Monday, December 9, 2019

Missiles and Castles and Planets, Oh My!

Open-source intelligence, crowd sourcing, and citizen science has revolutionized information gathering and analysis. From discovering illegal dumps or new wildlife habitats to verifying refugee stories of war crimes, it is changing the world. Image source:

I have a lot of interests. I mean, a lot. And although lots of people have lots of interests, most may only focus on one or two big ones. Traditionally, these interests would become a career and anything outside of that was relegated to the realm of "hobby", with little interconnection or effect on the outside world.

The "open source universe" has changed all of that. What once required a degree, or major grants, or was the sole domain of government has become part of the daily lives of millions of people around the world, all contributing their part to a wider universe of knowledge and policy.

On Dec. 6, 2019, Amy Zegart of The Atlantic wrote about "self-appointed spies" engaging in nuclear non-proliferation research and other serious matters where governments had once held a monopoly. Commercial satellite imagery, Google Earth, and various other open-source intelligence (OSINT) have busted down the doors of secrecy surrounding North Korea, Iran, Russia, China, and pretty much the entire world. PhD's and amateurs alike have helped to peer into nuclear activities, debunk misinformation coming from governments, and create detailed maps of mysterious countries (yours truly happened to be mentioned in the article).

The next day her article became extremely relevant as world events took their turn. On Dec. 7, North Korea conducted a "very important" test at their Sohae Satellite Launch Center. Days prior, warnings of activity at the site were sounded by one of these citizen spies (Dr. Jeffrey Lewis in this case, who was also mentioned in Zegart's article). 

There couldn't have been a more perfect example of the global importance of the democratization of technology and information.

By using Google Earth, I was able to locate this ancient fort in North Korea.

But missile hunting is only one part of what has become an entire biome based on OSINT, volunteer science and research, distributive computing, and the use of accessible and rapidly improving technology to open up the world and to solve problems.

Beyond North Korea, another area I am interested in is archaeology. Using Google Earth I have been able to locate thousands of castles, forts, defensive walls, and ancient tells around the globe. Dr. Sarah Parcak pioneered using satellites and remote sensing to uncover ancient Egypt, and these methods have helped to make major discoveries all around the world at an unprecedented rate.
Using these methods have enabled researchers to make these discoveries without needing to resort to years of hunting through dense rain forest or wasting time following false leds, saving countless man-hours and allowing already limited funding to be better utilized.

Indeed, from hunting for planets to finding new penguin colonies or modeling protein folding, non-traditional sources and methods have a combined value in the billions of dollars...that never ended up needing to be spent. At the same time, the added economic benefits from discoveries based on these sources is likewise in the billions. It has even contributed in ways that are priceless like discovering lost forests in Mozambique. 

Moving on, satellites and crowd sourcing have blown open the world of pollution management as illegal e-waste recycling centers and other illegal dumps have been located throughout southeast Asia, and similar endeavors to monitor pollution exist all over the world. The tech companies themselves are even getting into the action as Google has begun to use its Street View cars to gather data on air pollution as they drive through communities around the world.

Whether it's monitoring deforestation, crop yields, urban growth, or helping to build a case for war crimes committed by ISIS, the full impact of this biome is immeasurable.

Click this image of the Iranian launch site for a larger view.

The nature of this tectonic shift in information sharing and having countless interested individuals involved in any particular field can also serve as a warning to hapless elected officials releasing otherwise sensitive information without going through any proper channels. 

On Aug. 30, 2019, President Trump tweeted an image taken by satellite of a failed Iranian missile test. Within hours the name of the classified satellite had been discovered, as was its orbital path and flyover time. This was done over Twitter by people who knew a little about satellites and math.

While Iran certainly knows it is being observed from above, it now also knows what actual satellite is looking at this particular launch site and what times of day it will and won't be overhead. The satellite's imaging capabilities can also largely be deduced from the image Trump sent out. Those capabilities are undoubtedly shared by other satellites taking a look at Russia and China, too. Trump's "leak" isn't the same as giving adversaries the full specifications of our spy satellites, but it was a completely pointless overshare of information.

Now, I have been rather glowing in my praise to this point but that isn't to say everything is perfect. Mistakes do happen. Things are misidentified and unverified claims can easily end up making international news before the truth ever arrives. But this isn't anything inherent to the open-source universe.

