Osama Bin Laden’s Assassination and the Choice of Reasonings

May 13, 2011

I am not a lawyer. Nor have I ever set foot inside the United Nations building in New York. But by all accounts the killing of Osama Bin Laden appears to be legal under United Nations law. If you read Resolution 1373, which was passed unanimously after 9/11, and Resolution 1566, which was passed in 2004 to shore up the definitions of terrorism—and again, I am not a lawyer; I’ve read them but am also defaulting to interpretations of people I respect—you’ll see that members of the UN Security Council gave themselves the power to use any force necessary on people or groups “with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public.”

Dropping into a Pakistani compound and executing the man who took credit for masterminding the murder of almost three thousand innocent people became legal. Many thinkers, like Matt Yglesias, have made the point that, just like the rest of history, international law is written by powerful states. That’s the way it goes. Yes, the United States, China, Russia, Great Britain, France and the non-permanent members of the UN Security Council have essentially said, “If we think there’s a terrorist in your country, regardless of your nation’s sovereignty, we reserve the right to drop in a SEAL team and take him out.”

The solutions and justifications in conflict are never binary. Sure, we’re fighting terrorism. We want to call Osama Bin Laden an “enemy combatant.” By all accounts the operation was an assassination mission from the start with no intent of capture. The Navy SEALs dropped in and executed an old man—a psychotic, murderous old man, and it’s certainly possible that he raised a machine gun to fire back in which case anything is fair game.

But Tim McVeigh was psychotic and murdered a score of innocent Americans, and he stood trial. Saddam Hussein was captured in a raid by American forces, while we were at war, and stood trial.

The “wartime” argument for Bin Laden—who walked with a cane and was on dialysis—is compelling, but after the Oklahoma City Bombing would it have sat well if a SWAT team had raided McVeigh’s apartment and killed him with no attempt at capture? He would fall under the UN definition of terrorism and without stopping him, he’d certainly “strike again.” The news story wouldn’t have gotten much mileage considering the heinous nature of the crime, but quietly we would have noted, “Killing him without a trial does violate a sacred pillar of our Constitution.” I don’t believe that Osama Bin Laden’s citizenship or allegiances really changes that parallel either. And yes, he admitted guilt for his crime, but so do countless murderers as they’re interrogated; they still get a court date. The United States is founded on the principle of a fair trial regardless of any of those conditions.

But the UN isn’t.

Many who accused Obama of “subverting the Constitution” and “weakening the United States by listening to the UN” cheered, quite loudly, for Osama Bin Laden’s death. Yet either of those two criticisms was in play. And this double talking can become worrisome; that we could increasingly justify some actions with the Constitution and others with UN Resolutions, that we could choose from a buffet of laws to satiate our moral justifications. Like it or not we’re going to become enmeshed more and more with the United Nations; the world is globalizing—an unstoppable force despite (ultimately harmful) protectionist measures—and as a nation we’re going to need to listen to other countries’ viewpoints more and more.

But at the same time those people should never quiet their voices about implementing American values into the United Nations Resolutions (or “laws” as they should be called). I’d be okay if we quietly forgot about the Second but otherwise, those other Nine Amendments are bedrocks of a civil, modern society. Especially the Sixth that states, “In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury.”

The Top of the Exclamation Ladder

April 8, 2011

Imagine that a friend just emailed you a humorous YouTube clip and prefaces the bit with a simple, “This is funny.”

The clip is in fact funny and you’re going to respond. What do you say? Probably not, “That was funny.”

You’ll likely go with something like “Hilarious!” or “I’m dying! Too good!” or something of that nature.

Yet the video clip may have been, in your eyes and by any normal measurement, regular ol’ funny—not knee-slapping, heehawing hilarious.

There is a curious quality in the way email and digital communication makes us escalate exclamation. If you had responded to “This is funny” with “That was funny,” your friend would probably have wondered whether you’d actually watched the clip or, perhaps, didn’t think it was funny whatsoever. However, if that friend hadn’t said anything when they sent the clip, “That was funny” would probably pass for an acceptable response. You have to take the banter to a higher level to be polite.

I sometimes think back to the evolution of indicating something was funny over AOL instant messenger. Ten years ago, it was okay to say “hehe”, and then “haha” came along, then “HAHA”, then “LOL”(laughing out loud, which just made it into the Oxford dictionary), then “LMAO” (laughing my ass off), then “ROFL” (rolling on the floor laughing).

That’s quite a progression. Who knows where we’re headed next. (IJHAS? “I just had a seizure!”)

