The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'the long siege'
Recently, I have been listening a lot to The Radio Dept.'s Teach Me To Forget EP, and have realised that, to me, it feels in many ways like an echo of a record from a quarter century earlier, namely, Momus' Voyager.
The similarities are both stylistic and aesthetic; in the tonal palette and the emotional gamut. Both have a coolly electronic feel, built on clean synthesizer sounds and programmed beats; understated and with an undercurrent of disconnection under the lights of the nocturnal city, and what Ralf Hütter once described in an interview as “cold feeling”. One could, if one were to, pinpoint where aspects of the older record reëmerge in the new one: Just So, with its dry synth-bass, quietly spoken vocals and sense of guarded futurity, is a tentative Cibachrome Blue for a more anxious age; You're Not In Love, with its funky bassline and cold, fast electronics, has an echo of Conquistador and perhaps Trans-Siberian Express. And the opening extended mix of Teach Me To Forget, itself reprising the nihilistic obliviousness in Voyager, segues neatly from the closing track of Voyager, the 2½-minute instrumental reprise Momutation 3, into its programmed club beats and minor-key tension, the 25-year gap disappearing in the crossfade.
Thematically, of course, the two records come from very different contexts. Voyager is a product of that particular euphoric moment as the eighties segued into the nineties; a confluence of the end of the Cold War and with it, some say, history, the arrival of computer technology in everyday life, and the rise of MDMA-fuelled club culture. Everything was connected, the world was waking up from history and, indeed, from the old certainties of pre-digital, pre-postmodern reality, into the Long Boom, or perhaps the Long Rave. Music could now be made with samplers, just as images could be made with Photoshop and grunged-up typefaces could be drawn on a Macintosh in Fontographer, and it's there that the idea of postmodernity, of all being artifice and simulacra, starts to leak from academic theory into everyday life. (In Japan, a country with which Momus' career was becoming increasingly intertwined, the discontinuity was even more profound, with the break between the Shōwa and Heisei eras in 1989 serving as a proxy for that entire gamut of changes, the one-way bridge between the analogue and digital, the modern and postmodern.) Voyager (the penultimate of Momus' six albums released on the then ascendant Creation label) rides the crest of that wave—the Ecstasy-infused club euphoria, the melting of genres into electronic club music, the MONDO 2000 cyberculture futurism of smart drugs and virtual reality—though not without ripples of unease. Momus picks out the analogies often cited at the time between this moment and the 1960s “Summer of Love” and posits an “electronic inwardness”; a trip into a vast, luminously pulsating inner space, and in this there is estrangement: We hear the bass talk, it's saying nothing. Love has left the arena and the lost psychonaut attempts to reach out from the gravity well of their trip. Soma Holiday, 1992.
Fast forward to 2017, and things are somewhat different. History has very noisily restarted itself, the balance between democracy and capitalism has tipped in favour of the latter and sinister actors have weaponised freedom, stirring unrest and catapulting extremists into power with swarms of social-media sockpuppets, covert ads and algorithmic manipulation (“nothing is true, we move like shadows across the stage”). In the ever-warming political climate (“there are thunderstorms, and the weather's wrong”), the thawing permafrost has released the bacilli of various anti-liberal ideologies long thought extinct, from theocracy to obscurantist arguments for absolute monarchy, to several dozen variants on fascism, including ones mainly concerned with video games and represented by cartoon frogs. In some ways the period from 1989 to 2001 looks increasingly, in retrospect, as a golden age; its buzzing, coolly luminous optimism replaced by a sensation of preapocalyptic anxiety.
The Radio Dept. were not initially a political band. Starting in the Swedish indie scene of the early 00s, their songs were hazy and ambiguous, both sonically and lyrically, consisting of fuzzy guitars, cheap drum machines and gently wistful melodies, somewhere between The Field Mice and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Somewhere around the 2010s, this started to change gradually; a sample of Thurston Moore ranting about capitalism here, a song titled Death To Fascism there (back when references to fascism sounded like Rik-from-The-Young-Ones-style hyperbole or kitsch), but still the same overall formula. Until their most recent album last year, titled, pointedly, Running Out Of Love. Gone was the haze: in its stead, sharp, cold electronics (they do love the TR-808 cowbell, it seems), sounding more Factory or Mute than Sarah or Creation, and a sniper-like aim at serious issues: the rise of the far right, the arms industry, and, perhaps above all, the comfortably apolitical, the “good people” who do nothing in the face of evil. Of course, being The Radio Dept., this was delivered not as protest-ready bolshie chants but with frosty understatement. Running Out Of Love was a timely return to form, won many accolades (among them, this blog's album of the year title), and spawned three EPs for its singles; the most recent being Teach Me To Forget, the subject of this post.
Voyager and Teach Me To Forget could be seen to bookend an era; the decade or so of the Closing-Down Sale of History and the Long Boom/Now, and slightly longer afterwards—before Trump and Brexit and the Sverigedemokraterna and numerous equivalent local phenomena—when people still thought that we may yet return to this, the natural post-historic state of loved-up transnational consumerist utopia; the coming out of the cold into the futurismic cyber-rave, and the cold crashing in with a vengeance, the party having become the Masque of the Red Death in the interim; a reëngagement with a resurgent reality.
A new study (PDF) has shown that revelations on the extent of mass surveillance has created a chilling effect on unpopular opinions, as people with such opinions self-censor their expression to avoid the unsympathetic eye of an omniscient, automated bureaucracy:
For the remainder—and majority—of participants, being primed of government surveillance significantly reduced the likelihood of speaking out in hostile opinion climates. These findings introduce important theoretical and normative consequences. Theoretically, it adds a new layer of chilling effects to the spiral of silence. This is the first study to provide empirical evidence that the government’s online surveillance programs may threaten the disclosure of minority views and contribute to the reinforcement of majority opinion. Noelle-Neumann (1974) and the scholars who have followed her have relied on an individual’s fear of social isolation as the underlying mechanism to explain silencing effects. But the results from this study suggest there may be an additional mechanism that contributes to this process: one’s fear of isolation from authority or government. Fear of isolation, as traditionally measured, taps an individual’s concern of being alienated from other members of society, but does not address fear of alienation or prosecution from the government. Csikszentmihalyi (1991) argues that social isolation is a minimal concern compared to material sanctions that government is capable of enacting, like losing one’s job or instigating legal consequences. Further research is needed to explore other potential theoretical mechanisms for why individuals fail to disclose minority views now that perceived surveillance has been identified as a moderating agent.Which is all pretty grim news, if one believes in democracy and civil society. A system of enforcing the status quo with the illusion of being sufficiently efficient to render resistance not only useless but probably punishable enough that most well-adjusted individuals will steer clear of it can only suppress the sorts of protest and inquiry that have historically moved progress forward. Had the authorities had this sort of capability at the time of, say, Martin Luther King or the suffragette movement, would enough ordinary people, with jobs and families to support and the opinions of their neighbours to worry about, have risked supporting these dangerous subversives, rather than keeping their heads down and hoping to stay out of it? Of course, for those depending on a manageable democracy and a stable status quo, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
There is one sector of society which seems to be immune to this chilling effect; unfortunately for society, that sector is, predictably, sociopathic jerks, like the ones who fill the hate forums that a handful of trolls succeeded in directing Microsoft's experimental hip-millennial chatbot Tay to, turning it instantly into a neo-Nazi. The sorts of people already known online as sadistic griefers for whom racial epithets are almost punctuation are not going to be deterred by the prospect of being denied employment because of the huge swastikas self-tattooed crudely on their metaphorical foreheads.
So, in the age of mass surveillance (both by the security state in the age of the Long Siege, and increasingly leaking from the secretive spooks to local cops and minor government officials, and by their free-market equivalents: free data-aggregating social networks, online advertising networks and credit rating agencies), we may be facing a psychological retreat from modernity towards the mediaeval mindset; only instead of the omniscient God and His recording angels seeing every sinful thought in our fallible souls and recording it for the final judgment, it is the temporal powers with their intercepts and algorithms, and the judgment is potentially a lot closer. Most sinners will hope that, if they keep their heads down, they can squeeze through purgatory relatively quickly, while a hard core who know they are already damned will raise hell.
Yesterday, Australia awoke to the news of what appeared to be a terrorist siege in the heart of Sydney. ISIS terrorists had, it seemed, seized the Lindt Café, a retail outlet of the Swiss confectioner and popular tourist destination, and were holding a few dozen terrified hostages, some of them forced to hold up a black flag with Arabic writing in the window. International terror had struck home, and the Lucky Country's innocence was shattered forever, the hard dawn of the Long Siege breaking with the pitiless intensity of the Arabian desert sun. Rumours abounded: of sweeping police raids across Lakemba, a desperate hunt for the unspoken nightmare scenario this could be merely a distraction for, the diabolical plans of an invisible enemy who is everywhere, his dagger at our throats like Hassan ibn Sabbah's fabled Assassins. Awful videos of beheadings, lit by familiar Australian sunlight, were sure to follow.
But then the fog cleared and it turned out to be somewhat less than that. Far from an organised, tightly disciplined cell of fanatical death cultists, it turned out to be a lone individual with a gun and possibly an (actual or fake) bomb. The fearsome ISIS flag, that latterday skull and crossbones breathlessly reported by the Murdoch tabloids, turned out to be just a piece of black cloth with the fundamental tenet of Islam, the statement “there is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet”, written on it, much as it is on the Saudi Arabian flag; superficially scarily terroristic-looking, though on deeper inspection, more like lazy set decoration than anything else. The siege dragged on through the day and well into the night; neither the gunman nor his accomplices managing to get their message into the media, partly because he didn't actually have any accomplices. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, the police stormed the building; at the end, three people were dead; two hostages and the gunman.
Details soon emerged of the gunman; it turned out that he had been a somewhat odd character, to say the least. An Iranian refugee who had sought asylum in 1996 from the country's Islamist dictatorship, who had imprisoned his family. At various times, he had styled himself as an Islamic cleric, peace activist and spiritual healer. It is in the course of the last vocation that he seems to have incurred several dozen charges of sexual and indecent assault. Whilst doing this, he was apparently also writing harrassing letters to the relatives of Australian troops killed in Afghanistan. Furthermore, last year, he had been charged as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife. As he awaited trial for this, he maintained his calling as an Islamic cleric, despite finding little support in the actual Islamic community, and seemingly came to the conclusion that the community was wrong, corrupted by the “new religion” of moderate Islam. His one-man ministry became increasingly radical; a week before his last stand, he posted to his website, pledging his allegiance to ISIS, the aforementioned mob of bloodthirsty attention-seekers in Syria. It is not clear whether anybody in this group acknowledged his pledge.
There's a lot in that profile, and it's not flattering; it's like he's one part Martin Bryant (the mass murderer from Hobart) to one part Fred Phelps (also a self-proclaimed religious leader whose currency was hate); a deeply unpleasant troll and attention-seeking psychopath who escalated into possible murder. (It is not clear whether he killed either his ex-wife or any of the hostages, though it doesn't look good in either case.) Of course, a key difference between him and Bryant, Phelps, and indeed, any of the high school shooters of the past few decades, is that he was not “white”.
Much has been said about white privilege recently, especially in the wake of the killings of black youths in the US whose only crime was that it could not be exhaustively proven that they weren't about to pull a gun. White privilege, it seems, can involve being able to behave normally, rather than erring on the side of proving one's unthreateningness, or avoiding situations where a jury might rule that Whitey could have reasonably considered one to have been a clear and present danger. And now, it seems, it can also involve being judged on one's individual circumstances, rather than as an exemplar of a homogeneous, pathological Other, should one flip out and kill some people.
One can imagine how this would have been reported had someone from a white, Anglo-Celtic background been the perpetrator: a bingo-card of adverse circumstances (“broken home”, “failed marriage“, perhaps substance abuse and several possible types of mental illness); in and out of trouble with the law, the antihero turns to religion in an attempt to get his shit together, going from church to megachurch, but finding them all to be shallow phonies and leaving them behind, treading his own lonely, uncompromising, and increasingly narrow path. Then, one day, he snaps, and—surprise, surprise—nobody blames Hillsong.