Unproven scientific reports can suddenly become "proof" that Einstein was wrong and rumors becoming "fact" that Kim Jong Un executed his uncle by a pack of rabid dogs each show sensationalism is no stranger to major media outlets.

Just because intelligence and research has been democratized doesn't mean, on the whole, that it doesn't have tremendous value or can't compete. A major and longstanding argument against Wikipedia is that "anyone can edit it". While that's true and that false or inaccurate information can be added, erroneous information can be removed or corrected just as easily. Waiting on knighted experts from a print encyclopedia to issue corrections can take years. In comparison, Wikipedia is just as accurate as those traditional repositories of information while also being far more dynamic and containing exponentially more data.

In fact, the unique qualities of crowd sourcing and OSINT has musty old government agencies looking to study the field. US intelligence agencies like the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency have sought to study the capabilities of this brave new world in the hopes that OSINT might be able to augment more traditional information gathering and analysis methods.

And so, I am proud to be among the "major players", as Amy Zegart put it, when it comes to North Korea sleuthing. But, I am also proud to be one of millions of others who take part in the citizen science projects found in Zooniverse, one of the millions of Wikipedia editors, and one of countless people who believe that the future is Open.

I encourage all of you to not let your interests and passions go to waste. From subject matter experts to individuals who just want to help where they can, there's literally thousands of opportunities out there. And in the event you can't find an organization, app, think tank, or human rights group to help out or that doesn't quite fit what you're trying to do, then you can always do what I did and take the initiative for yourself.

--Jacob Bogle, 12/9/2019

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving and I Have an Eating Disorder

When people think of eating disorders, they usually visualize a teenage girl who is far too thin but feels she's overweight. Like countless others, I don't fit that narrative.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, one third of people with eating disorders is male. And of those men and boys, up to 42% identify as gay. It's a major problem that is largely being ignored. In fact, while trying to find help, I couldn't find a single health center in my state of Tennessee that treats men, either as inpatient or even outpatient. 

What confuses people, too, is that I don't think I'm overweight. I do not have anorexia nervosa or bulimia. I know very well that I am underweight and would absolutely love to gain weight. The problem is that I have no appetite and a fairly unhealthy relationship with food that began in childhood and has followed me all the way into my 30s.

Today things are better than they were two years ago. For one, I'm actually acknowledging the fact that I have an eating disorder, and that in my quest to gain weight I was indeed able to gain some. You see, two years ago I was so thin that we were actually worried I would end up in the hospital if I got something like the flu. I likely neither had the energy or reserves of fat to fight it off and risk losing another pound or two. At the time, my BMI was 13.7. A "healthy" BMI for my height is over 19.

What many would love to do, lose a few extra pounds, would have been extremely dangerous for me.

Recognizing I was at this danger point, and because I knew I couldn't do this by myself, I opted to begin taking a medicine that increases appetite. After a year I was still technically underweight, but my BMI had jumped to 17.2. I was clearly on the right path.

Unfortunately, that medication comes with side effects - especially for men. Not just embarrassing ones but also things like waking up drenched in sweat every single night, multiple times a night.
My goal had been to use the medicine to gain enough weight to where I was healthy again and, in the process, learn eating habits that I could stick with so I could keep that weight gain and then stop taking the meds. That hasn't worked out.

I still weigh more than I did when I started but I'm down 10 pounds from the high and I had to lower the dose of the medication to address the side effects, so it's not working that great anymore. In fact, it's a daily struggle to just try to maintain my weight at any given moment. Heaven forbid I get depressed or a bad cold because *poof* there goes another pound, and I can't seem to get it back.

So how did I get here?

A lot of people with eating disorders can point to a traumatic event, like assault, that led them down an unhealthy road. But I didn't have a single moment. My problems developed over years with a mix of good intentioned but oblivious adults when I was a kid and then with major physical issues that began in my early twenties.

I have always been skinny, always. My dad was also skinny, as was my grandfather, so there was never much of a chance of me becoming buff or fluff. Adding to that is the fact there's also plenty of food that I flat out don't like. It's not being picky, it's me finding certain things legitimately disgusting. However, people can't seem to mind their own business. A skinny kid isn't a problem and he certainly isn't your problem to try to fix.

