Human Nature
Science, technology, and life.

Feb. 2 2010 10:39 AM

Trumped-up Terrorism

The bombing of the CIA base, like the November massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, was an act of war. It was also espionage. But it wasn't terrorism. Terrorism targets civilians. The CIA officers killed at the Afghan base, like the soldiers shot down at Fort Hood, were not civilians. They were running a war.

More here .

Feb. 2 2010 9:58 AM

The Drone Bomber

Now the Taliban seem to have come up with a new strategy: using the drones' human intelligence networks to infiltrate the program and kill the people who run it. Last week, a suicide bomber blew up seven CIA officers at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. It looked like just another insurgent attack. But it was more than that. In separate interviews, representatives of two Taliban factions have claimed that the mission's target was the drone program. "We attacked this base because the team there was organizing drone strikes," a commander allied with the Afghan Taliban told the Wall Street Journal .

Score one for the bad guys. The next move is ours.

More here .

Feb. 2 2010 9:48 AM

Why We Need To See Your Crotch

You'll have to start showing your gonads when you go to the airport. You won't have to show them to the people standing next to you. But you'll have to show them to the Transportation Security Administration . You'll stand in front of a machine that sees through your clothes . It will capture every contour of your body and relay this picture to a screen in a nearby room . In that room, somebody who works for TSA will study the picture, including your gonads. They'll study your gonads because that's where bombers hide bombs.

More here .

Dec. 29 2009 10:15 AM

How To Find an Underwear Bomb

According to a photo posted by ABC News, the bomb allegedly smuggled on board Northwest Flight 253 last week was  a packet of powder sewn into the bomber's underwear . Note the packet's location: right in the crotch, where a TSA pat-down is least likely to catch you.

How do you find a nonmetallic bomb tucked into such a private place? By looking right through the bomber's clothing with a naked-body scanner. Check out the Washington Post's analysis of the available technologies for spotting a bomb like this one. The far-right column, "whole-body imaging," looks like our best shot.

Human Nature explained the naked scanners two years ago and again this year . In this year's piece, I worried about the TSA abusing the scanners. Flight 253 is a reminder that we face bigger threats than the TSA.

Dec. 29 2009 10:07 AM

Abortion Funding: Cool the Hype

After trillions of dollars, decades of debate, and months of legislative haggling, the fate of health care in the United States is coming down to an old-fashioned moral issue. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers are fighting over insurance coverage of abortions. Each camp seems capable of killing the legislation pending in Congress. Abortion, we're told, is different from other issues caught up in the health care debate. It's a question of ultimate values, impervious to compromise.

Nonsense. Lawmakers on both sides have already agreed on principles for working out the abortion question. The differences among the competing proposals are almost entirely technical. Zealots may care about the details, but most Americans don't. Let's cut a deal and move on.

More here .

Dec. 29 2009 10:05 AM

The Disappearance of Flight 188

You've heard of planes that vanished into thin air? Here's a truer, scarier story: On Oct. 21, 2009, two pilots flying from San Diego to Minneapolis vanished into cyberspace.

Their plane was fine. Ground controllers tracked it the whole time. The passengers and flight attendants in the main cabin noticed nothing unusual. And the pilots' bodies stayed planted in their seats as though they were flying the aircraft. But they weren't flying it. Their minds had been sucked into a pair of laptops.

More here .

Dec. 9 2009 11:30 AM

News Roundup 12/9/09

Today's highlights in science, medicine, and technology:

1. Adultery and texting. Tiger Woods isn't the first guy to cheat on his wife or get caught by his own text messages. Look at Kwame Kilpatrick and John Ensign . And for poetic value, don't forget Mark Sanford. Wise up, cheaters: Your tryst is soon over, but your text messages are forever .

2. Abortion coverage. The Senate voted down a copy of the Stupak amendment , which would bar abortion coverage under any health plan that covers anyone who is federally subsidized. The even better news for pro-choicers is that the Senate's two most pro-life Democrats, Ben Nelson and Bob Casey, are refusing to declare the defeat of this amendment a deal killer for their votes on the overall health reform bill. So it looks like the Senate can pass the bill without the Stupak restriction.

3. Medical cost controls. Health insurance is expensive in large part because we lack the guts to say no to costly procedures. But it's much cheaper for pets . Why? One big reason is that we don't go to the ends of the earth to prolong Fido's life. Human life is more valuable than pet life, but it isn't priceless. Maybe we should study pet health care and insurance to remind ourselves how and when to say no.

4. Marijuana. The Los Angeles city council is finally moving to rein in the "medical" marijuana dispensaries that have run amok in that city. It's about time. Los Angeles has become a poster child for the hazards of legalizing pot. If you want pot to be legal, you'd better demonstrate to a disgusted and anxious public that it can be regulated and managed responsibly.

5. Drone mission creep. Unmanned aerial vehicles aren't just for killing bad guys in Pakistan anymore. They're now being sent over ocean waters to monitor smuggling of drugs and immigrants. Domestic surveillance won't be far behind, since tireless eyes in the sky are a huge help to law enforcement. But don't worry, the drones won't shoot you. They'll just track you and record your behavior on video.

Speaking of live monitoring: You can get these updates in real time by following the Human Nature Twitter feed .

Dec. 8 2009 10:16 AM

Abortion and Precedent

For the House as a whole, the decision to accept the Stupak amendment against abortion funding wasn't about morality. It was about vote counting. You do what you have to do to get the bill through. And guess what? In the Senate, pro-choice Democrats don't necessarily have to accept the same amendment. The only precedent that really lasts is getting your way if you can.

