Afghanistan from the inside – a culture in transition and a country with no culture


Absurd in Afghanistan
[Via The AmCon » Articles]

Five American troops moved briskly through the streets of Kandahar, their weapons at the ready. It was not yet mid-morning, and things had already broken down. Separated from their convoy, they were following an Afghan prosecutor to the city’s judicial headquarters. Afghanistan is generally not kind to foot patrols or improvisation, and that July morning in 2011 was quickly acquiring an aura of misadventure. Their mission was to kiss the ring of an Afghan judge to obtain the release of a young boy who had been arrested for no other reason than that a police chief found him attractive. Joseph, one of the Americans from that patrol, later explained that it was a uniquely Afghan problem requiring a uniquely American solution: “Begging for a favor while carrying a gun.”

While in police custody, the boy would be dressed in girl’s clothing, made to dance suggestively, and then sexually abused in a ritual practice known as bacha bazi (literally, “playing with boys”). The community had come to the U.S. battalion commander, pleading with him to intervene and secure the boy’s release.

“The commander was a rising star who’d spent months building schools and digging wells to win the loyalty of the village,” Joseph recalls. “He gathered us in a room. Everyone knew the stakes. We were risking our lives. He was risking his career. A firefight on an unauthorized mission in another regiment’s battle space is a quick route to early retirement.” A firefight on a crowded street where the enemies are indistinguishable from civilians would be a quick to route to the front page of the New York Times—and a court-martial.

“This is the tribalism of Afghanistan,” he says. “There is no public consensus on how to act in any situation. Everything is personal. That’s what ‘tribal’ means—it focuses on who is involved: Ask this guy to do you a favor to help you with that guy. Everything is about relationships and demonstrations of power. Who can protect you? Who can pull strings to deliver a favor? Every soldier in Khost and Zhari and Nangahar knows this.”

Joseph—whose full name is being withheld due to his ongoing affiliation with the military—had virtually no combat training prior to his arrival on the streets of Kandahar, but he was more seasoned than most of the soldiers around him. After a classical education at elite schools, his early career on Wall Street was followed by law school, JAG, and then Afghanistan. By the time he arrived, he was in his late 30s—the same age as British novelist Evelyn Waugh when he saw combat in World War II, and every bit as unlikely a soldier. Over an espresso in a Washington, D.C., suburb in the autumn of 2011, I begin a conversation with Joseph that continues off and on for three years, in which he reflects on the military’s helplessness in the face of violence and absurdity, particularly the violence of that July morning at the hands of America’s allies.

“We lacked the confidence even to say, ‘You may not rape little boys.’ All we had to offer was administration and technology, and they sensed this.”

Joseph believes that, in a peculiar way, this parallels America’s institutional system. “We have no consensus either. Nobody can agree on any normative reason to do anything,” he says. “So we default to an institutional structure. Our tribalism is institutional. Afghanistan was an encounter between these two systems. The first lieutenant leading a foot patrol stands square at the pressure point between these two tribal systems: one fluid, personal and violent; the other rigid, impersonal and violent. A quarter mile away from any soldier is a guy in a grape hut who wants to cut his head off. Nine thousand miles away is a guy in an air-conditioned room with video screens contemplating his pension who wants to drop a bomb on the guy in the grape hut.”


An intriguing discussion. I think it hits some important points – especially about America being in a place where normative behavior is in transition, thus allowing institutional systems to dominate.

We have no consensus because the world is changing too rapidly. America’s historical balance between hierarchical authority and distributed democracy has been put under a lot of stress trying to respond.

Democracy, while often eventually providing the wise solution, usually takes a long time to respond. This has allowed the institutional aspects of authority to dominate. Because authority really only exists by taking actions.

So when we go to a country with no real unifying culture, one where distributed approaches extend so far that authority changes by the minute, we have balance to offer. 

Authority is blind to the complexity of these problems – often sub-nation state in size. Afghanistan is all sub-nation state tribes. It would be a difficult nut to crack even if we did understand  and could bring the balance needed.

Authority wants to fight the old battles, ones it knows how to win, ones involving national governments, laws, justice and culture. That is not going to happen.

These battles will not involve lines on a map.