Or think how exclamatory adjectives don’t mean as much anymore. If I tell you something is “amazing”, does it really catch your attention as much as the definition—“inspiring awe or admiration or wonder”—suggests it should?* According to that definition, you should drop whatever you’re doing. But we’re told twenty times a day that something is “amazing.” It’s become white noise, yet it’s one of our languages most powerful words.

Why has this happened?

Part of the reasoning definitely lies in the aforementioned “inundation factor.” You can only be told that there are “unbelievable!” offers on home loans, iPods, transcontinental flights and Viagra before the buzz, unfortunately, starts to dilute the power of your friends’ words too.

But another part of me wonders if it comes back to what I think of as a Step Ladder Effect to words and punctuation. Words have levels to them and lack the gradations and nuance of human interaction. If I wrote that something was “awesome”, you’d at least have to acknowledge, “Awesome!”, and take it up a level. Yet if we were sitting around the computer and that was my intro, I’d be fine with you just laughing. The human interaction of your chuckle was all I needed.

To be polite, we have to keep stepping up that ladder. It’s how acknowledgement works over the wires. To stay at the same level is, for some reason, sorta rude or giving off the impression that you’d actually prefer to step down a rung but are trying (poorly) to be nice.

The phenomenon makes me wonder if we’re going to need, or will evolve, a new system for exclamation. I don’t know what it would be; a new font, punctuation mark or even invented word (“redonkulous!”) would be diluted just as quickly.

The evolution of language is outpacing its creation. We’ve reached the top of the ladder—the internet accelerated our climb—and we’re taking too long to build more rungs. Isn’t that AMAZING?

*A great article was written about the death of “Amazing” and I can’t find it, please share if you know the piece I’m talking about.


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Caleb’s recent column on Bleacher Report.

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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at


Shooting Straight in Libya and Around the Globe

March 25, 2011

If you have followed me on Twitter and Facebook or chatted with me in human form, you’ll know I don’t approve of American intervention in Libya. Is Gadaffi a bad guy? Of course. Should hegemonic powers use their weight to do good? Of course. Does that good sometimes involve killing people? Sadly, yes. I recognize that you have to crack eggs to make an omelet.

The frustration is that Libya borders Sudan, a country whose atrocities make the room dusty as I type. Just think about the fact that in today’s world “thousands of innocent people slaughtered” is a cliché. So our federal government’s sudden compassion for a brutalized nation rang pretty hollow. Libya is a top oil producer; it doesn’t take much detective work to figure out the source of the sympathy.

Nicholas Kristof, who is teeing up his third Pulitzer with his work in Egypt and Bahrain, tweeted the following [edited for paragraph-form]:

I’m getting pushback regarding my column from people who say we’re inconsistent: we jump into Libya but not Ivory Coast. True. But if we can’t be everywhere, should we be nowhere? If we don’t help Darfuris, must we also turn a blind eye in Rwanda & Libya? We know that we can’t feed all starving children. But consistency doesn’t require us to feed none. If we can save Libyan lives, let’s do it.

The question, in my mind, is not about vetting inconsistency. I get where it comes from; I understand. Sure, I’d rather help Libyans than no one at all. But the bigger point, as an American looking at his government, becomes being talked down to about the motivations behind our actions. Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: Ivory Coast has little to offer the US. In fact, let’s get that raging pachyderm a beer and make him part of the conversation.

I would much rather have Barack Obama stand at the podium and say, “We are intervening because instability in Libya will negatively effect our economy.” And leave it at that.

Let’s stop using democracy and humanitarianism as a Trojan horse for commerce. Just call it like it is, man. We’re not stupid. We know the game. This country went through eight years of George Bush pretending like we cared about Iraqi’s having the right to vote. This just sounds like Dick Cheney without the creepiness.

We have to defend our economy; global stability is intertwined with economic stability, which is intertwined with domestic stability, which is intertwined with domestic tranquility (and re-elections).

But just say so.

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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at


Filling in the Uncanny Valley

March 18, 2011

Technology is the science of removing intermediaries. We may think we’ve come a long way with email, but we’ve actually got a long, tech-wise way to go. The point of a letter is to transfer information. Banging away on a keyboard, editing, sending and waiting for someone to read and respond is still, hilariously, an inefficient process. According to controversial futurist Ray Kurzweil, someday you will “know” or “feel” something and send that information, instantly, to a friend.