Any time I was at a family gathering (like Thanksgiving) or any gathering of any kind where food was served, I would fill up my plate with what I wanted to eat and the amount I wanted to eat so I didn't waste anything. Evidently, that wasn't good enough. Loving aunts and uncles would prod me, "is that all you're getting?", "why don't you try this instead?", "you'll never become a man if you eat that little".
Instead of just leaving me alone to eat what I knew I could handle, situations involving food became a bad thing. I wasn't eating enough so it felt like I needed to be punished by being called out and made to feel ostracized. 

That didn't encourage me to eat more. It encouraged me to find quiet places in the house or church or school where I could eat in private and avoid being pestered over what should have been nothing but was constantly blown up into something. And eventually, it encouraged me to not even bother eating much at all during gatherings because it would never be enough for those around me.

Still, I managed. By the time I was around 21, I still dreaded eating with people and was still skinny but I also weighed the most I ever had, and I was generally healthy overall.

Fast forward a couple years and things began to get worse. I started having severe back pain, was no longer able to work, and my stomach (of all things) also decided it was going to mess up.
There were stretches of time where I was so sick, I would throw up every few days and would go a full week without having a single meal because I couldn't keep anything down. Any time I'd try, I'd get sick.

These periods were intense and frightening. I physically felt like I was dying from the pain and my emotional health began to suffer a lot, too.
It took years to figure out what was wrong with me and for us to finally learn I wasn't dying - I just had bad luck with my back and GI system.

But over the course of those years, my desire to eat fell dramatically. I had spent all of that time fighting to keep food down and slowly developed a bit of a fear of eating "too much" (which was never actually much) because whenever I happened to eat a legit meal, I felt like death soon after.

I was able to get on a good regimen of medications, I went to therapy to address the depression (but not eating issues), and I started to be able to reclaim some semblance of a life. Unfortunately, during all of this time I had dropped a lot of weight and my relationship with food was worse than ever. I was able to gain weight but would lose it. Gain it again, goodbye. 

This see-saw life meant that I was never able to gain weight and finally hold it. I still, ever so slowly, lost a pound here and another there. I could maintain my weight until I got sick or had a very stressful time, and then it would disappear. 

And that leads me back to the beginning and freaking out over having a BMI of 13.7.

People still "lovingly harass" me over my weight. At the same time, idiotic and cruel rumors popped up and even "friends" coldly tossed around bombs like "unattractive starving Ethiopian". None of which helps. At. All.

I have managed to overcome severe depression, survived a suicide attempt, and have been able to make a home with a loving partner, but here I am, two days from Thanksgiving feeling compelled to admit reality while also feeling rather lost.

I have been going to a therapist to deal with some social anxiety issues, but her expertise isn't eating disorders, it's anxiety. So I sit here with no substantive professional help anywhere near me. I'm also sitting here two days from Thanksgiving - an entire day dedicated to eating and overeating.

I genuinely envy people who get excited about food. People who have no problem eating everything off of their plate and maybe going back for seconds. I would love to take real enjoyment out of breaking bread with loved ones. But Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, birthdays, going to's always a minefield. 

Am I going to get judged for not eating the "right" amount? What if there's not much on the menu I can eat or hate what the host made? What if I don't feel well? How about eating before I go someplace so I can at least get needed calories and then pretend to eat at the restaurant/house to not come off as being too rude? 
Do I just get an appetizer, or should I get an entrée knowing I'm wasting money but at least I'll fit in? How much food should I try to "hide" by moving it around the plate, so no one asks about it?
Ugh, and now here comes the waiter asking me if everything is OK or would I like to talk to the manager since I haven't eaten.

While I fantasize about being a foodie and enjoy looking at well-toned Insta models, I have to come back to the reality of my life. Consistently getting over a thousand calories a day is like trying to climb a mountain. Sometimes it feels so daunting that I just give up for the day. This isn't just a problem for when I'm going someplace, either. Figuring out food at home isn't much easier and additional facets come into play like, wanting to be "attractive" (whatever that means) and then failing to live up to the expectations I place on myself and that I think others place on me as well.

