is a review and analysis of the Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab.  This is a much longer and deeper treatment of the points made in my presentation at HASTAC.

The Fab Lab is something you DO, not something you talk about, so this document is incomplete and will need to be revised in the coming months.

Here is the abstract and an excerpt.  See the draft at the link below.


Digital technology is enabling new forms of community, new forms of expression, and changes in the living culture of contemporary life in many ways. One example is the emergence of local community-based fabrication spaces.  This paper discusses one such space is the Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab (CUCFL), which deploys a combination of technical, human, and social resources to develop local technological capabilities and opportunities. The CUCFL community is also connected to a network of like-minded Fab Labs and Maker spaces across the planet, as well as global markets and opportunities. These digital connections enable broad knowledge sharing, exchange of designs, and discovery of expertise.

The success of the CUCFL and similar labs depends on a combination of technology, a local community organization, and an open culture of learning, teaching, and sharing. All these elements are critical. These community labs also have significance beyond the local users and specific technologies, they are models of democratized technology, and harken back to earlier humanist workshop traditions, reintegrating technology, art, business, and community.

The paper discusses the technical and social background of personal fabrication, and the emergence of local community maker spaces. Then we consider one example of a local community-based Fab Lab in some detail, and then concludes with implications of this phenomenon.

1. Introduction

Digital technology is enabling new forms of creative and scholarly communities, new forms of expression, and augmenting the living culture of contemporary life in many ways. Contemporary technology enables enhancements to existing techniques, some new methods (such as pattern recognition and data mining), new forms of expression, and the adoption of new approaches to old problems of creation, dissemination, and communication. Many of these ubiquitous digital technologies have reached wide audiences beyond traditional engineering, scholarship, and art, opening the way for “humanistic” practices which are reintegrating with the living culture of contemporary life in many ways.

One such reintegration has emerged around digital fabrication technology, especially in the form of personal fabrication and local community fabrication spaces. This technology is widely viewed as revolutionary, potentially transforming the global industrial and consumer economy. The availability of personal fabrication technology, for design and realization or products, opens the way to the same transformations as seen in the realm of “bits”, now in the realm of “atoms”, including global scale peer-to-peer sharing, and the exploitation of “fat tail” phenomena.

As with any revolution, we will find evidence of it in local communities. This paper considers a local community-based Fab Lab which combines several technical and social approaches to we are developing an approach to fostering collaboration and creativity. The Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab (CUCFL) combines technical, human, and social resources into a community-building process to develop local technological capabilities and opportunities. The CUCFL provides access to a suite of digital technologies access to knowledge necessary to use the technology that were not previously available to people, outside relatively privileged settings such as University labs.

The CUCFL is building a community of makers, dedicated to learning and teaching, with a consciously inclusive ethos. The lab has successfully welcomed many into our community of makers through an active learning environment within a supportive and friendly environment. The volunteer ethos in which everyone, not just a privileged elite, is a creator, a learner, and a teacher has encouraged people to discover just how much they know, and how much then can contribute. The CUCFL community is also connected to a network of like-minded Fab Labs and Maker spaces across the planet, as well as global markets and opportunities. These digital connections enable broad knowledge sharing, exchange of designs, and discovery of expertise.

The success of the CUCFL depends on a combination of technology, a local community organization, and an open culture of learning, teaching, and sharing. All these elements are critical, and to date, have sufficed to sustain the lab. Community fab labs have broader significance, beyond their local users and specific technologies. They are models of democratized technology, which may have profound social, education, and personal effects that change communities, economies, and individuals. Interestingly, it can be argued that a community fab lab harkens back to earlier humanist workshop traditions, reintegrating technology, art, business, and community.

The paper is laid out as follows. Section 2 discusses the technical and social background of personal fabrication, and the emergence of hundreds of local community maker spaces. Section 3 considers one example of a local community-based Fab Lab in some detail. Finally, Section 4 concludes with some implications of this phenomenon.

Download the full White Paper [PDF]

HASTAC 2013, Toronto

Just back from HASTAC 2013 in Toronto (

I was only there for one day (Saturday), so I can’t talk about the whole conference.

HASTAC is heavy with digital humanities, especially media studies topics.  This isn’t really my stuff, so a little bit goes a long way for me.  I hope I was not excessively rude when my interest and patience wandered.