Heavy stuff. I have trouble typing that notion seriously. The biology of it seems a little preposterous. One of the biggest arguments against Kurzweil is that he applies an engineer’s lens to the nature of Being Human and I tend to agree. Much of his argument is based on the idea that our rates of discovery about Us will proceed at the same rate as we’ve innovated computers. To me, that’s a non sequitur. At this point we can only stimulate the brain and watch where it lights up on an MRI. We understand basic responsibilities for regions of the brain, but I’m not sure if the scientific community is any closer to understanding consciousness than Plato. Moore’s Law doesn’t apply. We may have a vague idea of where, but we don’t have an inkling of how to plug in the USB cable.

But the constructs of consciousness are only one end of the bridge. The other is the ever-changing computer. So, let’s pretend for a second that Kurzweil is right about the bio-informatics side and we could link our brains into a network…

(If you don’t get what’s going on in Second Life, each of the characters in that video is a person sitting at their computer “being themselves” in a virtual world—essentially The Matrix.)

Yeah…freaky. Talk about plugging in.

Now, part of me wonders what the real difference between that and clicking around Facebook is. In either scenario you’re entering a virtual social scene, devoid of the ancient mechanisms of human interaction. However Facebook does use “real images” (which feels like a contradictory concept) to display humans. Not avatars. We need that real, authentic, nitty-gritty, maybe-sweaty, human interaction. We’re social creatures. That weird-as-f**k virtual world does not contain the inherent social qualities of life. It’s a dreamscape disturbingly close to a hellscape. Because no one looks real enough, it violates the deepest depths of the Uncanny Valley.

Basically this graph indicates that we have a real problem when pictures and objects get “too close” to looking like humans. “Low familiarity” means “revulsion”. The revulsion is less with still:

And more so with moving:

Will that Uncanny Valley hold back the virtual worlds? Will we never get to a place where we simulate our “second life” because the characters involved just…aren’t…human?

I don’t see why technology couldn’t evolve to a place where robots and graphics exhibit the same locomotion as a person, even in the hands. Yet, I do wonder about faces—most especially, the eyes. Replicating the window of the soul seems, qualitatively, a bit like understanding and integrating with consciousness.

But do we need to?

There are already studies coming out about how differently people portray themselves in their Facebook profile versus First Life; their profile information and pictures are heavily-vetted to suit the image they want of themselves. Sometimes it’s simply (and reasonably) to avert embarrassment, but oftentimes it’s to create a different persona. Perhaps Facebook is just the ease-in route to virtual reality where sci-fi junkies have just jumped into Second Life feet first.

Is that e-veil that first step in desensitization? It doesn’t require looking much farther than a kid obsessed with texting during dinner to realize how easy it is to reprogram the brain away from those around them. Eye contact may just become irrelevant; brains stop searching and caring about it. Only screen contact matters.

So maybe Kurzweil doesn’t need to be right about understanding the mind. Maybe we don’t need to replicate the window to the soul or figure out the ancient mechanisms of human consciousness. Maybe we’re just building new ones.


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Caleb’s recent column on Bleacher Report which is a little more light-hearted than this one.

Follow Caleb at www.twitter.com/calebgarling

Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at


Internet Freedom in the New World: With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder

February 18, 2011

[Garling Files has two special Guest Authors today. They really need no introduction. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and United States Attorney General Eric Holder are with us to share their thoughts on Internet freedoms. Yes, I couldn’t believe they agreed to be here either.]

Thanks very much, wonderful folks at Garling Files. We’re honored to have access to such a platform that once wrote a post on Chat Roulette. We are here today to talk about Internet freedoms and the great progress the world has seen just in the last few months. To start, Secretary Clinton will give her views, followed by Attorney General Holder.

Sec. Clinton: Thanks. Before I start, I’d just like to announce that my department has recently pledged 25 million dollars to helping expand Internet freedoms around the world. This staggering amount of money will empower and fund online activists in their fight for a people’s voice, for a government they choose and is transparent in its actions. The citizen’s behind China’s Great Firewall or the peaceful protesters of Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Syria, Iran and any other nation who wishes to throw off the shackles of oppression and bask in the warm rays of democracy will reap the benefits of this generous aid.

And before you ask, because I know times are tight, these funds were raised by auctioning an iPod dock from one of our stealth bombers on eBay. We figure, when laid against the 670 billion dollars the President is budgeting for defense against these exact same regimes that are a threat to us because they are autocratic dictatorships in the first place, we’re getting a deal. That’s 0.003%! The steals you can find on the Internet these days really are amazing.

