Monday, October 12, 2009

Difficult situation for NATO in Afghanistan

I approved the new American strategy consisting of redeploying US forces away from Irak and into Afghanistan, as I don't see the Taliban as worthy of ruling, regardless of the local popular support.
When you think about it, the very poor condition of Afghanistan should make it easy to win a popularity contest with a bunch of religious, backward, murderous zealots: Remove landmines, help agriculture develop, build up infrastructure, promote free education for all children, including girls...
All this should be relatively easy, provided a certain level of safety can be provided.

Unfortunately, after seeing "Dokument utifrån" on Swedish national television (SVT), I fear the NATO coalition is going to fail miserably. I don't know if American forces differ from other NATO coalition members in Afghanistan, but the attitude and tactics of the US army appeared deeply inadequate to me.

First, we get to see how a soldier reports the situation to his commander during a debriefing. The soldier reports that locals are mute when it comes to providing information about Taliban fighters which America forces know must be in the sector. Instead, locals insisted on complaining about goats and trees, or rather the lack thereof. What's got that to do with the US forces? It turns out US forces burned trees and killed goats in an attack the year before. No big issue, certainly... The American commander shook his head, and said "That's what happens when you provide support to terrorists, you lose your goats and trees" (or something in these lines).
This reminds me of the failed tactics used during the Vietnam war.

Apparently, Pachtuns are naturally bent on supporting Talibans, both for cultural and historical reasons. Regardless of their claimed goals, Westerners are seen as invaders, and will be fought and dealt with in the same way all earlier invaders were.

Leaving Afghanistan is in my opinion no option, seeing how the previous regime behaved in September 11, 2001 and before. Staying and using that kind of fruitless tactics is doomed to fail, and will eventually lead to a new Taliban regime anyway. So what should we do?

Friday, October 09, 2009

On charities and microloans...

I have recently discovered Kiva and Myc4. These sites make it possible to lend money to poor people in the world (mostly in developing countries).

Kiva does not allow lenders to make a profit. Instead, repayments are typically reinvested in new loans. Alternatively, a lender can also retrieve the money after as a loan is repaid. Entrepreneurs across Asia, South America and Africa can request loans.

Just like Kiva, MyC4 puts in contact lenders in rich countries and borrowers in poorer parts of the World. Unlike Kiva, MyC4 is still in Beta phase, and it allows lenders to make benefits. MyC4 is also limited to loans targeted at a few African countries (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda).

Compared to other charities, microloans have the advantage of helping local businesses get established. One could say the idea is to "teach a man how to fish, instead of giving away fish", except that the man actually knows a lot more about fishing than I do! Instead, I lend money to the fisherman and trust him to use it in whatever way he finds best, as he probably knows better what he needs.

In exchange for that, I (hopefully) make a benefit. I tend to think that development is more likely to be sustainable when based on transactions than when based on generosity. Generosity is scarce, and tends to follow the media's spotlight, which jumps from one side of the globe to the other, as disasters happen.

Charity still plays an important role. Microloans and business development require a certain degree of entrepreneurial freedom and a stable supporting infrastructure. Where these lack, charities are the only ones capable of filling in the void and helping people survive through the worst.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

A cure worse than the disease

My laptop (running Win XP) is suffering a strange illness: it gets very slow, for no known reasons. The process viewer shows the processors are supposed to be idle.

Suspecting a malware, I looked for a free malware detection and removal tool. I went for SpyHunter free. The experience did not go well.

The installer started the scan without asking me, it installed a boot loader (grub4dos) without asking me, and finally rebooted (after asking me, finally...)

The result: a corrupted ntldr I spent most of this Sunday trying to recover.
Interesting facts learned during this process:
1) The recovery DVD I had to create after buying the laptop (an EasyNote from PackardBell) is useless, failing after giving an cryptical error message ("CDrom <> Operating System!!!", got to love the "!!!" at the end...).
2) The reinitialisation procedure which uses the backup partition is worse than useless (it does nothing but reboot, no error message).
3) The Windows XP installation cd I got many years ago through MSDNAA is no longer readable, at least not on my laptop.