I went to this conference under the banner of the Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab, encouraged and supported by the Institute for Computing in the Humanities Arts and Social Science I-CHASS, part of the Illinois Informatics Institute at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign.

At the conference, I visited and chatted at the joint exhibit by several Canadian makerspaces. We exchanged secret “maker” handshakes :-), and showed other people about making and makerspaces. They had several demo projects going on the table, including the archetypical activities such as “make a 3D sculpture of your face, using kinnect scanner and a 3D print” (go to any maker space, you’ll see this), and the Makey-Makey “banana keyboard” kit (also to be seen at practically any makerspace).

I also encountered several (mainly Canadian) folks who are working to set up or recently have set up maker spaces.  The CUCFL have been in business quite a while now, comparatively, so they had a lot of questions about how to start, and how to succeed. I gave out cards and invited them to contact the CUC Fab Lab..

The reason for going was to present a short paper about the Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab mainly about how it works and why it is important.  (Abstract)  Of course, the Fab Lab is something you DO, not something you talk about, so it’s kind of irrelevant to give 15 minute presentation about it.

My session also featured a talk by Mark McDayter (Western University) about social reading (Abstract), and Abigail De Kosnik and Andrea Horbinski (UC Berkeley) about analysis of online Fan Fiction, utilizing “big data” style analytics (Abstract).

McDayter discussed computer interfaces to support and encourage “social reading”, in which the readers circulate a shared text, adding annotations as part of a group discussion.  He looked back to 17th century coffee houses as a model for such shared annotation (paper based), and imagines computer (screen based) versions of texts to do similar readings.  (It was not clear how much of this is realized in software.)

Horbinski discussed their FanData project, which is analyzing archives of Fan Fiction that, in some cases, dates back to the 1990s.  She showed some data which they have assembled about fan fiction related to the X-files TV series and Harry Potter books and movies.  The data is messy and inconsistent, but there is quite a bit to be learned about temporal patterns and social networks in these communities.

At first, I could not see any strong reason why these papers were in a session together.  But, by the end, I figured out that the theme of the session was “digital communities”, and, in fact, digital communities that are direct descendents of important pre-digital communities.

McDayter specifically referred to and discussed the historical precedents for the “social reading” he invoked, and the Q&A discussed other precedents.  Horbinski’s work is clearly about activities and communities that exist off-line and have existed before the internet (though the fans had little way to intereact with each other in most cases). The Q&A wondered about such earlier precedents, such as the Baker Street Irregulars, and many other earlier cases of “fan fiction”.  I would add that telling stories around the campfire undoubtably was a scene for the earliest fan fiction, which an “amateur” story teller would be moved to tell a new story inspired by the “classic” tales told by the pros.

Finally, the Fab Lab and makerspaces hark back to two historic communities, the DIY/craft movements, and earlier artist/mechanics workshops, e.g., of the Renaissance.  The contemporary fab lab or maker space is multidiscipline and not purpose built (i.e., it is not a factory or lab dedicated to a specific mission), the participants are multi-generational and non-professional, the techniques are eclectic, including “art”, “science”, “high technology” and “business”, among other categories.

So, the program committee juxtaposed three apparently different “digital communities”, with some provocative similarities.  Kudos to perceptive insight of the unnamed, shadowy powers of HASTAC!

So, what might be learned from this juxtaposition?  Looking at the digital fabrication labs, there are a number of interesting points to note.

For one, there is a lot of “fan fabrication” that happens in makerspaces.  There are technological fads, of course.  Makers and Fabbers have their own fan space of tools and technologies that insiders are familiar with and can discuss in detail.  (E.g., Arduinos and Raspberry Pis, Makerbots, and so on.)  But they also use the techniques to realize “Fan Fiction”.  In our lab, we have seen many projects that lovingly recreate Star Trek artifacts and Tardises, and other popular fictional universes.  Note that the digital plans for these creations can, in principle, but published as a form of “fan fiction”, enabling others to remix them in their own labs. In the future, the FanData may be able to include digital traces of these non-digital artifacts.