Anyway, with regards to the forum at hand, I’d like to work directly off my remarks given at the fancy Newseum in Washington DC on January 21st of 2010. I, and my department, have given many speeches since, but these ideals have always been the cornerstone of this country’s stance and beliefs with regards to freedom of speech.

“On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it. Now, this challenge may be new, but our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic.

“Some countries have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech. These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right ‘to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ With the spread of these restrictive practices, a new information curtain is descending across much of the world.

“The internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. And that’s why we believe it’s critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is first among them. This freedom is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution.

“We do not block your attempts to communicate with the people in the United States.

“Let us make these technologies a force for real progress the world over.”

Thank you.

Attorney General Holder: Clap, clap, clap. Well said Hillary. Well said.

Clinton: Thanks.

Holder: Couldn’t agree more. By the way, did I mention that your pant suit is really sharp today?

Clinton: Well, Bill certainly didn’t. So thank you.

Holder: Well, it’s the truth. He should look up from the Times crossword puzzle now and then.

Clinton: He should. Anyway…your remarks?

Holder: What?

Clinton: Your remarks about the freedom of expression on the Internet and its role in giving the people voice and transparency to the world around them.

Holder: Right. Yeah. Didn’t have time.

Clinton: What? You’re embarrassing us.

Holder: Just been busy.

Clinton: Busy? Doing what?

Holder: Holding accountable those responsible for the Wikileaks. Prosecuting and demanding imprisonment–maybe execution if we can work a treason charge for some.

Clinton: Oh.

Holder: I mean, those people tear at the fabric of our government.

Clinton: What? Don’t be so dramatic.

Holder: Actually, those were your words.

Clinton: …I got the pant suit from Saks.


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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at


What now @EgyptianPeople?

February 4, 2011

When Twitter hit the scene a few years ago Silicon Valley and the rest of the high-tech world were quick to call it “a disruptive technology”.  It would alter the way we communicate, change the standards of e-commerce and revolutionize the manner in which humans process information.  Even though only 11% of Internet users subscribe to the service today, the tweeting world, with its strange terminology, hash tags, @ signs, shortened links and cultish followings has largely become the “disruptive technology” people envisioned.

Having shut down his country’s Internet, Hosni Mubarack seems like he would agree with the moniker as well—albeit for different reasons.

Let me be the seven millionth person to write that tracking the events unfolding in Egypt via Twitter has been fascinating. If you’ve been looking for a reason to try the service, the 140 character micro-blog was taylor-made for exactly this.  You get unfiltered, first-hand accounts of protests in Tahir square from Pulitzer Prize journalists like Nicolas Kristof all the way to regular Egyptian citizens trying to effect positive (and negative) change.

We’ve seen that revolution needs exactly two ingredients: a reason and an information exchange.  The reason—after almost thirty years of the same president—was obvious, and now Tom Friedman’s dream of the world becoming flat has taken one more giant step.  The oppressed have seen the ways of freedom (in neighboring Tunisia) and have demanded it for themselves.  They’ve taken to the streets and pulled their dictator’s fingers from the levers of power.

These are all wonderful forms of progress (and you knew this was coming), but if the Internet can tear down a house of cards, can it rebuild one of something a little stronger?  The wired legions have no doubt disrupted Tunisia and Egypt and sent their nations into a healthy turmoil, but can they use their tools as a “constructive technology” when the dust settles?  We know if we’ve been around children (And I’m not equating Egyptians to children.  Just an analogy.), it is startlingly easy to make a mess, but it can be incredibly arduous to clean one up—properly.

This will be the real test of Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the online universe’s social worth.  Are they vehicles of disruptive progress or are they simply vehicles of disruption?  Do they only destroy walls or can they rebuild them as well?



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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote the book The St George’s Angling Club, available at


Fixing Truthiness In Science Journalism

January 28, 2011

On Wednesday former Scientific American editor John Rennie wrote a column in The Guardian discussing the state of science journalism and concludes with an idea on how to better its practices—how to prevent the competition of being scooped from skewing the merits of the actual scientific research being reported.  For starters, it’s worth acknowledging the strangeness of an editorial discussing how “we, the writers, can stop misinforming you, the readers.”  But even still, it’s quite important.  For the first seven paragraphs, I found myself on the edge of my e-seat:

This guy knows his stuff! ‘…online reporting could offer a fresh start—the opportunity to correct major defects in the existing coverage of research…’  True! ‘…news [is] built around discrete events…they cannot unhappen…’ Exactly! ‘Science progresses more gradually…there is rarely a distinct moment when a finding or theory comes to be accepted as canon by a consensus of scientists…”  Preach it! ‘…Yet journalism typically treats the publication of a paper in a journal as a newsworthy, validating event…’ The heart of the problem! Selling headlines is destroying science journalism’s integrity!  ‘…Surely there must be a better way…’  Seven paragraphs of solid build up…give it to me!  ‘…So consider this (admittedly unrealistic) thought experiment: What would happen if all the editors and reporters of the extended science press, including the legions of science bloggers, self-imposed a moratorium that forbade writing about new scientific findings until six months after their journal publication?’……wait, sorry…what?