More here .

Dec. 4 2009 9:40 AM

The Drone Surge

The public part of President Obama's new war strategy is to put more soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan.

The not-so-public part is to expand our use of drones in Pakistan. In this morning's New York Times , Scott Shane reports that Obama "has authorized an expansion of the C.I.A.'s drone program in Pakistan's lawless tribal area" to parallel our Afghan surge.

Human Nature has been updating you on this trend for a while. Drones make it easier for us to fight in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They enable us to kill our enemies from a distance, without putting our troops in harm's way.

But does that distance deaden us to the significance of collateral damage? Do drones turn war into a video game ? Do they increase the risk of civilian casualties? An Amnesty International official makes that argument to the Times : "Anything that dehumanizes the process makes it easier to pull the trigger."

The argument makes sense. But by insulating their operators from danger, drones do more than dehumanize the killing process. They can hover over their targets, give their operators time to study the scene, plan, and think before firing. As Shane points out, "Operators at C.I.A. headquarters can use the drones' video feed to study a militant's identity and follow fighters to training areas or weapons caches, officials say. Targeters often can see where wives and children are located in a compound or wait until fighters drive away from a house or village before they are hit."

Which effect is greater: dehumanization or hover time? That's an empirical question. And the best way to answer it is by monitoring civilian casualties.

But that isn't an easy thing to do. Do you count only the dead you can verify as civilians from the drone's video feed? In areas controlled by the Taliban, do you wait for official investigations? There's no CSI Waziristan. Alternatively, do you trust whatever some local honcho tells the Pakistani press? Do you believe the eight guys who died in the targeted building were farmers? The former methods are likely to undercount civilian deaths; the latter is likely to exaggerate them.

Based on media reports, the New American Foundation credits the drones with an ugly 2-1 ratio of militant to civilian casualties. The Long War Journal reports a much more heartening ratio of 9-to-1 . And a government official offers Shane an estimate of 20-to-1, claiming the drones have killed only about 20 civilians.

I'm skeptical of the high count. If the 2-1 ratio were correct, I'd expect more outrage from the Pakistani countryside than we've seen. On the contrary, Shane notes that in a recent survey of Pakistani professionals in the targeted areas, half of them said the drone strikes were accurate, and most said they strikes didn't foment anger at the United States.

But I don't buy the low count, either. Never trust killers to report their death tolls. That's a good rule even when the killers work for your government and are fighting bad guys. Casualty counts, especially of civilians, must be independently checked.

I'd like to think that drones, because of their video technology and hover time, are making it easier to kill the enemy without killing civilians. If so, we should make them a bigger part of our strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They could even police the area once the surge is over and our troops are coming home.

So let's figure out an internationally credible way to check their performance in sorting the good guys from the bad. If this is a better way to fight insurgencies, let's prove it.

Dec. 3 2009 7:42 AM

Tweets 12/3/09

Human Nature has been away on a project and will be back soon with articles and blog posts. Until then, here are some of the short takes I've been posting on the news. To get them in real time, subscribe to the HN Twitter feed .

1. Next Internet wave underway: redesigning the Web for phones. The phone is devouring the universe.

2. Black resistance to gay/black analogy lingers: But is being gay more of a choice than being black?

3. If you like the investigation of Tiger Woods' health records you'll love prosecuting abortion laws.

4. Get ready for restrictions on heating & A/C: Spain is banning A/C below 79 degrees. Prediction: This will sweep Europe.

5. Latest plan to fight global warming: sheep eugenics. To reduce methane burps. I kid you not. A tree-hugger's dilemma.

6. Comfort food as antidepressant: It's getting harder to sustain the old idea that "food" is natural but "drugs" aren't.

7. Fight HIV with Muslim extremism? In case you blamed Jesse Helms on Christianity. BTW, I hear beheadings are unsanitary.

8. 80% of US corn comes from GM seeds controlled by a Monsanto patent: Goodbye nature, hello intellectual property.

9. Psychopathic genes can make you a psychopath... unless you're aware of them. Reflection is a glitch in bio-determinism.

10. Latest virtual-reality breakthrough: Web porn synchronized with real sensations. Hat tip to Jason Chen via @ jackshafer .

11. 70%-80% of 2009 U.S. casualties in Afghanistan have been caused by IEDs, not weapons fire: So much for "shooting wars."

12. Illusion of muscles created by spray-tan art: Forget Photoshop, the new visual fraud is standing right in front of you.

13. Pro-lifers are for scripted informed consent except when it applies to them. (Ditto pro-choicers?)

14. We could save women more abortion $ via birth control than via a zero-sum insurance fight.

15. Teaching computers idioms via feedback: This is the path to AI: Machines must learn by observation & modeling, as we do.

16. Horrifying story of a guy misdiagnosed as comatose, unable to speak the truth: How many more cases don't we know about?

17. Child molesters turning to cyberspace: Looks like a net gain: 1) can bypass touching and 2) easier to track/catch them.

18. Next-generation surveillance: Acoustic sensor networks triangulate gunshot locations & swivel/zoom cameras to catch you.

19. If molesters can't can't be with kids, shouldn't people who kill in their sleep be barred from sleeping with others?

20. If your kindergarten "aptitude" test can be outsmarted by test prep , then it doesn't really measure aptitude, does it?

21. Old wives' tale: Pot is bad for you in 100 ways. New wives' tale: Pot is good for you in 100 ways. That'll be $100.