And then there's the constant parade of know-it-all's who tell me I just haven't had food prepared correctly and that if only I applied myself it really isn't that hard (it really isn't so simple). They tell me to try this new fad diet and what about meditation...

I belong to me. The only memories and experiences I have are mine. Every victory and every struggle, mine. I know what I have tried. I remember the breakdowns over dinner. I know the amount of effort I have placed into trying to make my life better and body stronger. 

Thanks for trying, but that type of caring isn't helping. Instead of telling ME what I have or haven't tried, how about you acknowledge me and my truth? Be there for me emotionally. And if I happen to ask you for your dietary opinions, then give them, but don't shout them at me when I never asked.

"JuSt eAt mOAr!" has never helped anyone with an eating disorder.

Another moral of this story is, don't be a busy body. You might think you're just being caring, but the person on the other end of your interrogation certainly doesn't feel your good intentions. They feel embarrassed at best and attacked at worst.

Obviously this can be tricky. People try to hide their eating disorders in all kinds of ways, but just being skinny or not gorging yourself until you can no longer fit into your jeans isn't a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with moderation. There's nothing wrong with not wanting a salad or passing on that second piece of pie. And if the bulk of your holiday interactions with that shy nephew boils down to "what's wrong with you", you're probably making him feel less worthy and risking a quirk becoming something worse down the line.

So here I am, Jacob with the eating disorder. It hasn't and won't define me, just as other aspects of my life don't define me, but it is something that's going to take a lot of work to overcome. And it's going to take a family, of my own choosing, to help be my support structure.

As for the holidays, thankfully, for this Thanksgiving I get to spend it with real friends who respect other people. No one expects me to eat four plates of food. They'd be thrilled if I just finished one, and I'd really like to do that, too.

--Jacob Bogle, 11/26/2019 

Friday, August 9, 2019

Ask Me Why I Think I Need A Gun

I first wrote about gun control in 2012, unfortunately things only seem to have gotten worse. There have been more mass shootings and calls for outright gun confiscation have commensurately grown louder.

There are a few main arguments for and against gun control. The pro-gun control crowd talks about "common sense" solutions and questions why anyone would "need" a "weapon of war". The pro-Second Amendment folks also hold a very diverse range of views with some supporting universal background checks and a tiny minority of others genuinely believing that the right to defend one's self is unlimited to the point that tanks should be sold at gun shows. And while it's true that most Americans fall into the middle of the extremes, popular opinion doesn't really matter much if you're talking about something that's a fundamental right.

Humans have always made weapons for hunting and defense, and they've also made them to conquer, rape, and pillage. The technology has decidedly changed over the years but that doesn't mean basic human rights change. In the past a trained archer might have been able to fire a bow at a rate of 10 arrows a minute. Can you imagine when the crossbow was invented and any regular guy (or woman or even child) could accurately knock out a bad guy with bolt after bolt after bolt? I can hear the calls for regulation even now. 
The gun, simply defined, has been around for a thousand years. It took the place of the crossbow, the arrow, and the sword because it is immeasurably more efficient. But like the old days of arrows and bolts, a gun that can fire 5 rounds a minute verses multiple rounds in a second doesn't change the ultimate fact: a person's ability to provide for their families and to protect is inviolable.

The Bill of Rights is called that because it lists well understood rights. Not privileges. Rights. The founding documents of the country and the countless letters and articles written at the time all go on at length about how humans are endowed with inalienable rights, that those rights don't become unnecessary when opinions change, that they can only be denied on an individual bases because that person did something wrong, and that the purpose of the Constitution is to limit the power of government, not the person.

While it is certainly true that America has never been able to fully live up to that promise of life, liberty, and happiness for all, the entire purpose of the country is that never-ending struggle to create a more perfect union. To that end, slavery was abolished and a woman's inherent right to vote was recognized. The whole course of the nation's history has been one of expanding liberty, not taking it away.

Sadly, when bad things happen people have a natural tendency to attack everything associated with the tragedy. After Pearl Harbor, we threw Japanese-Americans into prison. After 9/11, we eviscerated privacy rights, and many wanted to actually ban an entire religion. And after each senseless mass shooting, many want to restrict fundamental liberties for a false sense of security - regardless of the fact that this inherent right to personal, individual gun ownership is something the Supreme Court has validated.

