Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Notes on MannX at the U of Kabul and elsewhere in the Gap (A Plan for Victory, Part umpty-three)

Being a geek, I naturally think of the Long War as an information war, and in part as an educational war. If enough people of the Gap get Core-style educations, we win. Really. (Well, probably. At least it would help a whole lot.) But there are several problems in the Textbooks to Iraq solution, and one is the problem of language. Back around 1970, as the sole native speaker of English in my physics classes in Colombia and then Buenos Aires, I was very much aware of this: people in the Gap need to learn some Core language because the information they need is available in Core languages, and often it's in English. Nowadays it just happens that language-teaching software is something I work with, and that -- as a project specifically for the U. of Kabul science programs, but hopefully more generally -- is what this is about. Well, mostly.

Maybe this belongs on the development blog, but it's more of a personal I'm-incompetent-to-judge-this-but-I'm-trying sort of post, so I'll put it here. As a programmer, I've spent a lot of time writing video-control code to teach languages I don't know a whole lot about, mostly Russian; it started in the early-to-mid 90s in Apple frameworks and then C and then C++ with Quicktime, then switched to Java applet form (still with Quicktime, then with JMF), but reviewers said that the installation was time-consuming and confusing even though the program itself was good.

The basic idea is simple: link a video with a transcript and a commentary and a glossary so that, just for instance, you can find a comment in a commentary and then click to play the video segment that this is a comment on. Find a word, and cycle among the segments indexed as containing that word. And so on; any component can point into the others. We are using this for language lessons, but of course it could be used for any video/transcript/commentary/glossary presentation. But only awkwardly. We kept on adding to the program and writing papers(PDF from SWAP 2005) about it, but the installation didn't get easier: the screenshot in that PDF of a computer science lecture with commentary in Pashto for Afghan students is very nice, and I can play it off the web, but you have to do some local installation first. (If you have JMF and a Pashto font, try a simple Colgate-student dialog, JMF. But most people don't, and I don't deny it's a nuisance.)

Finally, in early January 2006, I learned to work with SWF from Javascript so that no installation was required other than Flash -- a vast improvement, except that the download of a big SWF file was tedious and annoying, and nothing happened until the whole file downloaded. But all through the past year FLV files, as in youtube, got more and more interesting, and the Javascript API ditto, as soon as there was a Linux version of Flash 9 I could work with it, and Anssi Piirainen of added a Javascript API for his Flowplayer project which was a copy (at my request) of the mplayer Javascript API, and as soon as I could get enough keyframes into the movie at a (Firefox-tested) KeyframeTest; FLV unit, I could synchronize video with script and a dummy commentary though I didn't bother with the dictionary or ontology.

So now we're working on a much-closer-to-real unit, a Milton Friedman work in progress which is changing a couple of times a day but which synchronizes nicely using FLV transcoded from the Free To Choose videos; we'll build this up for use within Afghanistan (permission granted by Bob Chitester of and then try to go on from there. Why Friedman? Because what he's saying (in 1980, with selections from the 1990 review) is what people in the Gap need to hear, and if they'll learn it from an English lesson (one with subject-matter commentary in one style and linguistic commentary in another) then we are way way ahead.

So will it work? I wish I knew.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A Plan for Victory, Part IIb(ii)

Besides helping the Bad Guys run out of money, we should help the Good Guys get more. That's easy, in a sense: as Greg Mankiw recently put it in his Resolutions for Another New Year:

Adam Smith was right when he said, "Little else is required to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice."
Well, we can't actually provide those to our friends in the Gap, though the SysAdmin should push them wherever possible, but there's something missing on Smith's list, which Mankiw notes: free trade. We can provide that.

If we stopped "protecting" each other from competition whether by tariffs on that competition or by direct subsidies to agriculture etc, we'd do significantly better overall; our friends in Gap countries would do immensely better.

We should do both of those: unilaterally drop all protection of both kinds. Unfortunately, this is not going to happen. Part of the resistance is simply irrational, I think, and there are several bases for that irrationality which I might or might not try to address later. Part of it is rational: a realization that in a fully competitive world, risks would be larger for individuals as well as for corporations. That's real. What to do? Well, I would improve our safety net with a Friedmanesque negative income tax, part of which would take the form of vouchers for basic health insurance. Very basic, but still useful. (See? I'm leftishly libertarianish. Sort of. Maybe.)

Monday, January 01, 2007

A Plan for Victory, Part IIb(i): The Sinews of War (i)

Hmm...I'm obviously having trouble with the way I'm blogging, so I'll try changing it. In particular, I'll put posts that are even less well-organized than those I'd been doing. For example, this one.

When I talk about Cicero's "Endless money forms the sinews of war" (Philippics) in the context of this particular Long War, I'm not mainly thinking about us, the US of A; I'm thinking about our friends and our foes within the Gap. The good guys and the bad guys are both poor by our standards; we want the bad guys to run out of money fast, and we want the good guys to get more and more of it.

So where do the bad guys get money? Oil is a biggie here in the Arab areas and in Iran, but payment to our enemies is very indirect because oil is "fungible", it comes from many places into a world market and from the world market to consumers all over. You pay for gas, Saudi Arabia and Russia and Venezuela and Alaska all benefit, a bit of the benefit goes to charitable causes which turn out to be Bad Guy causes. If you conserve, you bear a probably-substantial cost which reduces the price of oil a tiny tiny bit, if you're lucky. Can we conserve our way to victory? No, almost certainly not -- but we can work to make the current oil technologies obsolete. A tax on traditionally-produced oil would push wind and solar and oil shale and tar sand and biodiesel technologies, thus reducing the oil demand from Asia and Africa and Europe as well as the US. (I would offset that tax, which would tend to be regressive, with a reduction to or elimination of the payroll tax, which was a terrible idea anyway.) And I'd give prizes for new energy-storage technologies; not just batteries but hydrogen (high-temp electrolysis, whatever) and ammonia fuel and compressed air underground and so on, but I have more hope for batteries, mostly.

Adequate energy storage for plug-in hybrids would make almost all of our transportation oil usage obsolete, not because we'd be trying to conserve but because energy from oil is more expensive than energy from a plug.

Other sources of money? Opium in Afghanistan; in 2002-3 I remember some kind of anti-drug ad campaign pointing out that drug money does in some small part support terrorism. Sure...but to end the drug trade we would need a repeal of the Bill of Rights, and there is exactly one actual proposal for ending drug profits without that repeal. It's simple: call off the drug war, it's a front we cannot fight on simultaneously with the Long War. If we treated opium like nicotine, the Taliban would have a lot less money.

Maybe I wouldn't want to try this if we had a working Drug War, but we don't; even without the Long War I thought rather frequently about the irrationality of our failed Drug War policies. To keep on doing the same stuff, with no reason to hope for success, is bad enough when it's just domestic policy and probably increases our local violent crime rates by funding drug lords. To keep on doing it when it's funding Al-Qaeda seems like a different, higher, order of insanity.

Those are the two main ways that I'd be trying to cut down on our enemies' long-term funding, beyond what the Administration has been doing.