As usual, it was Linux that saved the day in the end. I hate this kind of sundays that just go to waste. So little free time, so many interesting projects, so much better to do.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cesar dies, aliens win an Oscar, Amazing things happen to genetically-engineered super doctor

I took 3 novels with me this summer: The Gods of War by Conn Iggulden, Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi (which is available online here) and Stardoc by S.L. Viehl.

The Gods of War is the last in the Emperor series. Although I liked the first book, I had some difficulties taking myself through the other books. They were obviously interesting enough for me to buy all of them, but I don't feel too enthusiastic about them. More battles, more victories... I'm relieved Brutus and the senate put an end to this.

Agent to the Stars is a book I recommend. It has every ingredient I like: It's funny, believable and touches (briefly) some classical themes in science-fiction, such as the essence of sentience and consciousness.

Stardoc, by S.L. Viehl is the opposite. OK, I'll concede it sometimes is funny, but without the insight on the human being and its social life "Agent to the Stars" has. Furthermore, it's excessively unrealistic. I can't really criticize the book without summarizing the story, so here it goes.

Dr. Cherijo Grey Veil is a genetically-enhanced super doctor who runs away from her father to the other side of the galaxy. She lands on a luxurious planet where she fulfills her duty as a doctor in a small colony. This takes a lot of her time, and it shows in the story. The reader never really gets to know much about the planet and the dangers the colony faces. That's a shame, really, seeing how Viehl (whose name is suspiciously very similar to the main character's) describes the planet as beautiful and mysterious, both inviting and menacing at the same time. Instead, we get to follow Cherijo's daily routine, how little modesty her cat has, and how she falls in love with the first tall guy she meets. She even marries the guy, who conveniently promptly dies, leaving the door open for more romantic adventures (some of which are disturbing, see below).
Somehow, she manages to be the center of conflict threatening to take galactic proportions, barely escapes the planet on a starship operated by her deceased husband's family, and goes on to further adventures I won't follow.

The number one hard-to-swallow ingredient in the book is the power of her father. He is some sort of mad evil doctor who illegally engineered the perfect doctor. To Viehl's credit, the reader is spared yet another perfect genetically-enhanced warrior. Understandably, the father is upset at his creature's run for freedom. Somehow, he manages to bring the entire federation's military might into the chase. In the process, a pact with a powerful alien race is broken. What gives him that kind of decision power is left to the reader to imagine.

Other surprising events include the accusation brought against the main character. As a genetically-engineered creature, she is considered non-sentient, and she must return to her owner. The obvious flaw here is that creating and modifying human beings is considered unethical precisely because all humans are considered sentient. The accusation is totally absurd, and that a tribunal would judge in favor of Dr. Frankenstein is unbelievable.

I could go on for long, but I'll keep myself to just one more mystery. During her time as a doctor on K-2, Cherijo is faced with an epidemic caused by a sentient collective formed of virus-like individuals. These individuals were ingested by mistake by a colonist during a field trip, and they try all they can to return to their natural habitat. OK so far. Things get wrong when they take control over Duncan Reever, one of the characters. Under their control, Duncan Reever rapes Cherijo, an act described in bizarrely erotic terms. That scene will remain for ever in my memory as one of the most disturbing I've read. The goal with the rape (other than getting readers feel guilty about their reactions to the rape's description) was to transmit the infecting aliens to Cherijo, at which point they would get her to take a trip back to the forest and return the virus-like aliens to their home. Now, can anyone explain to me why they don't just get Duncan to walk back to the forest? What's the frigging' point with the rape?

Enough about this book now, but if you too made the mistake of reading this book and you are regretting it, you may feel better after reading these inspired reviews.