The right to self-defense is both an individual right and a collective right. The individual has every right to defend themselves from a home invader and, collectively, we have the right to defend the nation from hostile forces. Neither the individual nor collective right can firmly be protected if the other isn't also protected. A country with a well-regulated military can still be invaded and overcome. But a country with millions of citizens who can all exercise their own right to defense is a whole lot harder to subdue, as history has shown many times over.

Mass grave of victims of the Srebrenica massacre.

My early childhood coincided with the end of the Cold War, and in that relatively short time countless tragedies have been visited upon the world by governments, criminal cartels, and terrorist groups. I don't consider these things merely distant and foreign warnings, nor do I think of them as some truism of the world that doesn't really mean that much. These are real events affecting real lives, and I think it's important to keep them in mind. There's little need to search the far-off past for examples of unarmed people being dragged off in cattle cars, a quick review of some of the things that have happened in my lifetime should be more than sufficient warning.

In my lifetime a terrorist group managed to take over one of the oldest societies in the world in Afghanistan, which also enabled the events of 9/11 a decade later.
I've seen the Chinese government engage in cultural genocide against millions of Uyghurs. It has imprisoned upwards of a million of them with no due process, broken up thousands of families, and created a biometric database to track the entire population.
I've seen civil war in the Balkans. And wars where the government turned completely against its own people in Libya and Syria.
I've seen genocides in Rwanda, Sudan, and against the Rohingya of Myanmar.
I watched as ISIS nearly overran two countries, killing thousands in the process.
I've seen the governments of Poland, Russia, and others take draconian actions against peaceful LGBT citizens, and the establishment of concentration camps for them in Chechnya.
I've seen drug cartels take over entire swaths of Central America.
I've watched Venezuela go from one of the richest countries to hell on earth.
As a North Korea analyst, I can see each and every day prison camps operating that hold upwards of 200,000 people.
I saw human rights abuses in Chile and throughout South America that resulted in the torture and deaths of tens of thousands. All with the backing of our own government.
And, yes, I also learned about Nazi Germany where six million died in the Holocaust. I learned about the Soviet government-sponsored famine in Ukraine that resulted in over three million deaths - and that even today evil men are prolonging a war in Ukraine with the backing of Russia. I learned about the killing fields in Cambodia, the mass purges in the Soviet Union, and the extensive crack downs on speech and religion that has never stopped in China.

Yet, despite the countless examples of international repression it is still hard to ever consider such tyranny happening in the United States. But the fact is most Americans actually think the federal government is a threat to liberty instead of the protector of liberty it was meant to be. And in 2017 only 23% felt the government had the consent of the governed - something that is the very cornerstone of the concept of government itself. Sadly, you don't need to look at polls or even consider the horrors foreign governments have visited on their own citizens. The concern about tyranny, government oppression, and state-sponsored violence can be dramatically justified by looking at our own history.

The US is no stranger to the creation of a surveillance state. The government has shown it doesn't care about your right to privacy and is more than willing to violate it owns laws. It engaged in domestic genocidal activities all the way into the 20th century. Even the much-loved Lincoln ordered the largest mass lynching of Native Americans in history. And speaking of Lincoln, the causes of secession may have been slavery, but the war itself was ignited by the government's willingness to send soldiers to kill other Americans. Regardless of the historical debates, the Civil War resulted in over 600,000 deaths and the US was the only country in history to end slavery in the context of a war.
Later, you have Texas Rangers murdering innocent Mexican Americans by the hundreds during La Matanza.
In the aftermath of 9/11, it even became dangerous to openly support the Constitution or to belong to 3rd parties. Various training manuals and reports from military, police, and other law enforcement agencies have listed potential "extremists" as those who promote judicial reforms, supporters of Ron Paul, holding pro-2nd Amendment views, and even disparage against homeschooling.
The government maintains kill lists and "no fly" list (which are notoriously inaccurate), all compiled in secret and without giving citizens the benefit of due process. Incidentally, gun control advocates have wanted to use the no-fly list as part of a plan to prevent people from owning guns.

And all of this adds to the current background where millions of Americans believe the Trump administration is setting up concentration camps. Where people see the vast abuses of government and law enforcement, but still insist that the only people who should have guns are those very people keeping kids in cages. The cognitive dissonance is stunning.