That’s it?  Being a respected emissary in the field, with a huge platform, why distill the state of affairs and problem so eloquently, and then suggest an impossible solution?  This would be like Bob Woodward summing up the state of modern politics and then proposing the “admittedly unrealistic” solution of a moratorium on money.  In theory, Rennie’s idea makes perfect sense:

“Because ‘newness’ would no longer be a primary factor driving the selection of science news, assigning editors might give more weight to overview stories about trends in research, or the accretion of ideas within fields, or more deeply analytical pieces.”

But upon two seconds of reflection, we realize that when a Publisher “accidently” turns that six month moratorium into a five month and 29 day moratorium, we’d very quickly be back where we started.  That’s not the point—he offered the idea as a thinking pill, not a plan of action—but it’s a shame he wasted the bullhorn.  Science journalism needs real proposals on shifting thought and ethics in the Information Age shouted by luminaries in the field.

So…as much as I wanted to discuss Rennie’s ideas, all you get is mine.  None of these solve the problem, but they’d help.

A small change for Journalists.

One of the biggest issues is framing the intro.  It must be engaging and newsy; it must “grab”.  To sell papers and pageviews, the public needs to feel like they’re getting a bundle of information the second their eyes lock onto words.

Try these two intros:

“Stepping on sidewalk cracks leads to fractures in your mother’s spine, a team of researchers in Arizona suggests.”

“A team of researchers in Arizona suggests that stepping on sidewalk cracks leads to fractures in your mother’s spine.”

The shift is subtle.  But the first is the way most articles are framed; it is designed to set you up with take-away knowledge, something to relay at a cocktail party.  The notion that a team of researchers is positing the idea or has suggestive data is an afterthought.  In the second, however, we’re aware that we’re hearing a suggestion; we know to have our skeptical radar up—it’s not canon yet.

So make it an understood violation of journalistic ethics to put the (real) subject of the sentence, or even the paragraph, at the end when summarizing a research paper, I say.  A small shift with subtle results—no doubt—but the change reinforces the idea that research is mostly a collection of suggestions—not facts.  We are seeing something through someone else’s eyes; it’s not yet truth.

A medium change for Scientists:

If a scientist gives a quote/interview on their work, they are responsible for reviewing the publication using that quote and deeming the whole piece reflective of their actual findings—before its release.  This doesn’t happen enough or effectively enough.  Researchers ensure their names aren’t on shoddy scientific papers; they should do the same for shoddy journalism.

This is, of course, counter to scientists’ central motivator: getting their research out to the world.  But not to review the public’s interpretation of their work, or to do so poorly, should be considered a violation of research ethics.  Granted, they can’t control publications that summarize their work and don’t ask for quotes, nor can they control if someone lifts a quote from an approved publication—those are examples of poor or unethical journalism.  But if they do an interview, they should share the burden of educating the public on their findings and be responsible for the greater context in which their words are perceived.

A big change for Us.

Rennie’s underlying point cannot be overstated: “Science progresses more gradually…there is rarely a distinct moment when a finding or theory comes to be accepted as canon by a consensus of scientists…”

We need to impose his Interpretation Moratorium on ourselves.  The problem is that we suffer from the same competition as reporters: at the watercooler or at cocktail parties, we hate being scooped.  We want to be the first person to inform everyone else of something cool.  But before trying to beat the next guy to the punch, we have to remember that we’re usually talking about point M, from A to Z—a point on a line.  Occasionally, Jonas Salk or Alexander Fleming comes along and puts an iron stake in the ground, but for the most part, the fields of science are ocean liners and each paper is a turn of the propeller.  The key when reading about someone’s findings is to understand what they still don’t know.

Sure, it’s poor reporting on the journalist’s part to neglect the greater arc.  But—and this comes back to the famous research on the chicken and the egg—at the same time, it is poor reading not to wonder.



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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote the book The St George’s Angling Club, available at