Archive for August, 2006

A very interesting editorial in the Manchester Guardian today is a plea to not judge the mood of the Iranian “street” based on the current Iranian administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This little editorial is very worth reading to remind us how easy it is to base our understanding of events ina faraway country on sound-bites and pictures:

Iranians are routinely portrayed as frenzied masses that chant “Death to America!” after Friday prayers. Yet according to surveys by Iran’s own ministry of culture and guidance, fewer than 1.4% of the population actually bothers to attend Friday prayers. Angry images of Iranians are used as a fitting backdrop to news items speculating about Iran’s nuclear activities; most recently, to coverage of an attack by a crowd of about 400 demonstrators against the Danish embassy in Tehran.


Ordinary Iranian Muslims may well be dismayed by xenophobic images of their prophet dressed as a terrorist, his turban a bomb with a lit fuse. But most did not take part in such a protest. Yet news coverage had us to believe that this 400-strong, officially backed mob, in a city populated by 12 million people, represented the mood of the Iranian street; just as a cartoon exhibition attended by 50 people – predominately journalists – on its busy opening night confirms Iran’s anti-semitism.


Ahmadinejad is not the whole story. Among ordinary Iranians, the talk is not about Israel, Palestine or even the nuclear crisis. Most conversations on buses and in taxis are about inflation, economic stagnation, unemployment, corruption, poverty and drugs. To them, Ahmadinejad is not an all-powerful head of a monolithic regime but a toothless president who can be overruled at any time by figures and institutions that constitute a fracturing elite.

It’s easy to forget that even in a totalitarian theocracy there are voices of dissent, and the current rulers of Iran are well aware of the tenuousness of their hold on power. They understand that even they, for all their current power and nuclear ambitions, can endup as Ozymandias.

[LATER EDIT:] I have had several questions about Ozymandias, so I now realize that there is apparently an entire generation that was not compelled to memorize Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” For these unfortunates, I reproduce it below:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


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Terrorists and Bears

There’s a recent post on Bruce Schnieir’s excellent security site, and I think it started as a SlashDot item, regarding designing a bear-proof trash can. As a guy who’se spent lots of time in the North Woods of Minnesota, outwitting hungry bears eyeing my food pack, I have great respect for bear intelligence and problem solving capability. As the article says,

. . . it’s actually quite tricky to get the design of these cans just right. Make it too complex and people can’t get them open to put away their garbage in the first place. Said one park ranger, “There is considerable overlap between the intelligence of the smartest bears and the dumbest tourists.”

It’s a tough balance to strike. People are smart, but they’re impatient and unwilling to spend a lot of time solving the problem. Bears are dumb, but they’re tenacious and are willing to spend hours solving the problem. Given those two constraints, creating a trash can that can both work for people and not work for bears is not easy.

So what has this to do with terrorism? Its easily a metaphor for our problem dealing with the religiously-motivated maniacs we face today. They don’t have much to go on, but they are likely to be very persistent in figuring out how to use it to our detriment. And even though we have lots of technology and money, we’re busy with other things and so inattentive. So we can assume that terrorists will be willing to spend lots of time and experiment with lots of dangerous or questionably-effective things to end up with something to use against us. But perhaps most importantly, what they end up with will be unpredictable — we don’t know what they will try next. Exploding shoes? Flame-thrower perfume? Explosive-laden ferrets?

So, then, the real question is how do we respond to such threats? More than anything else, we need to not panic; some of these attacks will get through, the government cannot provide us with “perfect” protection, no matter how many of our civil rights they crush in the name of Security. We have to keep our eyes open, rationally (key word) evaluate threats, and not let the terrorists sow terror among us.

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So somebody’s taken another swipe at us, or at our proxies, the Brits. So now toothpaste and contact-lens solution will have to be checked through in luggage and probably the duty-free perfume and champagne industry will be hobbled or destroyed. Too bad, I was beginning to think we had actually won the “war on terrorism” with Osama bin Laden mainly reduced to issuing rants and harangues from his cave in Afghanistan, but seemingly having little operational capability.

I don’t know which is worse: the thought that al Qaeda may have been reconstituted in some degree, or that localized terrorist cells have been able to hatch and carry out apparent plots of this magnitude. Neither is very comforting.

But worse than either of those is the opening that this gives the Bush administration to continue talking about this business as a “war” and to use it as an excuse to erode our civil liberties even more. I mean, if this was a war, we’d be really focusing on it with all our resources and the civil population would be asked to really sacrifice — something more than our bottles of mouthwash at the airport. But its not a “war” and we aren’t being asked to do anything except remove our shoes at airports, and the Administration has more or less squandered literally billions of dollars on things that won’t protect us.

We are indeed faced with an ugly globalized lash-out by a small but highly motivated religious minority, but it’s not a “war.” These maniacs are going to attack us from time to time, and we’ll stop some (perhaps most) but some will get through and hurt us. The government can’t protect us 100% without turning this into a Nazi- or Soviet-style police state and the reality is I will take a few terrorist hits rather than accept that outcome.

The most effective weapon we could use against these freaks is conservation focused on decreasing our per-capita energy consumption and especially reducing our dependence on imported oil. This would cut off lots of the funding for these groups and it would allow at least some kind of real democracy to rise in the Middle East by allowing the overthrow of corrupt dictatorships like the Saudis, without having much impact here.

But no, our oilman-administration wants to drill it’s way out of energy problems and use armies to impose our will, or that of our Israeli clients, on the region without any apparent understanding of the historical and social contexts of the struggle there. Oh, and drop that toothpaste in this bin, sir . . .

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This item is beyond pathetic.

On August 2nd, 2006, a 9-year-old girl, in full view of her parents, climbs over a rock barrier at the Minnesota Zoo, reaches over another glass barrier, and starts bothering a family of meerkats in an exhibit. One of the meerkats gives her a much-deserved bite. Since meerkats are mammals, they could carry rabies, although these have been innoculated against rabies, just like your dog. So, the idiot child should be given a series of rabies shots.

Should be, however the parents, who allowed this whole event to occur, refuse to sign their daughter up for the shots unless the meerkat — which one, of course, no one knows — actually has rabies. And since you test for rabies by culturing their brain cells, the poor meerkat family are all killed so they can be tested. (They were all negative on the rabies). But, well, dimwit didn’t have to get the shots.

And I suppose Dimwit Parents feel that the meerkats should have known better than to bite their daughter. They taught them! Ha!

Editorial content in the Minneapolis Star Tribune is running 100% against the family, whose name (unfortunately) is being withheld from the public, so at least some other people feel this is a travesty. But what about the spineless zoo director who caved in to his lawyers and PR people?

The parents ought to get the rabies shots, and the zoo director ought to resign; he’s there to protect the animals, not oversee their slaughter when morons can’t leave them alone.

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