The digital design tools used in makerspaces and fab labs open the way to “social design”, akin to “social reading”.  The fab lab is a community workspace in many senses, including a very real social community who “make things together”.  The digital design tools make the sharing not only easier, but enable the direct sharing of knowledge, in the form of executable plans for making.  But, to date, we have no good genre or form of text, digital or otherwise, for representing or conducting these conversations about design, making, remaking, criticizing, revising, etc., of physical objects.  This would be a very interesting topic to develop.

In other sessions, I saw two talks by colleague and sensei,  Alan Craig.  One was a standard spiel about XSEDE, specifically how humanities folks can use HPC resources (hint: contact Alan). (Abstract) The second was a short version of his stump speech about Physical and Virtual (Abstract). Also, see Alan’s forthcoming book, Understanding Augmented Reality (recommended).


As usual, there was discussionabout tenure processes, i.e., only books and articles count toward tenure and promotion, which makes it difficult for digital and media scholarship to thrive.  As one of the 99+% who has never been eligible for tenure, I don’t consider this the most important problem in the world.

The conference was terribly set up, with the (not especially great) hotel located (in noisy and snarled) downtown and the meetings at York U., which is a 30-minute bus ride.  With shuttles only available in the morning and after dinner, we were locked into the conference for the whole day.   No food, no restaurants, and no way to leave. Not really the right way to do it.

Flavor of the month: “Big Data”

“Big Data” is the flavor of the month this year, as the popular media are discovering the power of data analytics. A recent post by Terri Griffith pushed me to work on this note. (Thanks, Terri!)

This phenomenon isn’t news to anyone with a decent technical education any time in the last few decades, but the combination of piles of money (Wetherall, 2013), political power (Steiner, 2012), and some romantic storylines (movies, such as “the social network” (Sony Pictures Digital, 2011), books such as Moneyball (Lewis, 2003) and popular manias) has captured the attention an imagination of the shattering classses, including Wired magazine, the New York Times, the academic literature (April issue of Communications of the ACM has this and this), and undergraduate education (my friend Sally Jackson).

Now, I’ve been a “data guy” since the 70’s, during which time computers have become more available and more capable, and Bayesian statistics have come into fashion (Good, 1983). During the 90’s I did some work with scientific data, digital libraries, and the beginnings of the WWW. For example, I coined the phrase, “conversation with the data” to describe what we wanted to do with the Web, long before it was possible to do it (McGrath, Futrelle, Plante, & Guillaume, 1999).

In science and engineering, ‘Big Data’ is old news. In fact, we’ve were hyping it long before the mainstream media caught the bug. (“Data Deluge”, “metadata deluge”, and so on, Hey & Trefethen, 2003; Myers, 2006; Rajasekar et al., 2003; Schatz et al., 1997; Thomas & Cook, 2005).

“Big” is a psychological concept, it means “at or beyond what I can conveniently handle”. Given the escalation of computing and bandwidth, “big data” has been a rapidly moving target. The biggest news in “big data” is that it is now possible to get big enough samples of data to a) develop many interesting kinds of models (algorithms) and b) target very fine grain populations, down to individuals. (I.e., we can do data big enough to target individual humans.) The other news is that computing power is cheap enough that you can throw massive, nearly random, analyses at huge blobs of data, and get some answers in a reasonable time. (I.e., we can be stupid about data analysis and still get rich).

The most important point of all is that the real story isn’t “data”, it is, as Niklaus Wirth’s classic textbook (Wirth, 1976) put it, “algorithms+data”. And, as everyone knows, data can be misused, or self-fooling, especially if you don’t understand what you are doing, aren’t being honest, or don’t think critically.

A continuing stream of recent books present popular versions of this story, for better or worse. Let’s review a few, with some definite recommendations. There will doubtless be more to consider in the future.
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Salute Senator Kirk

I want to take the opportunity to take note that, on April 2nd, Senator Kirk (R-Ill) announced his support for gay marriage.

IMO, he got it just right,

“Our time on this earth is limited, I know that better than most. Life comes down to who you love and who loves you back…”

Well said.

This was obviously sincere, there was no political calculation or spin here. Simply a man who has learned what is important, and is trying to be the best human being he can, in the few years he may have left.

Goodness knows I disagree with him on many issues.  But on this we are one, and, I believe, for the best reasons of all.

For this week I am extremely proud to have Mark Kirk as my Senator.

I salute you, Senator Kirk, and wish you the best.

A personal blog.

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