Because we mostly won that battle. Most nation-states today want to see the benefits of a balanced government,  one with strong authority and democracy. In the early 70s, there were only 40 democracies in the world. By 2000 there wee 120. Roughly 60% of the countries today are democracies. 

Authority wants to keep fighting that battle, a war between nation-states. Distributed democracy sees the problems but keeps talking about possible solutions, not accomplishing any of them.

This is the battle of this generation – seen at all sub-nation state levels, even at the state and local levels here: Finding the balance between the actions of hierarchical authority and the wisdom of distributed democracy.

We are slowly finding it.

 [corrected title. Know I should not write that late at night ;-)

A distributed approach for controlling a vicious minority

Screaming For Halloween!! 

Thousands of developers sign plea for tolerance in gaming community
[Via Ars Technica]

Amid weeks of heated rhetoric and misogyny-charged threats and attacks in the gaming world, many members of the gaming industry have publicly signed on to a petition asking for tolerance and acceptance in the larger community.

“We believe that everyone, no matter what gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion or disability has the right to play games, criticize games and make games without getting harassed or threatened,” Spaces of Play’s Andreas Zecher wrote in an open letter on Medium.

“It is the diversity of our community that allows games to flourish. If you see threats of violence or harm in comments on Steam, YouTube, Twitch, Twitter, Facebook or reddit, please take a minute to report them on the respective sites,” the letter says. “If you see hateful, harassing speech, take a public stand against it and make the gaming community a more enjoyable space to be in.”


All you have to do is read the comments from a respected site that touched on the vicious rhetoric turned towards people who criticize how women are displayed in video games to see that there is a problem.

The best way to deal with these miscreants is to expose them publicly and demonstrate that their behavior will no longer be tolerated.

We do this in real life now – with outright racists speech that was once accepted no longer fit for polite society.we are learning how to do this better online.

I don;t expect it to go away, just as racism still exists but its public display will be shamed.

Make it a game – a distributed approach for dealing with protests

Ben the War Journalist 

Citizen journalism game will show how your photos change the story
[Via Engadget]

As the Ferguson protests made exceedingly clear, citizen journalism is both a blessing and a curse; while it can expose police brutality and censorship, it’s also prone to misinformation. But how do you illustrate the complexity of the subject for the general public? If you’re developer Nicky Case, who has a history of tackling difficult subjects, you build a gamearound it. His as yet unnamed title will have your character trying to gain Twitter followers (that is, score points) by taking photos at controversial events like protests. The trick will be to accurately capture what’s happening without polarizing any group more than necessary. You may want to photograph police corruption, but the cops could block you from certain areas if you antagonize them too quickly; at the same time, you don’t want to take extreme shots that turn peaceful protests into riots.


An interesting approach. Actully put players into a complex situation and let them try and figure out what the best approach is.

How you frame the story, will change the story.”

It looks to be quite an undertaking and may never see the light of day. but distributed approaches allow him to try.

Could texting help literacy?

 Writing Skills
[Via xkcd:]


He makes an interesting point. With so many people communicating with each other by the written language perhaps higher levels of literacy ill arise.

Because to be a part of the society arising from technology, you have to be able to communicate using words. And communication by words is the most powerful way to communicate.

Sure. there will be a lot of crap. But Sturgeon’s Law predicts that. I guess we shall see.

Social media creating silence?


[Via Dave Winer's linkblog feed]

How Social Media Silences Debate.


I’m skeptical that social media silences debate. It opens up a different sort of discussion tool, one that both reflects how humans create community and offers new approaches.

First, this deals with a specific issue – the NSA and Snowden. It hits an area where there can be very little discussion. People already have hardened positions not open foe debate. Few will be persuaded to change.

So why discuss it online, where your words are there forever? At best you may talk about it with people that agree with you but no way will you confront those who are on the other side. You do not know if any of them are really crazy. 

People have always refrained from discussion of politics in public. Because people have hardened positions and will not change their views. Because people are crazy. No one talks politics in polite company.

A liberal at a conservative family’s Thanksgiving dinner is not going to be all in on Obamacare. Same with a conservative meeting a liberal group from San Francisco.

No talk of controversial things. Unless it is a company they felt safe in. That already agrees with them.