The hostage taker was clearly an unstable individual. He was also an unstable individual from an Islamic cultural background, and his pathology was coloured by Islam, by the currents of extremism on the fringe of Islam and the perception of the Islamic Jihadist as the bête noire of our age. However, it looks like that was all he was; there seems to be no evidence of him having been part of a larger terrorist conspiracy, or even having had much of a plan. Some are referring to him as “self-radicalised”, which is another word only used for the scary Other; one is less likely to see this word attached to, say, the failed pick-up artist in California who decided to shoot some women to avenge having been repeatedly rejected, despite the fact that, in both cases, we are witnessing a similar phenomenon: toxic resentment buttressed by ideology. It's just that, in one case, the ideology is not from here.
Fortunately, with the exception of Murdoch's Daily Telegraph screaming terrorism, Australia has mostly kept its head on. Mindful of the posibility of a Cronulla-style backlash against conspicuously Muslim-looking bystanders, offered their solidarity on Twitter, with the #illridewithyou hashtag soon trending worldwide. Meanwhile, civic leaders have rejected the Murdochs' claim that everything had changed forever, framing the siege as an isolated incident. One does wonder how long this will hold; whether this will be used as justification to pass a new tranche of sweeping police powers or restrictions on civil liberties. (The government's planned mandatory data retention regime is coming up for debate soon, and could be rubber-stamped through parliament, even though it would have had no effect on this case, with the perpetrator having been very well known to police.)
As the Snowden revelations have demonstrated that we do, in fact, live in a very discreet surveillance dystopia, it can be tempting to ask, what's the problem? After all, the security services don't seem to be actually running COINTELPRO-style operations against Occupy activists or disappearing dissidents at 3AM, and the thunderbolts from Olympus (this side of Afghanistan, at least) seem to be limited to DDOS operations against script kiddies (live by the sword, die by the sword, as they day) and the occasional drug-enforcement agent getting very lucky when performing a "random" search (which, whilst it goes against peacetime luxuries such as due process, doesn't affect law-abiding bourgeoisie like you and me, right?) If you've got nothing to hide (or just the usual minor indiscretions that the spooks don't care about), you've got nothing to fear, and all those people deterred from associating with pacifist churches and human-rights groups can only be a bunch of nervous nellies jumping at shadows, given that not only the NSA but Facebook and Google know exactly what political leanings they have. After all, the more data the spooks have on everyone, surely that would make it easier for them to sort the signal from the noise; to tell, for example, that while you may have and made a phone call referring to a movie as a "bomb" whilst within range the same cell tower as two anarchists and a Wahhabi Muslim, you don't look like a terrorist, right?
The only problem is it doesn't work that way, as the case of Brandon Mayfield demonstrates:
But there’s another danger that Snowden didn’t mention that’s inherent in the government’s having easy access to the voluminous data we produce every day: It can imply guilt where there is none. When investigators have mountains of data on a particular target, it’s easy to see only the data points that confirm their theories — especially in counterterrorism investigations when the stakes are so high — while ignoring or downplaying the rest. There doesn’t have to be any particular malice on the part of investigators or analysts, although prejudice no doubt comes into play, just circumstantial evidence and the dangerous belief in their intuition. Social scientists refer to this phenomenon as confirmation bias, and when people are confronted with data overload, it’s much easier to weave the data into a narrative that substantiates what they already believe. Criminologist D. Kim Rossmo, a retired detective inspector of the Vancouver Police Department, was so concerned about confirmation bias and the investigative failures it causes that he warned police officers in Police Chief magazine to always be on guard against it. “The components of confirmation bias,” he wrote, “include failure to seek evidence that would disprove the theory, not utilizing such evidence if found, refusing to consider alternative hypotheses and not evaluating evidence diagnosticity.”
Despite finding that Mayfield’s print was not an identical match to the print left on the bag of detonators, FBI fingerprint examiners rationalized away the differences, according to a report by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Under the one discrepancy rule, the FBI lab should have concluded Mayfield did not leave the print found in Madrid — a conclusion the SNP reached and repeatedly communicated to the FBI. The FBI’s Portland field office, however, used that fingerprint match to begin digging into Mayfield’s background. Certain details of the attorney’s life convinced the agents that they had their man. Mayfield had converted to Islam after meeting his wife, an Egyptian. He had represented one of the Portland Seven, a group of men who tried to travel to Afghanistan to fight for al Qaeda and the Taliban against U.S. and coalition forces in a child custody case. He also worshipped at the same mosque as the militants. In the aftermath of 9/11, these innocent associations and relationships, however tangential, were transformed by investigators into evidence that Mayfield wasn’t a civic-minded American, but a bloodthirsty terrorist intent on destroying the West.
FBI agents broke into Mayfield’s home and law office. They rifled through documents protected by attorney-client privilege, wiretapped his phones, analyzed his financial records and web browsing history, and went through his garbage. They followed him wherever he went. Despite all this, the FBI never found a smoking gun connecting him to Madrid. They did, however, find Internet searches of flights to Spain and learned that he once took flying lessons. To FBI agents already convinced of his guilt, this was all evidence of Mayfield’s terrorist heart. The Web searches, however, were mundane. His daughter had to plan a fictional vacation for a school project. Flight lessons were indicative of nothing more than Mayfield’s interest in flying.
A few days ago, David Miranda, a Brazilian man who is the partner of investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, was detained for nine hours under anti-terrorism legislation whilst passing through Heathrow on the way from Berlin to his home in Brazil. Metropolitan Police threatened him with imprisonment, demanded his passwords and seized all electronic devices on his person; GCHQ have been unable to crack encrypted files seized from him, which could be plans for a doomsday device. Or they might not.
US conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan has compared this incident to events in Putin's Russia:
In this respect, I can say this to David Cameron. Thank you for clearing the air on these matters of surveillance. You have now demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that these anti-terror provisions are capable of rank abuse. Unless some other facts emerge, there is really no difference in kind between you and Vladimir Putin. You have used police powers granted for anti-terrorism and deployed them to target and intimidate journalists deemed enemies of the state.
You have proven that these laws can be hideously abused. Which means they must be repealed. You have broken the trust that enables any such legislation to survive in a democracy. By so doing, you have attacked British democracy itself. What on earth do you have to say for yourself? And were you, in any way, encouraged by the US administration to do such a thing?The Whitehouse "says" "it" "played" "no" "role" "in" the detention, though acknowledged that it was briefed on Miranda's presence on the plane and on the detention, as was PM David Cameron. Which suggests that, unless one makes the extraordinary mental gymnastics of extending the definition of “terrorism” to leaking information embarrassing national security agencies, this was a naked act of intimidation against a journalist by targeting his family, of the sort practiced in China and Iran.
Meanwhile, it emerged that, a month earlier, officers of the security services raided the headquarters of the Guardian and forced staff to destroy hard drives and computers used to store the NSA revelations. Copies apparently exist abroad, for the time being, with Guardian staff working on the case being based in the New York office.
I wonder how long until the Guardian relocates its editorial headquarters to a location that is not a pervasive security state, selling the shiny new building they have at Kings Place (though perhaps keeping a floor as a local bureau and/or for writing whimsical middle-class humour columns for the Saturday supplement) and using part of the undoubtedly hefty profit to buy a block in, say, downtown Reykjavík?
Also, Groklaw founder Pamela Jones has shut the site down, on account of the environment of pervasive surveillance, and is going into internal exile off the internet:
One function of privacy is to provide a safe space away from terror or other assaultive experiences. When you remove a person's ability to sequester herself, or intimate information about herself, you make her extremely vulnerable....
The totalitarian state watches everyone, but keeps its own plans secret. Privacy is seen as dangerous because it enhances resistance. Constantly spying and then confronting people with what are often petty transgressions is a way of maintaining social control and unnerving and disempowering opposition....
And even when one shakes real pursuers, it is often hard to rid oneself of the feeling of being watched -- which is why surveillance is an extremely powerful way to control people. The mind's tendency to still feel observed when alone... can be inhibiting. ... Feeling watched, but not knowing for sure, nor knowing if, when, or how the hostile surveyor may strike, people often become fearful, constricted, and distracted.
My personal decision is to get off of the Internet to the degree it's possible. I'm just an ordinary person. But I really know, after all my research and some serious thinking things through, that I can't stay online personally without losing my humanness, now that I know that ensuring privacy online is impossible. I find myself unable to write. I've always been a private person. That's why I never wanted to be a celebrity and why I fought hard to maintain both my privacy and yours.And here's Charlie Stross' take, in which he connects the British security state to David Cameron's mandatory anti-porn internet filter plans:
The spooks are not stupid. There are two ways they can respond to this in a manner consistent with their current objectives. They can try to shut down the press — a distinct possibility within the UK, but still incredibly dangerous — or they can shut down the open internet, in order to stop the information leakage over that channel and, more ambitiously, to stop the public reading undesirable news.I think they're going for the latter option, although I doubt they can make it stick. Let me walk you through the early stages of what I think is going to happen.
If you can tap data from the major search engines, how hard is it to insert search results into their output? Easy, it turns out. As easy as falling off a log. Google and Facebook are both advertising businesses. Twitter's trying to become one. Amazon and Ebay both rent space at the top of their search results to vendors who pay more money or offer more profits. Advertising is the keyword. All the NSA needs, in addition to the current information gathering capability, is the ability to inject spurious search results that submerge whatever nugget the user might be hunting for in a sea of irrelevant sewage. Imagine hunting for "Snowden" on Google and, instead of finding The New York Times or The Guardian's in-depth coverage, finding page after page of links to spam blogs.
According to this story a British visitor to the US was arrested and deported after he posted to his Twitter feed that he was planning to "destroy America" and "dig up Marilyn Monroe", immediately flagging him as a terrorist threat.
The Department of Homeland Security flagged him as a potential threat when he posted an excited tweet to his pals about his forthcoming trip to Hollywood which read: 'Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America'.
If the story is true (and, given that it comes from the Daily Mail, which never lets the facts get in the way of marshalling popular outrage, that is a considerable 'if'), it implies two things:
- The US border control agency (not the CIA or NSA or some other super-elite agency that hunts threats through the shadows, but the guys who scan passports) has a feed of intelligence gathered from the public Twitter feeds of anyone seeking to enter the US (and possibly other social media connected to their identities). This has a number of implications: where does the data come from? Is it just what is publicly linked to the poster's profile online, or does it come from clandestine sources (i.e., a list of user-generated content sites posted to from the visitor's home internet connection, as hoovered up by ECHELON)? Is there some NSA supercomputer quietly building up profiles on several billion internet users, with parts of these being sent to border security if some other part of the surveillance apparatus detects a keyphrase (say, the words "destroy America") in a feed linked to a particular individual?
- Given the nature of the tweet (which any reasonable person, had they overheard it in a pub, would conclude was a joke), it implies that, as far as the US Department of Homeland Security is concerned, the entire internet is an airport security zone, where joking about, say, carrying bombs or even an absurdity such as destroying America (how exactly would one go about accomplishing this?) is a punishable offence. There is a reason why joking about bombs at airport security screening lines is prohibited; namely that constraining the allowed range of behaviours whilst passing through a security checkpoint allows the checkpoint to operate. This rationale doesn't extend to applying the same rules to any idle banter uttered by a traveller within earshot of electronic intelligence gathering apparatus, and immediately punishing wisecracks.
If this system is as imperfect and prone to false positives as, say, the No-Fly List implemented in the US after 9/11, where people were banned from flying because their names and birthdates were close to those of suspected terrorists or other troublemakers, you can imagine the zany hijinks that might ensue the next time, say, that a business traveller shares a name with a Trotskyist agitator or radical cleric, or just some joker with, shall we say, different standards of self-restraint.
