August 9th, 2007

VDB Takes Morning Train To Brattleboro, City of the Medium-Sized Shoulders

by Philip Baruth

Just about to get on the road for Brattleboro, to do two hours of “Live and Local” with progressive superhero Steve West on WKVT 1490. That’s the 10-noon time slot, for those in earshot (global streaming to the web is still undergoing beta testing).

Steve, being, well, Steve

Why drive two hours to Brattleboro when we could do the show from the blogging command center here in Burlington?

Because we turned our backs for a few months, and suddenly they outlawed nudity and unpacked the tasers down there.

And VDB don’t play that. Hasta pronto.

August 9th, 2007

And You Thought The Surge Was a Bad Idea

by Philip Baruth

Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #202: Why, Robot

Let me begin by saying that nobody loves robots more than I do. I stumbled onto Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot series when I was twelve, and never looked back.

robotWhat made the novels so fascinating is that the robots were always experiencing very human emotional breakdowns, and only a gifted robot psychologist could bring them back under control.

Mostly the machines found themselves conflicted over Asimov’s First Law of Robotics: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”

A very clear moral precept, the First Law.

The catch, of course, is that the Second Law of Robotics calls for robots to immediately obey any command from any human being. You see the problem: in nearly every story, humans put robots in a position where they must choose between morality and obedience.

You could argue that the series had its origins in the experience of World War II and the Nuremberg Trials, in the question of what society can properly ask of its human soldiers.

I’m thinking about Asimov today because of what I read online yesterday: the Pentagon is about to deploy 18 fully-armed robots in Iraq, tiny systems about three feet high, mounted on tank treads, and each carrying an M249 machine gun.

The robots go by the acronym SWORDS, short for “special weapons observation remote reconnaissance direct action system.”

Really, that’s the acronym.

These new robots are based on the same technology as those currently being used to disarm roadside bombs. Both are piloted remotely, using a joystick and a keyboard, and both can achieve speeds up to about 20 miles an hour. The only real difference is that the bomb disposal robots adhere to Asimov’s First Law.

The new SWORDS units, on the other hand, can be modified to fire M40 grenades and even rockets.

Now, with US casualties in Iraq mounting, you might wonder why armed robots have taken so long to come to the war zone. After all, they were declared battle-ready back in 2004. But it turns out there were a few glitches.

First, the units tend to spin wildly out of control, for reasons that remain unclear. Second, soldiers operating the robots occasionally experience a lag-time of up to eight seconds, usually during combat.

robotIn other words, when the robots aren’t firing wildly at anything in a 360 degree radius, they’re prone to silence and unresponsive behavior, like sulky adolescents.

Of course, the Army found an elegant solution to the problem of runaway robots: a kill switch that disables the unit if it “goes crazy.”

But when you think about it, the kill switch simply leaves the $200,000 unit lying defenseless in the sand.

And that’s the problem with this whole technology: the SWORDS robots move far more slowly than a Humvee, and their remote piloting is far more clumsy. Each SWORDS unit is at a significant disadvantage against a guerrilla insurgency. Unlike Predator drones, which fly far above small arms fire, these new killer robots are actually sitting ducks.

So why is the Army rushing to field them now, when their liabilities still so clearly outweigh their usefulness?

Well, the link I clicked yesterday took me to a website called, which looks like your average technology/video gaming site, with one exception: it was plastered with ads for something called “The Army Gaming Championships,” a competitive video game tournament sponsored by the U.S. Army and offering over $200,000 in assorted prize money.

In other words, the SWORDS units may or may not achieve results on the battlefield, but they are already being smoothly integrated into the Army’s increasingly brazen pitch to adolescent boys.

And that, more than anything else, is what must have Isaac Asimov, the great moral philosopher of my youth, spinning in his grave.

[This piece aired first on Vermont Public Radio. You can listen to an ]

August 8th, 2007

BREAKING: VDB Reluctantly Calls for “Tough Kitty Love” To Enforce Democratic Party Discipline Here in Vermont

by Philip Baruth

The New York Times today is moving a chilling story out of Bangkok: Thai policemen caught committing minor infractions — parking illegally, littering, tardiness — are being forced to don a Hello Kitty armband.

hello kitty

We know: that’s freaking harsh.

But apparently the idea is to shame the scofflaw cops into compliance.

Says Pongpat Chayaphan, acting chief of the Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok, “This new twist is expected to make them feel guilt and shame and prevent them from repeating the offense, no matter how minor . . . [Hello] Kitty is a cute icon for young girls. It’s not something macho police officers want covering their biceps.”

Indeed. Tough kitty love.

And after thinking the matter through here at VDB, we believe this is a tactic that might well bear fruit in the Green Mountains as well. Not for minor infractions, no — that would be too whimsically cruel.

No, we suggest reserving the terminally cute armband for major offenses, the unthinkable. Like a Republican candidate for Governor, when you happen to be a member of the Democratic leadership.

That sort of thing.

Will it work? The research is inconclusive at this point. But if it doesn’t, VDB is willing to experiment with still more draconian measures: the Elmo and yes, possibly even the Bratz armband, recently rejected by Amnesty International as a “tactic tantamount to torture.”

More as gory details warrant.

August 7th, 2007

Unaware Cameras Are Rolling, Romney Blurts Out What He Has Been Dying To Blurt All Along: “I’m not running as a Mormon.”

by Philip Baruth

Every once in awhile, a political figure gets caught speaking truth to power — that is, they suddenly drop the campaign act in front a microphone from which someone has forgotten to cut the electricity.

mittThink George W. Bush calling Times reporter Adam Clymer a “major-league asshole.”

And coming from a guy who’d owned a ball team, that really meant something.

Think Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, earlier this cycle, caught conferring on the need to exclude second-tier candidates from the debates.

But those snafus were the stuff of seconds, tiny whisps of reality drowned in a sea of spin. Neither lasted even a full minute.

Which brings us to Mitt Romney. A few days ago, Romney did an Iowa morning-show interview with a host named Jan Mickelson. Mickelson is straight from talk-radio Central Casting: advocates simply ignoring the Supreme Court when their rulings aren’t to his liking, aggressively pro-Life, pushy, always seeking to increase his own Conservative cred at the expense of his guest.

And during the course of the interview, Mickelson not only asks Romney about his abrupt shifts on abortion policy, and not only about his Mormonism, but about how the two dovetail — or fail to dovetail, rather.

All of this has the effect of steaming Romney’s collar. And the beauty of this video is that just as Mitt is reaching full boil, Mickelson takes a station break, and goes off the radio waves. At which point, he and Romney really mix it up.

While the station camera is still running.