First, perhaps 2/3rds of a population connect strictly to a local community, one that provides them information mainly from each other and one where opinions match. They do not like lots of new information, feeling comfortable with what the group ‘knows.’

This is true whether online or in person.

On the other hand,  perhaps 10% of a group is highly connected to other groups, moving information rapidly between groups and acting to disrupt the comfortable views of the majority.

The majority usually hates them, calls them impolite at best and jerks at worst. But without them, the community achieves epistemic closure and pinches itself off from humanity, becoming a bubble that has no impact on the world.

A sustainable community needs both. Too few disruptors and it simply becomes brittle and unable to adapt as the world changes. It cracks easily.

Online allows communities to come together much more rapidly and easily. Because the online world facilitates the flow of information by this 10% group, it is no wonder that the majority hates being open on social media. Everyone can see what they think.

For them, it is easier to control the flow of information, and thus who hears an opinion, when at a dinner party than when on Facebook. But being in the minority at a party does not mean you are more likely to speak.

If you do you may never be invited back. 

This does not change online. Those disruptors that speak online can simply be unFriended.

It is not that minority views are more likely to be heard by the majority in an online discussion. Most people only connect to people like them. 

It is that minority views can exist at all, find their own community and sustain themselves. Without online discussion, many of these minority views would simply dissipate. But by forming their own community, they can be sustained.

Perhaps this is one reason we are seeing so much Geek Culture hitting the mainstream. That niche community was sustained in ways that allowed ti to become much more ‘normal.’

Sure, niche communities are made up of humans and will also often exclude minority views. But the ease for creating these communities, for joining and for leaving, means that large amounts of information can flow between communities than could ever before.

I can easily find and join networks that discuss either aspect of almost any topic. I have been part of more vigorous discussions online than I ever did in any other sector of my life. Online communities are expansive for me, not restrictive.

The Twitch purchase – more proof that cable TV is dying

Thrown into the Deep End

Recode: Amazon to Acquire Twitch for More Than $1 Billion
[Via Daring Fireball]

Peter Kafka and Eric Johnson, reporting for Recode:

Amazon is buying videogame streaming site Twitch for more than $1 billion to edge past Netflix and Youtube in a race for younger viewers, according to a source.

Google had been in talks to acquire the company, but that deal died, according to the source. Amazon then entered the picture and completed what is one of its biggest acquisitions to date, this person said.

For the uninitiated, Twitch is a platform for making and talking about videos of videogame play. About a million users a month record themselves playing videogames, while the rest — pegged at 50 million unique viewers in July — watch and comment on the videos. In January, Twitch reported that 58 percent of its viewers spent more than 20 hours per week on the site.

The future of TV is online streaming, not traditional “channels” that come through cable or satellite. It occurs to me that Google’s 2006 purchase of YouTube for $1.65 billion has proven to be one of the smartest and most important acquisitions of the Internet era. My son and his friends watch far more YouTube content than they do traditional TV. Cable TV is dying.


The median age of people watching broadcast networks is 60. The median age for Fox News is 68. That increased  almost 2 years over the course of one – suggesting that FOX is not attracting younger viewers.

So what are the younger people doing if not watching TV? Streaming video on demand is one of them. They can watch virtually anything online. And if it is not online, it is probably not worth watching. 

Netflix is producing great things to watch. At anytime you want. without having to wait weeks to see each episode. Twitch is another novel entertainment solution. I would not expect watching video games played by others to be big but it is.

Heck, even the Emmy broadcast last night made fun of this, with jokes about how many awards Netflix was garnering. Very few of the class programs, from Game of Thrones to Breaking Bad to True Detective or Fargo have to be shown on TV.

Especially as costs drop and disruption accelerates. Netflix makes money of programs like House of Cards if it is able to keep just a few hundred thousand people paying.

I get to watch a lot free video at Amazon if I have a Prime Account (closing in on $100 a year). If HBO had a streaming service apart from cable, would they make more money? There are a ton of hits to get HBO without cable.

$1 billion may be chump change as things progress. 

Do not look if you have a fear of heights

 Hong Kong Skyline

‘In Hong Kong, Getting to the Roofs Is Quite Easy’
[Via Daring Fireball]

Just looking at these photos made me break into a serious sweat. (Via Dave Winer.)


I warned you. These are beautiful shots but wow.


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