From what I gather, it is very difficult if not impossible for foreign visitors to seek legal redress against the US immigration authorities. More's the pity, as that will allow such absurdities to stand; with no chance of censure, the Homeland Security officials who made the call technically did the right thing, as there is nothing eligible for consideration to balance the (infinitesimally tiny) chance that they might have caught an actual terrorist. (In fact, they might have to deport enough people to exceed airline capacity out of the US and the capacity of airport holding cells for it to register as a problem.) Anyway, it seems that the moral of this story is: if there's any chance of your wanting or needing to visit the United States, don't joke about bombs or terrorism or drugs or non-specific acts of destruction, or indeed anything other that you wouldn't talk about in an airport security queue.
While the mass murder of teenage Labour Party supporters in Norway has horrified the world, the killer has not been entirely without supporters. In Italy, one of Silvio Berlusconi's former ministers has defended his ideas as being "in the defence of western civilisation". Meanwhile in the US, obnoxious cretin Glenn Beck has kept true to form, comparing the Labour Party youth camp to the Hitler Youth.
There may be (vast multitudes of) zombies among us online: leaked emails from US defense contractor HB Gary have revealed the existence of a system for managing large numbers of fake identities across social networks; the identities are created en masse with realistic pseudonyms and plausible character profiles and kept on life support with an automated or mostly automated system; the software has them retweet others' posts, or perhaps even uses natural-language processing to have them chime in minimally to comment threads ("I agree!"). Then, when they're needed, these zombie profiles can be pressed into service, flash-mobbing a forum with a dissenting view coming from a large number of real-looking people with authentic-looking histories, befriending real users on social networks for intelligence-gathering purposes, or similar; the operators have access to the record on the particular profile they're using, in order to avoid embarrassing faux pas:
To build this capability we will create a set of personas on twitter, blogs, forums, buzz, and myspace under created names that fit the profile (satellitejockey, hack3rman, etc). These accounts are maintained and updated automatically through RSS feeds, retweets, and linking together social media commenting between platforms. With a pool of these accounts to choose from, once you have a real name persona you create a Facebook and LinkedIn account using the given name, lock those accounts down and link these accounts to a selected # of previously created social media accounts, automatically pre-aging the real accounts.
Using the assigned social media accounts we can automate the posting of content that is relevant to the persona. In this case there are specific social media strategy website RSS feeds we can subscribe to and then repost content on twitter with the appropriate hashtags. In fact using hashtags and gaming some location based check-in services we can make it appear as if a persona was actually at a conference and introduce himself/herself to key individuals as part of the exercise, as one example. There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to all fictitious personasHB Gary has been selling these to the US Government, presumably to intelligence and law-enforcement agencies; its imagined uses could range from allowing agents to infiltrate distributed protest groups for intelligence-gathering purposes to COINTELPRO-style disruption operations and psychological warfare. However, it's not unlikely that some version of this or similar software (either from them or another company) would end up in the hands of private corporations or other interests. Recently, HB Gary and two other defense contractors did recently pitch their services to the Bank of America, proposing disinformation attacks against WikiLeaks and its supporters. It could be argued quite robustly that collusion between the US intelligence establishment and corporations is a long-established tradition, dating back to ITT's involvement in the Chilean coup and the United Fruit Company's involvement in establishing the Guatemalan junta, so to imagine such tools in the hands of, say oil companies or agribusiness, being used to disrupt popular opposition, disrupt the organisation of trade unions, or even manufacture Tea Party-style pseudo-oppositional groups which support deregulation, is not a huge stretch. In the wild, it becomes just another tool to discreetly keep labour and environmental costs down. And then there's what happens when this filters down to the marketing departments. Or some guys in Russia make a clone of this and start selling it to scammers.
What about on the internet? Once the cat's out of the bag, people are going to be less trusting of strangers online. Until now, identifying a sockpuppet had been easy: if someone just joined a site, made no comments or a few content-free comments and then weighed in about why, let's say, smoking doesn't cause cancer or Silvio Berlusconi is the only honest man in Italian politics and the victim of a conspiracy, they were obviously a tentacle of some ham-fisted propaganda operation. Now, such a tentacle may have accounts on all major news sites, social networks and other services going back years, and a history of bland, neutral interactions with the online world. A retweet here, a few holiday photos (cropped/reedited from somebody else's Flickr pool, or a pool of content contributed by contractor employees) there, perhaps a few opinions about football or video games or mobile phones scattered around forums. Detailed conversation would be light, unless the operators pay humans (bound by oaths of secrecy more stringent than Amazon's Mechanical Turk service) to ride these zombies and have them form low-intensity relationships with actual random humans. (More high-intensity relationships could be risky, though given the recent revelations that Britain's secret police agents formed long-term romantic relationships with members of left-wing groups they were infiltrating, perhaps long-distance romances between zombie handlers in fluorescent-lit bunkers under Virginia or Alabama and lonely, emotionally volatile people around the internet could occur; perhaps these could even be exploited for operational uses, in the way Nigerian 419 scammers have done.) But the rest of us would be asking ourselves: what percentage of the people we interact with online—on newspaper forums, music discussion boards, dating sites, or of our Facebook friend circle—are actually real?
Comic-book editor Steve Padnick argues that, more than other comic-book superheroes, Batman is an embodiment of plutocracy, with a good measure of Hobbesian authoritarianism thrown in:
Batman isn’t just “the man,” Bruce Wayne is also The Man. He’s a rich, white, handsome man who comes from an old money family and is the main employer in Gotham. He owns half the property in the city. In a very real sense, Gotham belongs to him, and he inherited all of it.
True, it’s a very American version of aristocracy, based on wealth rather than divine right, but in practice it’s basically the same. The myth of aristocracy is that class is genetic, that some people are just born good enough to rule, and that this inherent goodness can be passed down from generation to generation. It’s long been established, and Grant Morrison’s recent “Return of Bruce Wayne” miniseries reaffirmed, that there has always been a Wayne in Gotham City, and that the state of the city reflects the status of the Waynes at the time. The implied message of Batman: Year One, and Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight Returns, Batman Beyond, and so on is… if the Waynes are absent from Gotham, the entire city falls apart.The underlying narrative of Batman—which, in most people's minds, has largely been buried under a pile of camp 1960s kitsch, thanks to the TV series—is one of class war, with Batman, an Arthurian king-in-exile, taking back his kingdom (Gotham City) from the underclass, and reinforce the status quo where the law, rendered effete and ineffectual by red tape and concern for due process, is unable to do so:
Just look at who he fights. Superman (for example) fights intergalactic dictators, evil monopolists, angry generals, and dark gods, i.e. symbols of abusive authority. Batman fights psychotics, anarchists, mob bosses, the mentally ill, and environmentalists, i.e. those who would overthrow the status quo. Superman fights those who would impose their version of order on the world. Batman fights those who would unbalance the order Batman himself imposes on Gotham.
Consider the Penguin. He’s a criminal, a thug. But what really distinguishes him from other villains is his pretensions to being upper class. The tux, the monocle, the fine wine and fine women, running for mayor.... He tries to insinuate himself with actual socialites, some of whom are attracted to his air of danger, but most of whom are repulsed by his “classless” manners. And when his envy and resentment of his “betters” turns to violence, Bruce steps in to teach him his place.In other words, if each age gets the heroes it deserves, the (super)hero for our time, with its spiralling wealth gap, nominally democratic governments realising that they're at the beck and call of the global super-rich and consequently raising taxes and cutting back services for the little people, and the post-9/11 Long Siege, could be Batman.
(via Boing Boing)
The BBC's outgoing America correspondent, Kevin Connolly, has written a valedictory essay summing up his experience of the US today:
And there is something beguiling in that easy familiarity, but something misleading about it, too. It tends to blind Europeans, and the British in particular, to any sense of just how foreign a place America can be.The theme of the essay is that America is quite different from Europe, and if anything, getting more, rather than less, different. As a society, it is getting more religious (you will be wished to "have a blessed day" by shopkeepers in the Red States, and half of the country wouldn't tolerate an atheist marrying their children, let alone holding any public office), a significant proportion of Americans think that a president who'd be well to the right of David Cameron is a dangerous socialist, and America considers itself at war and/or under siege, which has added a curious militaristic/nationalistic tinge to life:
Because it is a country at war, young men and women in uniform are a common sight on internal flights around the country. It is curiously moving to see them sitting looking a little embarrassed as a pilot or flight attendant calls on their fellow passengers to give their service and sacrifice a standing ovation.And, of course, guns and the death penalty, the two things usually standing in for apple pie in any European discussion of America.
Connolly does mention other aspects of America: a pithily pragmatic way with the English language, a generous culture of hospitality, and the irritating habit of holding lift doors open for stragglers, "as though it was one of the last helicopters leaving the roof of the Saigon embassy in 1975".
The Economist Intelligence Unit's 2010 Democracy Index, a ranking of countries from most to least democratic, is out. The actual report requires registration, but the Wikipedia page contains a list, and various news sites across the world accompany this with explanatory commentary. A press release is here.
The report divides the world into four blocks, in order from best to worst: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. The largest group, by population, is flawed democracies, followed by authoritarian regimes and, some distance behind, full democracies.
The four most democratic countries are—quelle surprise!—Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden. They're followed immediately by New Zealand (which is looking increasingly like a chunk of Scandinavia in the Antipodes) and Australia. That's right, Australia is more democratic than Finland, Switzerland and Canada (#7. #8 and #9). The United States is at #17 (with a score of 8.18/10) and the UK is at #19. (The US loses points due to the War On Terror, whereas the UK's problem seems to be political apathy. Though is that the cause or, as Charlie Stross argued, a symptom?)
Meanwhile, France under Sarkozy has fallen out of the league of full democracies, and been relegated to the flawed democracies; there it is kept company by Berlusconi's Italy, Greece, and most of the Eastern European countries (with the notable exception of the Czech Republic, who are one step above the US), along with South Africa, Israel, India, East Timor, Brazil, Thailand, Ukraine and a panoply of African, Asian, Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Below the flawed democracies lie the hybrid regimes; these include Hong Kong (a notional democracy with Communist China keeping it on a leash), Singapore (a model of "managed democracy"), Turkey, Venezuela, Pakistan, Palestine and Russia. And at the bottom are authoritarian regimes, including the usual suspects: Cuba, China, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Saudi Arabia and such. It will surprise few to learn that the bottom spot is held by North Korea, with a score of 1.08 out of 10, followed by Chad, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Burma.
The press release states that the democracy ratings are worse than in previous years, with democracy declining across the world. Several factors are cited for this decline, including the economic crisis, the War On Terror, and declining confidence in political institutions. The press release also says that the crisis may have increased the attractiveness of the Chinese authoritarian model.
The scale of the rankings is, of course, not scientific. A rating of 9.8/10, as Norway has, would suggest that 98% of policy is decided at the ballot box, rather than in negotiations with other states, interest groups, bondholders and the like. And if 81.6% of Britain's decisions were democratically made, grossly unpopular decisions like trebling university tuition fees or invading Iraq would not have happened. One could imagine a more accurate scale, which estimates what percentage of a country's public affairs are decided through democratic discourse. A better measure would also have to take into account media pluralism, the education levels of the public, and access to unfiltered information; if a country's media is controlled by a few media tycoons, the will of the people will act as a low-pass filter on their opinions.
The new face of terrorism in the UK? A 12-year-old schoolboy in Eynsham, Oxfordshire was taken out of his class by anti-terrorism police, and threatened with arrest after starting a Facebook group to protest to the Prime Minister against the closure of a youth club:
Speaking to the Guardian, Nicky Wishart said: "In my lesson, [a school secretary] came and said my head of year wanted to talk to me. She was in her office with a police officer who wanted to talk to me about the protest. He said, 'if a riot breaks out we will arrest people and if anything happens you will get arrested because you are the organiser'.Via MetaFilter, whose discussion thread includes this particularly insightful comment, by one "SysRq":
More and more, I get the feeling that the anti- in "anti-terror" doesn't refer to ideological opposition so much as directional opposition, as in anti-clockwise; whereas "terror" is the psychological warfare of The Enemy upon The State, "anti-terror" is the psychological warfare of The State upon itself — a sort of national autoimmune disorder.