Calls for "common sense" gun control or banning "assault weapon" sound benign, but the history of gun control in this country has a long a dangerous history. Just like many other things, governments used Jim Crow laws to deny blacks the ability to own guns (or even certain knives in the case of Florida). What seems like common sense is only valid if it doesn't infringe on the rights of other people. 
Something like a universal background check comes with very real questions. A true universal background check law would mean that a dad couldn't give his daughter an heirloom rifle for her 18th birthday or that two friends couldn't exchange guns without first seeking the permission of the government. Then you add in something like Red Flag laws. These laws deny due process, violate privacy, and would begin to infringe on the rights of everyone who has ever been to a therapist, anyone who is a veteran, and anyone who smokes weed.

What about common sense bans of "assault weapons"? First you have to define what an assault weapon is. Many guns used legitimately in hunting have the same general characteristics of guns people have called "assault" or "military style." There is no unified, clear-cut definition of what those phrases mean. Often, they simply mean a gun that looks scary. Additionally, the only way such a ban would work is if you take the guns off the streets. In other words, go house to house and confiscate them. Otherwise you'd still have millions of "bad" guns in circulation, able to be stolen or end up on the black market where only criminals will have access to them.
Gun confiscation is the only way to make bans work. But even in a country like New Zealand, where gun laws have traditionally been strict, after the Christchurch shootings the gun buyback rate was only around 1%. Put another way, 99% of the owners of the now illegal guns have refused to voluntarily surrender them. Should New Zealand police start busting down the doors of these otherwise innocent and peaceful citizens?

When all is said and done, these "common sense" reforms end up looking extremely complicated and would require vast amounts of new government power to enforce, all while not addressing the root causes or affecting many other shootings. A 2014 study looked at 142 mass shootings and found that semi-automatic rifles were used in only 25% of the cases, meaning that 75% were committed with things like pistols, revolvers, and regular rifles. Context is also very important when discussing gun violence overall. The US doesn't have the highest rate of gun violence in the world and the bulk of gun deaths in America come from suicides. Of course that's not a good thing, but these proposed changes to gun laws wouldn't have much of an affect at all. Not to mention that plenty of shooters got their guns either illegally or because law enforcement systems failed and allowed people who already shouldn't be able to purchase a firearm to acquire one. 

I also feel it's important to note that crime rates have fallen sharply since the 1990s.

Of the recent shootings in El Paso and Dayton, one was a Trump supporter while the other was a socialist. Clearly violence isn't the sole domain of any one political ideology. What every mass shooter has in common (or anyone who murders others for that matter) is the ideology of hate. They view Hispanics as invaders, they view Democrats as anti-American, they view gays as abominations, they view all conservatives as warmongers, they view a cheating spouse or rude boss as subhuman. They see other human beings as less valuable and less worthy of life. This points to a cultural problem we must look directly in the face. 

Japan has far higher consumption rates of video games than we do, but little violent crime (or any other type). The former countries of the USSR have much lower rates of religious adherence, but also have managed to not have the issues the United States does. Blaming violent games or a lack of God is just a way to try to oversimplify reality and skirt the very real problems driving violence.  
Just as systemic racism or police violence are uncomfortable things to confront (or to even acknowledge), we must look at what's fueling hate and "otherism," and why so many seem to be unable to find belonging within society as a whole, as well as their inability to find healthy ways to discuss and resolve their frustrations (real or imagined).

The reply to that by gun-control advocates is "why not at least stop them from being able to use those weapons?" Again, "those weapons" require definitions and preventing their use means a major growth of the very same government that abused its power countless times. Thus, while giving a government with an undisputed history of racism, discrimination, abuse, and murder even more power, we get to ignore the real problems indefinitely - just as with laying the blame at the feet of games. 

So, yes, I very much want mass shootings to end, but I am absolutely not willing take the word of our government that it won't do bad things. I am absolutely not willing to give up my right to defend myself. And more importantly, I recognize that just as I have no right to demand that you give up your rights to speech, a fair trial, or to not be a slave, I also have no right to demand you limit or give up your right to own a gun. And if I don't have that right, you certainly don't have the right to demand others do.

--Jacob Bogle, 8/9/2019