The Running of the Dead, a longish but eminently readable and illuminating article by one Christian Thorne, examining the shift in zombie film tropes from the slow, shambling zombies of George Romero's original films to the fast zombies of "updated" remakes and films like 28 Days Later, and what it says about changes in assumptions about civilisation between the late 1960s and the Homeland Security age:
Slow-zombie movies are a meditation on consumer society—on a certain excess of civilization, as it were; and fast-zombie movies are pretty much the opposite. So the simple question: In the Dawn remake, how do the zombies look? And the simple answer is: They look like rioters or encamped refugees. If you say that zombie movies are always about crowds, a person might respond: Yeah, I see, the mob—but if you’re talking about George Romero and the slow-zombie movie, the word “mob” isn’t quite right, since white people in formal wear aren’t exactly the mob, and, casting a glance at Romero’s original Dawn, shoppers aren’t either, except on the day after Thanksgiving. Fear of the mob has usually been the hallmark of an anti-democratic politics. The phrase “mob rule” remains common enough; eighteenth-century writers used to call it “mobacracy.” And that’s not what Romero’s after. Romero is worried that the crowd isn’t democratic enough, and one of his more remarkable achievements, back in 1968, was to start a cinematic conversation about the dangers of crowds that ducked the problem of “the mob,” that bracketed that concept out. This couldn’t have been easy to do, since the one term substitutes so easily for the other. And the pokeyness of the zombies is central to this feat, because corpses that look like they’re wading through gelatin are going to seem grinding and methodical or maybe doped and so not like looters or protestors or the Red Cross’s Congolese wards. By making the zombies fast—or rather, by merely accelerating them back to normal human speeds—Snyder allows his dead to seethe and roil. Once the movie’s survivors decide they have to leave the mall where they’ve been hiding—once they head out, in armored buses, into the teeming parking lot—they have entered an American Gaza.In short, according to Thorne, while Romero's slow zombie movies are inherently democratic, fast-zombie movies are fundamentally authoritarian, advancing Thomas Hobbes' argument: civilisation is a fragile thing, one step away from collapse, and must be upheld by arbitrary authority (which is to say, authority one cannot question, whose rightness or wrongness are not open to debate). Hobbes' argument (a cornerstone of right-wing authoritarian thought) is predicated on fear, and has been gaining cultural currency in the post-9/11 Long Siege; the pro-democratic, small-L-libertarian tropes of the cultural shifts of the 1960s seem impossibly quaint, almost Rousseauvian in their naïveté, and haven't dated well beyond being a period piece, a code for the somewhat goofy epoch of pot-smoking, group sex and poor personal hygiene we call The Sixties. Meanwhile, the Other—the terrorist, the inner-city looter, the paedophile, the ultra-ruthless foreign gangster—is at the door. The freedom that was liberating to our hippy parents and grandparents is positively terrifying, and perhaps we need more authority.
The rise in fear-driven authoritarianism has manifested itself in other places; the zero-tolerance culture in schools (at least in the US; your mileage may vary), brought in after Columbine and 9/11, is, as one author suggests, conditioning a generation of young people to unquestioningly accept and submit to authority, instilling subconscious values which will later assert themselves when future social contracts are thrashed out. Tomorrow's citizens will be a little (or a lot) more accepting of the encroachment of authority, less likely to question it, and more likely to dismiss anti-authoritarian arguments as invalid or irrational.
What on earth is going on in Australia? First came the internet censorship firewall plan (which may be on hold until the next election, but is still Labor Party policy, and while the Coalition have been strategically holding their tongues about it, reading between the lines, it seems like Tony Abbott (a known religious hardliner) would take it even further), then the plan to require ISPs to record what websites all users visit and whom they email, a record of which will be linked to users' identity details including passport numbers. And now, a parliamentary inquiry has proposed requiring users to run government-mandated "cyber-security" software on their computers to access the internet. A proposal which sounds a lot like China's "Green Dam" spyware.
Of course, if implemented, this would lock out anybody who uses an unsupported operating system for which the government hasn't made available a version of its Green And Gold Dam software, not to mention the scope for abuse. Imagine that, a year later, a law is quietly passed and the software updated to search users' hard drives for images that might be pornographic and forward them to the police, in the guise of hunting down paedophiles, or for text documents that might conceivably be "terrorist materials". Other than a few people being raided for possessing nude images of small-breasted models or similarly suspicious materials, all of a sudden, the police have a copy of everyone's private photos and other files; it's a good thing that the Australian police are renowned for their incorruptibility, and neither individual officers nor the police forces would ever abuse such sweeping powers.
Of course, once the software is, by law, on everyone's machine, the possibilities don't end there. In the age of the Long Siege, it's not unlikely that security agencies would have special powers to use this in a targeted fashion to go after persons of special concern (which, in the eyes of the Murdoch tabloids and their readership, means bloodthirsty paedoterrorist extremists who should all be locked up, but in reality is likely to mean environmental protesters, social-justice groups and anyone who looks suspicious). If ASIO or the AFP can surreptitiously modify files on computers at, say, Greenpeace or the Greens, think of the COINTELPRO-style hijinks they could get up to; changing the plans of protests, planting evidence that key organisers are informers, or just disrupting campaigns at key moments. And so, as if by magic, protests fizzle, media campaigns fail, opposition groups disintegrate in acrimony, and Australian democracy becomes a lot more efficiently managed. Confound their politics, indeed.
Of course, the Green and Gold Dam is by no means a done deal. Perhaps it's a proposal which will die, recognised for its heavy-handedness and unfeasibility. Or perhaps it's an ambit claim, to make the government's existing plans (the national firewall and ISP-based surveillance infrastructure) seem more moderate by comparison.
A piece in Vice Magazine on odd and unfortunate things from the world of fashion, from the obvious (the ever-escalating arms races between shock value and desensitisation, iPhones as dandruff magnets, the increasing ordeal of air travel during the Long Siege taking its toll on sartorial standards) to the more unusual (fake human flesh is apparently a fabric these days):
And then there are the military applications. What happens if the Taliban or the armed forces of Iran or Kim Jong-il’s Korean People’s Army gets hold of SkinBag’s URL? Any military force outfitted in human skins would make the Old Norse berserkers pale in comparison. Could any country on earth face down an army of Ed Geins?
A German website now offers the “Get Naked Bikini”..., a two-piece water-soluble swimsuit that allegedly falls apart after three minutes of swimming... Although this combination of polymers is found in most water-resistant swimsuits, the dubious product has still managed to enrage many sensible Europeans with its overtones of male revenge fantasy (the comparably priced men’s “Get Naked Pants” haven’t yet made the news).
Rio de Janeiro has won the 2016 Olympics. Our condolences to the Brazilian people; to the poor people who will undoubtedly be forcibly removed to make room, and everybody else who will have to endure the inevitable Olympic-related expenses and suspensions of civil liberties where such impinge on sponsors' profits.
Chicago was the favourite for the Olympics, but was eliminated first, getting only 18 of the 94 votes. Sime are speculating that this was partly due to heavy-handed passport control procedures brought in during the Bush administration:
Syed Shahid Ali, an I.O.C. member from Pakistan, in the question-and-answer session following Chicago’s official presentation, pointed out that entering the United States can be “a rather harrowing experience.”
International travel to the U.S. declined by 10 percent in the first quarter of 2009 according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. To lure visitors back, U.S. Travel has been pushing the Travel Promotion Act, which recently was passed in the Senate and is awaiting action in the House, to create a campaign to strengthen the image of the United States abroad.There are more horror stories about US Immigration here, with some commenters comparing their experience unfavourably to the former East Germany, and others speaking of great lengths taken to avoid the US when travelling. I must say that this has not been my experience. On both occasions when I visited the US, the entry process was quick (quicker than returning to Britain at Heathrow, on some occasions), and the staff were polite. Then again, on both occasions I had arrived at San Francisco; your mileage may vary.
(via Boing Boing)
The latest dispatch from the Long Siege: in the US, the EFF is arguing that users of devices such as the Apple iPhone should have a right to "jailbreak" them, i.e., to circumvent mechanisms which prevent them from installing software unapproved by the manufacturer. Apple have countered this with a dire warning that jailbroken iPhones could be a terrorist weapon, with the capability to bring America's communications infrastructure to its knees:
By tinkering with this code, “a local or international hacker could potentially initiate commands (such as a denial of service attack) that could crash the tower software, rendering the tower entirely inoperable to process calls or transmit data,” Apple wrote the government. “Taking control of the BBP software would be much the equivalent of getting inside the firewall of a corporate computer — to potentially catastrophic result.To their credit, Apple didn't actually use the T-word, but they insinuated it pretty hard, and added to that the possibility of drug traffickers using hacked phones to make anonymous phone calls. Hey Apple, don't forget about the paedophiles; surely they'd find some nefarious use for jailbreaking as well.
The EFF's experts, meanwhile, have called bullshit on the whole thing.
red von Lohmann, the EFF attorney who made the request, said Apple’s latest claims are preposterous. During a May public hearing on the issue in Palo Alto, California, he told regulators there were as many as a million unauthorized, jailbroken phones.
He added that, if Apple’s argument was correct, the open-source Android phone from Google on T-Mobile networks would also be a menace to society. ”This kind of theoretical threat,” von Lohmann said, “is more FUD than truth.”Of course, if unauthorised clients on the phone network are such a threat, then merely keeping jailbreaking technically illegal wouldn't deter actual paedoterrorists; a threat of such severity could only be countered by declaring possession of jailbroken phones to be a terrorist act and actively hunting down and prosecuting transgressors under national security laws, using the full surveillance infrastructure of the Department of Homeland Security. Perhaps that's what Apple are hoping for?
Meanwhile, the very same week, Apple have demonstrated why users have an interest in jailbreaking their gadgets, by banning all Google Voice applications from the App Store, reportedly at the behest of phone companies not wanting their cozy business models upset. And some are speculating that Spotify's much-anticipated iPhone client may be rejected by Apple, due to it competing with iTunes.
More dispatches from the War on the Unexpected: London police forced an Austrian tourist to delete photographs of a bus station, on the grounds that photographing transport infrastructure was "strictly forbidden". Which sounds like something more befitting of, say, Belarus or North Korea than of an ostensibly free country:
Matkza, a 69-year-old retired television cameraman with a taste for modern architecture, was told that photographing anything to do with transport was "strictly forbidden". The policemen also recorded the pair's details, including passport numbers and hotel addresses.
In a telephone interview from his home in Vienna, Matka said: "I've never had these experiences anywhere, never in the world, not even in Communist countries."Meanwhile, in the United States, police seized a student's computers on the grounds that he was using a suspicious operating system (i.e., Linux), and thus probably up to no good:
_________ reported that Mr. Calixte uses two different operating systems to hide his illegal activities. One is the regular [Boston College] operating system and the other is a black screen with white font which he uses prompt commands on.Which sounds like he's guilty of some kind of technological witchcraft.
The Times reports that paedophiles and terrorists are joining forces online into a unified axis of unstoppable evil.
Secret coded messages are being embedded into child pornographic images, and paedophile websites are being exploited as a secure way of passing information between terrorists.
It is not clear whether the terrorists were more interested in the material for personal gratification or were drawn to child porn networks as a secure means of sending messages. In one case fewer than a dozen images were found; in another, 40,000.And another piece, looking for a rationale for the paedoterrorist nexus:
Some paedophiles have become adept at encrypting information and burying it so deeply in the internet that no outsider can easily find it. Paedophiles then meet in cyberspace and swap notes on how to reach the images. None is likely to rush to police saying they suspect that they have spotted a terrorist loitering on their child porn website.
Another area investigators will want to explore is the similarity between the personalities of paedophiles and terrorists. “If they are going out, a lot of time is spent by going to the mosque or going off to internet cafés,” the source said.Of course, there is no way that the timing of these explosive and terrifying revelations could have anything to do with the government's plans for an "Orwellian" database of all phone calls, emails and internet communications in Britain facing opposition.
A Pentagon researcher has laid out a chilling possibilities: that terrorists could be using online role-playing games to plan attacks, disguised as raids in the virtual world:
In it, two World of Warcraft players discuss a raid on the "White Keep" inside the "Stonetalon Mountains." The major objective is to set off a "Dragon Fire spell" inside, and make off with "110 Gold and 234 Silver" in treasure. "No one will dance there for a hundred years after this spell is cast," one player, "war_monger," crows.
Except, in this case, the White Keep is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. "Dragon Fire" is an unconventional weapon. And "110 Gold and 234 Silver" tells the plotters how to align the game's map with one of Washington, D.C.Of course, the same argument could apply to any form of discussion. Terrorists could just as easily use last.fm playlists or online mixtapes to hatch their plans. (The above plan could be encoded as a copy of OMD's Enola Gay and a song by industrial noise band Whitehouse, followed by a song exactly 11 minutes long, which would give the time of the attack. For chemical or biological weapons, replace Enola Gay with Britney Spears' Toxic. You get the idea.) Or they could use internet memes; who's to say that the particular spelling/grammatical anomalies on the caption of the latest set of cat photos don't encode the details of a planned terrorist attack?
Of course, the terrorists could even eschew the internet altogether, using other means of communicating their plans, such as, say, public art. Who's to say that a terrorist sleeper agent hasn't been quietly making a name for himself as an artist, getting lucrative commissions, and waiting for the order to encode doomsday plans in a public sculpture (plenty of opportunity there) or a semi-abstract mural. (Avant-garde art itself is too easy.) Or architecture, or urban planning (if there are Masonic symbols in the layout of Washington DC's streets, there could be other things elsewhere.) The possibilities are infinite.
Perhaps Bruce Schneier could make his next Movie Plot Threat Contest hinge on coming up with creative ways in which evildoers could go to elaborate lengths to encode the message "nuke the Whitehouse at 11:00" in innocuous-looking environments. Because, as we all know, supervillains love complexity in and of itself, and the ideal terrorist plan would look more baroque than a steampunk laptop on Boing Boing.
Enterprising scammers have cottoned onto a way of profiting from the War On Terror/Long Siege and the resulting public acceptance of restrictions on their rights in the name of some vague form of security: by dressing up as security guards and confiscating camera memory cards from tourists, presumably to resell later.
(via Boing Boing)
The peculiar and long-established British pastime of trainspotting is in steep decline, having fallen victim to some combination of post-9/11 terrorism paranoia, risk-aversion ("it's health and safety gone mad, I tell you!"), neo-Blairite obsession with image and coolness, and really boring trains:
Austin Mitchell, a Labour MP and keen amateur photographer, sees another irony: “We are all photographed dozens of times every day on CCTV, so while the Government can photograph us, we can't photograph anything else.” According to Mitchell, who was recently stopped from taking pictures at Leeds station: “Photography is a public right and that should be made absolutely clear.” He has put down an early-day motion about the matter.
But in recent years the club reports have made agonising reading. One new member might have joined, but two will have died and one resigned. A few weeks ago, members received a special letter: “The executive committee has doubts about the continued validity of the club...” A meeting will be held in October to decide the club's future. Mike Burgess, its honorary secretary, says: “There's this faint hope that someone will come along with a plan - new blood, you know.”
Britain is not making trainspotters any more, just as it is not making enough engineers to maintain our main lines. Trainusership may be at its highest since the Second World War, but this is largely because of commuting into London. Fewer than half the children who visit the National Railway Museum in York have ever been on a train, let alone spotted any. Let's get this nasty, tyrannical little word out of the way, and acknowledge that trainspotting is not “cool” and that you call somebody one at your peril.
If one US Department of Homeland Security official has his way, airline boarding passes could be replaced with GPS-enabled wristbands containing remotely activated electric shock devices, which could be used not only to keep track of passengers but also to incapacitate any passengers found to be of a terroristic bent, allowing the rest of us to feel safer.
A list of 10 bizarre inventions patented in the name of fighting terrorism, from nondescript trucks with machine guns to bomb-proof anti-suicide-bomber nets (which looked like repurposed Nixon-era hippie-containment apparatus) to trap doors on airliners and remotely triggerable tranquilliser syringes in airline seats for incapacitating suspicious individuals:
Make all passengers wear armbands that monitors their body for signs of falsehood and evil (ooh, say heart pulsation and blood pressure - hey, it's in the patent application, mmkay?). And did I mention there's a syringe filled with a strong tranquilizer connected to the thing? One "anomalous emotional condition," then off to dreamland they go!And, if all else fails, there's even a patent for mobile crematoria for disposing of all the bodies.
In the latest round of the War On
Tourism Terrorism, the USA will now require visitors to register online 3 days prior to entering the country. I'm guessing that the old system (in which tourists filled a card in on the plane and handed it in at immigration) was letting in just too many terrorists or something. That certainly won't be a problem with the new system; the online registraion process will ask the visitor whether or not they're a terrorist, allowing Homeland Security agents to intercept terrorists (at least the less bright ones) before they leave the plane.
An outfit named Sweet Dreams Security is making designed objects for a more paranoid age; from spiked railings, barbed wire and CCTV camera covers in the shape of cute animals to heart-shaped chains and (perhaps more practically) lace curtains shaped like anti-burglar grilles.
It's not clear how much of this is sincerely intended to fill a gap in the market and how much is critiquing or poking fun at of the siege mentality of contemporary society and its normalisation as a banal aspect of consumer capitalism. The pieces shown are said to be actual manufactured items which may be ordered or bought in various designy shops, though they have mostly been exhibited in art galleries.
They're now selling toy airport screening machines for children. the Scan-It Operation Checkpoint Toy X-Ray Machine, a colourful box with a conveyor belt and a built-in metal detector, is designed to "help children understand and be comfortable and confident in the need and process of higher security protocols" in the post-9/11 age.
If there is a need for toys to instill into our children from an early age the awareness that we, as a society, are in a permanent low-level state of siege and need to accept increasing amounts of security control in our lives for our mutual safety, perhaps we can soon expect other similarly educational toys. How about a Biometric ID Card Play Set, with several Flash-based cards and a reader with working digital camera/fingerprint scanner, hich stores and checks the users' details? Or a Junior CCTV Surveillance kit, which lets youngsters play at silently keeping the city secure from ever-present threats? Or perhaps the Guantanamo Interrogation Play Set, with 9V battery-powered electric shock machine and waterboard? The possibilities are endless.
Today's words of advice: should you ever decide to burgle a funeral parlour, it is advisable to dress the part, so that, should you be interrupted, you can blend in with the customers, unlike this guy:
Police officers arrived with the owner, and eventually found the suspect lying on a table in a glassed-in chamber used for viewings of deceased people during wakes, a local police official said from Burjassot.
"The custom here is for dead people to be dressed in suits, in nice clothes that look presentable. This guy was in everyday clothes that were wrinkled and dirty," the police official said.Also, should you have the dubious fortune to be nicknamed after a weapon of mass destruction, don't write your nickname on any items you may leave lying around.
(via Boing Boing)
US Department of Homeland Security convenes a group of science fiction writers, dubbed "SIGMA", to brainstorm ideas for defending the nation; writers, instead, go off on bizarre tangents:
Niven said a good way to help hospitals stem financial losses is to spread rumors in Spanish within the Latino community that emergency rooms are killing patients in order to harvest their organs for transplants.
“The problem [of hospitals going broke] is hugely exaggerated by illegal aliens who aren’t going to pay for anything anyway,” Niven said.
(via Boing Boing)
The practice of street photography, taking spontaneous photographs in public places, is under threat, as photographers find themselves lumped in with the shadowy paedoterrorist hordes who are out to kill us all and molest our children:
In the past year, the photography blogs have buzzed with tales of harassment, even violence. There's the war photographer who dodged bullets abroad only to be beaten up in his own South London backyard by a paranoid parent who (wrongly) thought his child was being photographed. There's the amateur photographer punched prostrate in the London Tube after refusing to give up his film to a stranger; the case of the man in Hull, swooped on by police after taking photographs in a shopping centre. “Any person who appears to be taking photos in a covert manner should expect to be stopped and spoken to by police ...” ran the Humberside force's statement.
Sophie Howarth is a curator specialising in street photography. She says she's noticed - despite the difficulties - a boom for the art, enabled by technology, and with London at the centre. “In France, traditionally one of the great centres of street photography, the law now says you own the rights to your own image, so street photography's become a dead art. In London there's a growing community of photographers, using digi- tal technology, not just cameras, but blogs, too, to document the city and give each other instant feedback.”When did the law in France change? Was that one of Sarkozy's neo-Galambosian intellectual-property-maximalist reforms, like pushing for EU-wide copyright term extension?
“I'm not going to belittle the issue of terrorism, but this is paranoia. And unfortunately, since Lady Di and now this link with terrorists, photography's seen by many people as something that's a little ... cheap.”
New market research has revealed that Mac users are snobs, upper-income-bracket elitist aspirational types who see themselves as better than the PC-using rabble, while, seen from the other side, PC users are cheapskates.
Meanwhile, a filmmaker has made a documentary about the intense loyalty Maccies feel to their brand, which bears out some of the findings:
Violet Blue, a popular blogger and sex columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, who also features in the film, says: "First of all, I've never knowingly slept with a Windows users ... that would never, ever happen."Anyway, back to the Mac-users-are-snobs thing: the description of the difference between Mac users and PC users reminded me a lot of (Mac user) Momus' recent paraphrasing of the right-wing anti-intellectual argument against liberal cosmopolitan elites:
The intellectual is not one of us. We are ordinary folks, he is a member of an elite. We gravitate around right wing ideas, he's left-leaning. We're family people, he screws men, women and children. We farm, he stays in the city, with his intellectual elite, or on campus, corrupting the minds of our youth. We're religious, but the intellectual is an unbeliever. We run to fat, he stays thin. We're patriots, he's a cosmopolitan, equally at home with foreigners as with his own kind. He puts loyalty to ideas before loyalty to his people. We have the church, he has the liberal media.I'm wondering whether Microsoft or Dell or whoever didn't miss a trick in the few years after 9/11 when Americans (and, to a lesser extent, other Westerners) fell into a right-wing populist groupthink, dissociating themselves from straw-man liberalism. Perhaps, had they run ads playing on the stereotypes of Mac users as potentially disloyal rootless cosmopolitanists, they could have converted some Mac sales into sales of PCs and copies of Windows. After all, when your country's under siege, you don't want to be seen to be distancing yourself from your compatriots, however symbolically.
The admissions made by the men -- who were given food whenever they were hungry as well as Starbucks coffee at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- played a key role in the government's decision to proceed with the prosecutions, military and law enforcement officials said.Of course, Guantanamo was a US military facility before it was the controversial black site, so it's not unlikely that there was a Starbucks there for the troops. I wonder whether there is one at the even-more-secret military facility on Diego Garcia, or how many Starbucks (or other well-known franchises) there are in locations which are officially secret.
(via Boing Boing)
A piece on counter-surveillance tactics used by terrorist suspects. In summary, they go out of their way to appear assimilated and un-religious, discuss plans in remote wilderness locations or online pornography sites (what, no Second Life/World of Warcraft?), use Skype (which is difficult to tap) and speak in code:
Wiretap transcripts and other court records show that the cell of North African immigrants tried hard to blend into Italian society, working regular jobs, sending their children to public schools and taking pains not to appear unusually religious. When they did talk on the phone, they often adopted a roundabout or obtuse manner that masked their real meaning.
"Taxi drivers," Redouane el Habab said, referred to suicide bombers; explosives were "dough." Anybody who had to go to "the hospital," he added, had been taken to jail, while those visiting "China" were really attending training camps in Sudan.
The FBI has a new technique for sniffing out potential terrorist cells: scanning grocery store records for telltale spikes in felafel sales. Really.
Other than anything else, the fact that they were using felafel sales to find Iranian sleeper cells suggests that whoever came up with this idea didn't do their homework.
As we dig in for the long siege and see potential terrorists in every shadow, the war on terror is, according to Bruce Schneier, turning into a war on the unexpected, with untrained civilians encouraged to report anything out of the ordinary, and the authorities escalating such reports to full-blown incidents:
We've opened up a new front on the war on terror. It's an attack on the unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it's a war on different. If you act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested -- even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants and a CYA attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation of reported threats.
This story has been repeated endlessly, both in the U.S. and in other countries. Someone -- these are all real -- notices a funny smell, or some white powder, or two people passing an envelope, or a dark-skinned man leaving boxes at the curb, or a cell phone in an airplane seat; the police cordon off the area, make arrests, and/or evacuate airplanes; and in the end the cause of the alarm is revealed as a pot of Thai chili sauce, or flour, or a utility bill, or an English professor recycling, or a cell phone in an airplane seat.Schneier also links to this blog item, which shows that this principle is being extended towards the padeophile end of the paedoterrorist axis; apparently, in Virginia, a father holding his young daughter's hand is a sign of probable sexual abuse.
AT&T has released what could be the world's first truly post-9/11 programming language: a language designed for large-scale communications surveillance. The Hancock programming language, unsurprisingly, resembles a much earlier AT&T/Bell Labs innovation, C, in style and is designed for sifting through gigabytes of telephone and internet records, looking for things of interest. Examples given in the documentation include scripts for finding all packets to or from an address of interest, and for tracking a person's movements by checking which cell towers their mobile phone connected to during the day. And there's good news for hobbyists wanting to run their own model surveillance agency in their garage: the source code and binaries are free for noncommercial use.
Speculation has arisen about the US intelligence services deploying insect-sized surveillance drones after anti-war protesters reported seeing unusually large and odd-looking dragonflies at a demonstration:
"I'd never seen anything like it in my life," the Washington lawyer said. "They were large for dragonflies. I thought, 'Is that mechanical, or is that alive?' "
At the same time, he added, some details do not make sense. Three people at the D.C. event independently described a row of spheres, the size of small berries, attached along the tails of the big dragonflies -- an accoutrement that Louton could not explain. And all reported seeing at least three maneuvering in unison. "Dragonflies never fly in a pack," he said.The FBI has denied having such technologies. The CIA, meanwhile, is known to have tested a robotic "insectothopter" in the 1970s, before scrapping the project as it could not handle crosswinds. Scientists now have a better understanding of how insects fly, and it's possible that modern computer technology (not to mention materials science) could enable an insectothopter to respond to changes in its environment sufficiently well to navigate. Whether the spooks would risk prototypes, which officially do not exist, being captured by anti-war protesters is another question.
(If these things do exist, it's a good thing that America is immune to totalitarianism; imagine what, say, the Stasi or the Burmese junta would do with such technologies.)
Actually, the CIA/FBI may be a red herring. Has anybody asked Google about these bugs?
As America digs in for the long siege, there is now a high school specialising in "Homeland Security"-related subjects:
The new school is funded and guided by a slew of federal, state, and local agencies, not to mention several defense firms. Officials say it will teach kids to understand the "new reality," though they hasten to add that the school isn't focused just on terrorism. School administrators, channeling Cheneyesque secrecy, refused to be interviewed for this story. But it's no secret that the program is seen as a model for the rest of the country, with the Pentagon and other agencies watching closely.
Students will choose one of three specialized tracks: information and communication technology, criminal justice and law enforcement, or "homeland security science." David Volrath, executive director of secondary education for Harford County Public Schools, says the school also hopes to offer "Arabic or some other nontraditional, Third World-type language."
However, it's not clear how many Joppatowne grads will be on track to join the upper echelons of the intelligence community and how many will wind up as airport screeners. "We do want to encourage higher education," Volrath says. "We also want to be realistic. Some of these defense contractors will have huge security needs, and the jobs won't require four years of college."
(via Boing Boing)
Among recent proposals for keeping one step ahead of the terrorists is the use of formerly secret Russian mind-control and mind-reading technology, such as testing airline passengers' subconscious responses to scrambled images with terrorist-related themes:
SSRM Tek is presented to a subject as an innocent computer game that flashes subliminal images across the screen -- like pictures of Osama bin Laden or the World Trade Center. The "player" -- a traveler at an airport screening line, for example -- presses a button in response to the images, without consciously registering what he or she is looking at. The terrorist's response to the scrambled image involuntarily differs from the innocent person's, according to the theory.
Despite Smirnov's death, Rusalkina predicts an "arms race" in psychotronic weapons. Such weapons, she asserts, are far more dangerous than nuclear weapons. She pointed, for example, to a spate of Russian news reports about "zombies" -- innocent people whose memories had been allegedly wiped out by mind control weapons.Meanwhile, some are sceptical about whether or not one can actually deduce terrorist intent from such cues.
The problem, he said, is that there is no science he is aware of that can produce the specificity or sensitivity to pick out a terrorist, let alone influence behavior. "We're still working at the level of how rats learn that light predicts food," he explained. "That's the level of modern neuroscience."
(via Boing Boing)
The latest peril in Australia: Aboriginal prisoners converting to militant Islam, and becoming potential terrorists; or so the federal government says, and would they lie about such important issues?
"We're worried (when) certain prisoners that are doing very long sentences, as an example, denounce their Aboriginality for Islam," he said. "We monitor them very closely ... To us they're not terrorists in the real sense but they talk the talk. So, if we had somebody who was recruiting in a prison ... we keep them away from people that might be susceptible to the conversion."Meanwhile, US air marshals, faced with insufficient likely terrorists to meet their quotas, have reportedly taken to adding innocent people to their watch lists to make up numbers:
The air marshals, whose identities are being concealed, told 7NEWS that they're required to submit at least one report a month. If they don't, there's no raise, no bonus, no awards and no special assignments.
"That could have serious impact ... They could be placed on a watch list. They could wind up on databases that identify them as potential terrorists or a threat to an aircraft. It could be very serious," said Don Strange, a former agent in charge of air marshals in Atlanta. He lost his job attempting to change policies inside the agency.
One example, according to air marshals, occurred on one flight leaving Las Vegas, when an unknowing passenger, most likely a tourist, was identified in an SDR for doing nothing more than taking a photo of the Las Vegas skyline as his plane rolled down the runway.
(via Boing Boing)
The Guardian's Timothy Garton Ash ponders the question of why America thinks of itself as at war, while Britain doesn't, despite having been attacked by terrorists more recently:
The evocation of war is omnipresent in the US. Turn on Fox News and you find a war veteran recounting his experiences on Hill 805 in Vietnam. At one point he says: "I had the privilege of storming the machine gun". The privilege. Walk into the Stanford University bookstore and you find a special display marked "Salute Our Heroes. 20% Off Select Patriotic Titles". Imagine that in your local Waterstone's.(Australian bookshops, meanwhile, have displays labelled "Salute Our Heroes. 20% Off Select Sports Titles"; but I digress.)
When I wrote in this column a few weeks ago about the conundrum of suicide-bombers, the eminent military historian Michael Howard dropped me a line to remind me that European soldiers had been sent into battle in the first world war with the message that there was no higher honour than to die for your country. Not to live, to fight, to kill for your country - to die for it. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. In this respect, conservative Americans are closer to the mental world of pre-1914 Europeans or ancient Romans than they are to that of most contemporary Europeans.
The Irish government has threatened to search all US aircraft landing on its airports after a manacled military prisoner was found on one such flight from Kuwait. This comes in the wake of the "extraordinary rendition" row. Of course, were this to happen, the US could just shift its refuelling to Britain; even if the British government were to do the same (which is unlikely, at least on Blair's watch), British police might not have the jurisdiction to search aircraft landing at US bases.
Meanwhile, new testimony about Howard Hughes' secret night flights to visit a prostitute with a diamond in her tooth looks set to reopen a lawsuit from a former petrol station attendant who claims that Hughes left him US$156M in his will.
Among the research projects being funded by the US military in the age of terrorism is sensors for identifying enemies by scent:
"Recent experimental results" show that chemical compounds in a mouse's "urinary" scent produces an "odortype" that's unique to each individual rodent, Darpa observes in its original solicitation for the project. "Although experimental data for humans is far less quantitative," the agency is hoping that a similarly "genetically determined," "exploitable chemosignal" can be found in people, too.
Once that marker is found, Darpa's proposed 2007 budget notes, the agency wants to know what "the impact of non-genetic factors (e.g., diet, stress, health, age) [have] on the signal." That could help figure out how to "robustly extract" the signal "from a complex and varied chemical background."This is by no means a new concept: the Stasi, the East German secret police, kept scent samples from known dissidents and suspects. Though the Stasi used an almost Victorian low-tech method (swabs of cloth in glass jars), whereas this, if it works, will take the technique into the 21st century, by digitising scent signatures. Then miniaturised sensors, dropped by the trillion from unmanned drones over Waziristan or Venezuela or whatever the future theatre of war may be, can not only phone home if they find Osama (or whatever enemy the state of the day—or, indeed, any non-governmental agency with the resources to deploy such a system—needs to hunt down), but report back on what he's been having for dinner and what state of health he's in.
Coupled with the sort of data-mining/pattern-matching that gives PNAC technocrats woodies, the possibilities are even broader. What if there are certain molecular aspects of one's smell signature that correlate with interesting aspects of one's ideological beliefs or behavioral tendencies (for example, whether one is a devout Wahhabi Muslim, or a vegetarian, or possessed of an unusually high sex drive or a propensity to anger). A fine mist of sensors could find potential jihadists before they ever strap on a bomb; as it could well find other people worth keeping an eye on, in the interests of national security, global stability, public order and/or the status quo. It's the old SubGenius idea of "whiffreading", updated for the post-1998 and post-9/11 Homeland Security Age.
(via Boing Boing)
It has emerged that the 7/7 suicide bombers acted alone, working from plans from the internet and financing their attacks themselves. There was no "fifth bomber", and as for the al-Qaeda fixer who indoctrinated them, instructed them in the finer points of bomb-making and flew out a few hours before the bombs went off, well, he didn't exist either.
The upshot of this, of course, is that it is possible for a small group of individuals with a few hundred pounds to make bombs and kill more than 50 people without any help whatsoever. And as long as there are pissed-off people with militant views and beliefs in a glorious afterlife, such things could happen again. As, indeed, could suicide-bomb-based high-school massacres and the like.
An interesting link from Momus: Market research firm Environics has conducted a survey of changing values in America, and come up with some disturbing conclusions. Over the past 12 years, their results show, the meta-values underlying American society have shifted away from engagement within society towards a paranoid, Hobbesian, every-man-for-himself world-view; this has fostered both libertinism and authoritarianism:
Looking at the data from 1992 to 2004, Shellenberger and Nordhaus found a country whose citizens are increasingly authoritarian while at the same time feeling evermore adrift, isolated, and nihilistic. They found a society at once more libertine and more puritanical than in the past, a society where solidarity among citizens was deteriorating, and, most worrisomely to them, a progressive clock that seemed to be unwinding backward on broad questions of social equity. Between 1992 and 2004, for example, the percentage of people who said they agree that the father of the family must be the master in his own house increased ten points, from 42 to 52 percent, in the 2,500-person Environics survey. The percentage agreeing that men are naturally superior to women increased from 30 percent to 40 percent. Meanwhile, the fraction that said they discussed local problems with people they knew plummeted from 66 percent to 39 percent. Survey respondents were also increasingly accepting of the value that violence is a normal part of life -- and that figure had doubled even before the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks.The research was done by plotting survey responses on a rectangular "values matrix", with two axes: authority-individuality and fulfilment-survival:
The quadrants represent different worldviews. On the top lies authority, an orientation that values traditional family, religiosity, emotional control, and obedience. On the bottom, the individuality orientation encompasses risk-taking, anomie-aimlessness, and the acceptance of flexible families and personal choice. On the right side of the scale are values that celebrate fulfillment, such as civic engagement, ecological concern, and empathy. On the left, theres a cluster of values representing the sense that life is a struggle for survival: acceptance of violence, a conviction that people get what they deserve in life, and civic apathy. These quadrants are not random: Shellenberger and Nordaus developed them based on an assessment of how likely it was that holders of certain values also held other values, or self-clustered.
Over the past dozen years, the arrows have started to point away from the fulfillment side of the scale, home to such values as gender parity and personal expression, to the survival quadrant, home to illiberal values such as sexism, fatalism, and a focus on every man for himself. Despite the increasing political power of the religious right, Environics found social values moving away from the authority end of the scale, with its emphasis on responsibility, duty, and tradition, to a more atomized, rage-filled outlook that values consumption, sexual permissiveness, and xenophobia. The trend was toward values in the individuality quadrant.(If I recall correctly, fulfilment and survival are at the two opposite extremes of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, with individuals whose survival needs are met progressing to focus on fulfilment needs. Could the reversion of the focus to survival be the result of respondents perceiving that their survival needs are threatened?)
On a related note: here is a PDF file of a presentation analysing British political opinions along similar lines, and finding that, while the old labels of "left" and "right" are less meaningful, opinions are divided along two axes: the Socialist-Free Market axis of economics and, more significantly, the "Axis of UKIP", which sorts respondents on their opinions on crime and international relations. At one end are the Daily Mail readers, who believe in isolationism and capital punishment, and on the other end are "chianti-swilling bleeding hearts" and cosmopolitanists. The centre of gravity is a little towards the UKIP end, which is why xenophobic, fear-mongering tabloids sell so well. The presentation also has diagrams of the distributions of positions by political affiliation and newspaper choice, with some interesting results.
Australia passes new terror laws, which will give the government the power to hold "terror suspects" without charge for 14 days and track them for up to a year. Given the Australian government's record, "terror suspects" presumably include Greenpeace banner-raisers, refugee advocates and anybody who has ever attended a demonstration or voiced an opinion critical of US foreign policy, at the government's discretion.
Eight years ago, a glamorous and fashionable if otherwise ordinary royal was instantly transformed into the closest thing to a secular saint by virtue of no longer being alive and mediocre. The Graun's Jonathan Freedland reflects on Diana's passing, not because she was a great historical figure, but because of the minor golden age her time in the limelight -- a gentler, more innocent, age, though we didn't realise it at the time -- represented:
And yet a larger thought is prompted by a look back to the summer of 1997 through the lens of 2005. Suddenly it seems clearer what the Diana era itself, the 1990s, was all about. It was hard to tell at the time, but now the 1990s have a definition as sharp as the swinging 60s or the greedy 80s. They were the no-worry 90s.
For, viewed from today, the 1990s look like a kind of holiday, a pause between two eras of anxiety and conflict. Just as Eric Hobsbawm defined the 19th century as stretching from 1789 to 1914, so we can take the same liberty: the 90s began with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and ended with the fall of the twin towers in 2001.
Never mind that both the old and new threats may be exaggerated, the danger felt and feels real. In the post-1945 era, we lived in fear of a third world war and a nuclear winter. In the post-9/11 era, we tremble at the prospect of suicide killers on a double-decker bus. Fear is the constant.
After all, what were the preoccupations of the time? In the US, the two largest national dramas of the decade were the OJ Simpson trial and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. One looks at that from today's vantage point with a warped kind of envy: lucky is the society so untroubled that it has nothing graver on its mind than two glorified soap operas.Or maybe so it seems in retrospect.
In 2003, the CIA found what it thought were al-Qaeda terrorist instructions encoded in the al-Jazeera news ticker. The "instructions" detected by the CIA's steganalysis software included dates, flight numbers and the coordinates of targets including the White House and the small town of Tappahannock, Virginia, and resulted in the national terror alert level being raised from "extra-severe" to "brown trouser time" and almost 30 flights being cancelled. That is, until it emerged that the "hidden messages" were just the result of random noise, coincidence and the human pattern-finding instinct:
The problem with hunting messages hidden by steganography is that there are so few of them, any computer program will come up with false positives - messages that aren't really there. "The false positive rate, even if it's vanishingly small, starts to throw signals at you that makes you want to believe you're seeing messages. And somebody could be fooled by that if they didn't understand the nature of steganography," says Honeyman.This happened some time after it was discovered that al-Qaeda weren't hiding terrorist instructions in images on internet porn sites.
Hanif Kureishi, author of The Black Album (a book touching on Muslim radicalism in Britain at the time of the Satanic Verses fatwa), on the growth of radicalism among British Muslims:
The mosques I visited, in Whitechapel and Shepherd's Bush, were nothing like any church I'd attended. The scenes, to me, were extraordinary, and I was eager to capture them in my novel. There would be passionate orators haranguing a group of people sitting on the floor. One demagogue would replace another, of course, but the "preaching" went on continuously, as listeners of all races came and went. I doubt whether you'd see anything like this now, but there would be diatribes against the west, Jews and - their favourite subject - homosexuals.
Sometimes I would be invited to the homes of these young "fundamentalists". One of them had a similar background to my own: his mother was English, his father a Muslim, and he'd been brought up in a quiet suburb. Now he was married to a woman from Yemen who spoke no English. Bringing us tea, she came into the room backwards, and bent over too, out of respect for the men. The men would talk to me of "going to train" in various places, but they seemed so weedy and polite, I couldn't believe they'd want to kill anyone.
I found these sessions so intellectually stultifying and claustrophobic that at the end I'd rush into the nearest pub and drink rapidly, wanting to reassure myself I was still in England. It is not only in the mosques but also in so-called "faith" schools that such ideas are propagated. The Blair government, while attempting to rid us of radical clerics, has pledged to set up more of these schools, as though a "moderate" closed system is completely different to an "extreme" one. This might suit Blair and Bush. A benighted, ignorant enemy, incapable of independent thought, and terrified of criticism, is easily patronised.Meanwhile, the Graun's Jonathan Freedland suggests that the reason that second-generation British Muslims are embracing radicalism in large numbers has to do with the lack of a US-style sense of national identity; apparently, British culture is too self-deprecating and embarrassed of itself to hold much appeal or command much loyalty, and the vacuum is filled with radical Islamism and such; consequently, if Britain is to assimilate people from different cultures peacefully and cohesively, it needs a new sense of national pride.
Though wouldn't anything even remotely redolent of earnest national pride, let alone the sort of chest-beating God-Bless-America-Fuck-Yeah-We're-Number-One Stars-and-Stripes-on-your-Hummer triumphalism that exists in the US, be fundamentally un-British? I can't imagine the Britons of today festooning their Vauxhall Corsas and row houses with enormous Union Jacks and declaiming, in all earnestness, that their national destiny is ordained by God. This may have been otherwise at the height of the British Empire; after all, it was the British who coined the word "jingoism"; and as for God-given manifest destiny, Britain came up with Anglo-Israelitism, the ideology that the English are God's true chosen people. These days, however, that sort of thing comes across as a bit naff.
Londoners probably shouldn't relax too soon, if The Times' claim that a third terror cell is poised to strike are correct. The claims apparently come from a Special Branch conference at Scotland Yard, though elsewhere, the authorities have been downplaying them. In any case, this matter is far from over, and it may take months to find those behind the bombings. The fact that one of them managed to slip through the net and leave the country a few days after the alarm was raised doesn't raise one's confidence.
In other news: it emerges that the Oval bomber tried to have an imam sacked for being too moderate, and the bomber held in Rome tells all to an Italian newspaper, claiming that they only planned a "demonstration attack" and didn't intend to kill anyone; perhaps his handlers told him that the backpack he was carrying contained a large red flag with "BANG!" printed on it or something? Meanwhile, the youth wing of a mainstream UK Muslim group is calling for jihad against the infidels (i.e., us), and details are emerging about the psychology of the failed suicide bombers. And if there's one phrase that says "loser in the game of life", it would be "failed suicide bomber":
Elie Godsi, a consultant clinical psychologist, says that there is a huge stigma attached to terrorists who fail which means they are unable to return to their communities.
"There is a great deal of stigma in having not succeeded," said the forensic psychologist from the University of Nottingham and author of Making Sense of Madness and Badness. "They will regroup and try again or try to take their own lives."
All four July 21 bombing suspects have been captured; two were taken down, using SAS tactics, in Notting Hill (just off Portobello Road) and Kensington, and a third was nabbed by Italian anti-terrorism units in Rome (perhaps he was going to hook up with the Grey Wolves, who apparently maintain a presence in the Eternal City and have connections to Islamist radical groups?). And then there's the alleged mastermind, who has been picked up in Zambia; the US also want him, so he may well end up in Gitmo or farmed out to the Syrians or someone for "extraordinary rendition"; couldn't happen to a nicer guy...
The police have announced that the investigation and the threat are far from over, and that the assumption is that there may be other suicide teams and/or cells at large. Quite a few other people have been arrested, and the authorities are still appealing for information.
It's a mind-game being played out all over the Tube network, and indeed on many trains and buses throughout the country. It's performed in silence, with people unsure of their neighbours' motives and guilty about their own feelings of suspicion.
Even though people say little when they're travelling, there's plenty going on inside - fears of danger, changed routes, calculations to avoid risks, guilt at making stereotypical assumptions, anger at being unfairly distrusted.
"I do not take my rucksack to work anymore, which had my lunch and work shirt. I would rather wear a dirty shirt left at work than be looked at suspiciously. I also wear a T-shirt to work now, as I am afraid to wear too much, after the shooting," he writes.
"As I got on the tube with my rucksack, a fellow passenger saw me, waited a second then got up, to wait on the platform for the next train," writes Dev.South Asian and Middle Eastern-looking commuters with large bags, as one might imagine, are feeling the brunt of the distrust:
Marcus, who says his family are Greek-Cypriot, has devised a strategy to avoid "odd looks" on the Tube (which he attributes to his Mediterranean appearance). To make himself seem non-threatening, he now wears a Make Poverty History wristband and makes a point of reading the Economist.
I can't avoid carrying a big rucksack with my mobile office in when I travel. As I'm an Asian male that's been getting suspicious looks, I've taken to carrying a bottle of wine as if I'm taking it home for dinner. It's ironic, I don't even like wine, but it's a clear visual symbol that says I'm not a fanatic Islamic bomber.
Of course, now that the secret's out, the next crop of suicide bombers could well be queueing up for Make Poverty History armbands, wine bottles and other non-threatening-looking props.
There are also people who have stopped wearing their MP3 players or iPods because of worries about trailing wires or not hearing orders from the police.
Though, OTOH, one of the original bombing victims reportedly retained her hearing because of the iPod earphones she was wearing shielding her ears (and her life because the laptop on her back took the brunt of the blast). Perhaps Apple should use her in an ad campaign?
In 1987, the Hawke government tried, and failed, to push through its national ID card, the Australia Card. Now it looks like the Howard government is considering reviving it:
Mr Howard vigorously campaigned against the Australia Card proposal which was raised in 1987, but today he said times had changed. "That's 18 years ago and it may well be that circumstances have changed."The Tories haven't decided on whether to adopt a national ID card (or, at least, so they say), but if they do, they will be able to get it through parliament, given that (with Australian's rigid party discipline) both houses of parliament are essentially rubber stamps for the Liberal/National Party caucus. Whether or not it would survive mass civil disobedience (the threat of which was instrumental in sinking the original Australia Card).
It has been confirmed that the tube bombings were carried out by British-born suicide bombers. This is something pretty much everyone was hoping not to hear: for one, it is next to impossible to defend against suicide bombers (the admonitions to look out for unaccompanied bags are, of course, useless; meanwhile, some claim that the body-scanning machines to be installed on the Tube at massive expense will only provide suicide bombers with long queues to blow themselves up near). In Israel, they have metal detectors and explosive detectors everywhere (you can't enter a reasonable-sized public space without being scanned), and that doesn't seem to have stemmed the tide of carnage. And guess what: we're all Israelis now.
The fact that the bombers were British-born, showed no sign of association with Islamist extremists, and were known, among other things, to good-naturedly play cricket at a local club in Leeds is even more chilling. It can't be good for relations between Britain's Islamic communities and the rest of the country; already, those neo-Nazi hatemongers, the British National Party, have been making hay from the tragedy.
A comparison of US and British media's responses to domestic terrorist acts:
Right this minute, on the BBC World service: a lengthy report on humanitarian efforts in Africa. No news crawl. If you didn't know the London bombings had happened already, you wouldn't even know.
Right this minute, on CNN International: a lengthy report on anti-terrorism efforts in other countries, so far specifically framed as a series of successful trades: decreasing freedom for increasing surveillance, with greater security supposedly as the net result. Along the bottom, a news crawl repeats bombing-related headlines constantly.
One of these things is not like the other. One is constant, constant fear-pandering. The other -- from the country that actually suffered the bombings, no less -- is still reporting something resembling actual news, with something resembling a dose of actual perspective.Then again, don't Britain's commercial news providers (Murdoch's Sky News) push the fear angle hard as well, mostly because that's what gets the eyeballs? Or is it a matter of (a) the American public being fear junkies, or (b) the US media being in the service of neocons (and/or reptilian aliens that psychically feed off fear), in whose interests it is that the population is kept terrified?
A related thought: if Britain was like America, we'd probably have Dannii Minogue singing Rule Britannia (and/or God Save The Queen, complete with the jingoistic third verse -- "confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks, on Thee our hopes we fix") at a star-studded gala right now.
Police evacuate the centre of Birmingham, following a security alert. Perhaps this means that it's not Islamists but Smiths fans behind the attacks.
Two academics from Victoria's Deakin University have published a paper calling for torture to be legalised to help fight terrorism. Not that there's much new in this (celebrated US lawyer Alan Dershowitz argued a similar point in his call for "torture warrants" some years ago), except perhaps for the extreme utilitarian stance they take, advocating even the torturing to death of innocents if the ends justify it:
Asked if he believed interrogators should be able to legally torture an innocent person to death if they had evidence the person knew about a major public threat, such as the September 11 attacks, Professor Bagaric replied: "Yes, you could."
Applying utilitarian cost-benefit calculations to matters of human lives is tricky; taking the strict numerical approach, it should be OK to kill an innocent person to harvest their kidneys if it would save the lives of two terminally ill patients; after all, the net gain is one life. Of course, Bagaric and Clarke are not asserting such an absolute a-life-for-a-life arithmetic, though by allowing the killing of the innocent to save others, they are crossing a line towards it. And that is not even looking at the question of whether torture works (the value of testimony obtained under torture has been somewhat dubious).
Anyway, I suspect that Bagaric and Clarke's law lectures are probably going to become a lot less quiet.
In Melbourne, a 15-year-old boy with an obsession with trams stole a tram from a depot and took it for a ride, picking up passengers along the way. He got all the way from Southbank depot to Kew. Somewhat reminiscent of Malcolm, except for the SWAT-team tactics the police used to take him down. Of course, things have changed a lot since 1986, and for all they know, he could have been an al-Qaeda terrorist planning to load the tram up with sarin and dirty bombs and blow it up at a football match or something.
This, of course, isn't the first time an obsessive anorak borrowed a public transport vehicle and took it for a spin; not that long ago, a man in New York was jailed for impersonating subway drivers.
Former White House anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke presents a frighteningly plausible scenario of the war on terrorism in 2001:
The US Government had predicted that future attacks, if they came, would likely be on financial institutions, noting that Osama bin Laden had issued instructions to destroy the US economy. Thus when the casinos were attacked, it was a surprise. It shouldn't have been; we knew that Las Vegas had been under surveillance by al-Qaeda since at least 2001. Despite that knowledge, casino owners had done little to increase security, not wanting to slow people down on their way into the city's pleasure palaces. Theme park owners were also locked into a pre-9/11, "it can't happen here" mindset, and consequently were caught off guard, as New Yorkers and Washingtonians had been in 2001. The first post-9/11 attacks on US soil came not from airplanes but from backpacks and Winnebagos. They were aimed at places where we used to have fun, what we then called "vacation destinations". These places were particularly hard to defend.
On this day neither the 160 security cameras surveying the mall nor the 150 safety officers guarding it were able to detect, deter or defend against the terrorists. Four men, disguised as private mall security officers and armed with TEC-9 submachine guns, street-sweeper 12-gauge shotguns and dynamite, entered the mall at two points and began executing shoppers at will. It had not been hard for the terrorists to buy all their guns legally, in six different states across the Midwest.
Most analysts now agree that Subway Day and Railroad Day not only caused the Senate filibuster to end, permitting the passage of Patriot Act III, but also finally triggered the withdrawal of some 40,000 troops from Iraq. The army was needed in the subways.
When Canada refused to allow US nuke squads to conduct warrantless searches at customs stations on the Canadian side of the border, we built the Northern Wall, which channelled trucks and freight trains to a limited number of monitored border crossings. Barbed wire, radar installations, and thousands of security workers made our border with Canada resemble our border with Mexico.
By the end of the story, terrorism abates (as the jihadis are too busy running what used to be Iraq and Saudi Arabia), though the US is an impoverished police state. Clarke paints this grim future as the result of several errors of judgment: invading Iraq (which simultaneously wasted resources and helped recruit many towards the anti-US jihad), failure to engage the Islamic world with ideas and not investing enough in becoming independent of Middle Eastern oil.
And America's transformation into the Soviet Union moves forward one step, with American Airlines requiring visitors to supply lists of people they would be staying with whilst in the US, and claiming it's a TSA regulation. (via bOING bOING)
Britain's Home Office, still reeling from the Blunkett scandal, has been dealt a fresh blow when the Law Lords ruled that indefinite detention without trial of terrorist suspects is unlawful, by an 8-to-1 majority. The government is to review its options.
I wonder whether they thought of taking a leaf out of the US's book and moving the detainees outside of Britain proper. The few remaining fragments of the British Empire could lend themselves to small-scale, high-security penal colonies, sufficiently inaccessible to add to their security. Possible locations for a British Guantanamo could include:
- Diego Garcia; an island in the Indian Ocean, forcibly depopulated in the 1960s and now leased to the US as a military base. An agreement could possibly be reached with the US to establish a high-security prison facility there. In fact, the US is rumoured to already have such facilities there.
- Saint Helena, for the historical resonance.
- Pitcairn Island; it could do with publicity for something other than sexual abuse.
Of course, Britain doesn't have as free a hand with extraterritorial penal facilities as the US does, because of that meddlesome European Convention on Human Rights (which, a court has found, even applies to British troops in Iraq), which could complicate these options. Though if, as claimed, the detainees are foreign nationals with no right to residency in Britain, they could possibly be handed off to a compliant foreign government to look after. The US would be a good choice (they have the facilities, after all), though other members of the Coalition of Willing could be looked at. Australia, for example, could repurpose some of its extraterritorial refugee holding centres.
The US's most highly decorated soldier, David Hackworth, argues that, despite denials from the Pentagon, a return of the draft is inevitable:
Clearly, this war against worldwide, hardcore Islamic believers will be a massive military marathon, the longest and most far-flung in our country's history. By Christmas, more troops could be needed not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but wherever the radical Islamic movement is growing stronger, from the Horn of Africa to Morocco, Kenya, Somalia, Yemen and across Europe -- remember Spain?! -- to Asia. Accordingly, we need to bring our ground-fighting and support units to about the strength they were before the Soviet Union imploded, especially since the proper ratio of counterinsurgent-to-insurgent in places like the Middle East should be around 15 to 1. You don't have to be a Ph.D. in military personnel to conclude we need more boots on the ground.
I led draftees for almost four years in Vietnam and for several years during the Korean War. If well-led, there are no finer soldiers. Ask the Nazis, the Japanese and the Reds in Korea and in Vietnam, where "no value" draftees cleaned their clocks in fight after fight. Israel, a country that has lived under the barrel of the Islamic terrorist gun for decades, has the most combat-experienced counterinsurgent force in the world -- and boy and girl draftees are its major resource.
To which, Counter Spin adds the suggestion that, when the US reintroduces the draft, a re-elected Coalition government will follow suit in Australia.
A few pieces of good news: Microsoft's claimed patents on the FAT filesystem have been shot down, thanks to a challenge from the Public Patent Foundation.. As such, that ugly, inefficient throwback to the days of CP/M and 100Kb floppies that, nonetheless, has become the universal standard for storing files on everything from digital camera memory cards to MP3 players is free for anyone to use without having to pay a cent. With any luck, it's not the last overbroad software patent to go down in flames. Meanwhile, in Europe (where US multinationals are doing their all to push software-patent legislation through Parliament), Munich is pressing ahead with dumping Windows for Linux, despite claims that Linux violates loads of software patents and is a massive legal liability. Finally, in the US, part of the Patriot Act has been struck down as unconstitutional.
An airliner headed from London to Washington was recently diverted to Bangor, Maine, so that former folk singer Yusuf Islam could be removed and deported. Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens and currently an outspoken moderate Muslim, is apparently on the US Department of Homeland Security's blacklist of potential terrorists. Laziness and bigotry, or do the DHS know something we don't about Yusuf Islam?
While on the subject of blacklists, millions of Americans (predominantly blacks and those from lower socioeconomic strata) are still being barred or discouraged from voting. This ranges from laws in ex-Confederate states preventing those with criminal convictions from ever voting to official letters intimidating those likely to have outstanding bills with the threat of arrest.
Rock musician questioned for possible terrorist involvement after texting a Clash lyric to the wrong person. Mike Devine, from the Clash cover band London Calling, intended to send lyrics from Tommy Gun to the singer, though sent them to a wrong number, and someone uninitiated with the punk rock band's canon found on their phone a message reading "How about this for Tommy Gun? OK - so let's agree about the price and make it one jet airliner for 10 prisoners.", became alarmed and called the police.
How much is your life worth? Well, if you're American or British (what, no Australians?), Al-Qaeda have allegedly offered to pay 1kg of gold to whoever kills you. I wonder what restrictions there are on claiming this; i.e., if you're suicidally despondent over your family's financial problems, could you off yourself and claim the gold for your next of kin? (Be sure to thank your political leaders in your suicide note for making it possible.)
British authorities are recruiting aviation buffs to look out for terrorists and other suspicious activities. Under the scheme, "plane spotters", one of Britain's indigenous eccentric subcultures, will be issued with identity cards and a code of conduct. Plans to use Britain's vast armies of trainspotters to guard against terrorism on the railways and station platforms have not yet been announced.
Germany's Federal Environment Ministry are considering fitting nuclear power stations with powerful smoke machines, which can be activated to quickly generate thick fog and hide the station from airborne terrorist attacks. Of course, if the aircraft isn't piloted by terrorists, the fog could cause an accident.
(Maybe they'll install one of those permanently next to the Whitehouse? That'll make for some interesting postcards; the symbolic seat of global US hegemony shrowded in foreboding black mists as if it were in the depths of Mordor or somewhere.)
Not all terrorists carry almanacs; some prefer copies of Microsoft Flight Simulator.
Some believe that al-Qaeda doesn't exist, and that the highly organised global terror network is a myth made up by Western officials:
'Bin Laden never used the term al-Qaeda prior to 9/11', Dolnik tells me. 'Nor am I aware of the name being used by operatives on trial. The closest they came were in statements such as, "Yes, I am a member of what you call al-Qaeda". The only name used by al-Qaeda themselves was the World Islamic Front for the Struggle Against Jews and Crusaders - but I guess that's too long to really stick.'
Having given bin Laden and his henchmen a name, Western officials then proceeded to exaggerate their threat. 'In the quest to define the enemy, the US and its allies have helped to blow it out of proportion', wrote Dolnik and Kimberly McCloud of the Monterey Institute in 2002. They pointed out that after 1998, US officials began distributing posters and matchboxes featuring bin Laden's face and a reward for his capture around the Middle East and Central Asia - a process that 'transformed this little-known jihadist into a household name and, in some places, a symbol of heroic defiance'
See also: locally-printed "Osama Bin Laden World Hero" T-shirts selling like hotcakes in markets all over the Islamosphere.
In fact, I have been wondering whether or not, within a decade, "al-Qaeda" will morph into an umbrella term for any resistance to neo-liberalism/globalisation/capitalism/The Man, with Latin American (non-Islamic) qaedistas waging guerilla war against US-installed authoritarian governments and right-wing death squads, whilst their French comrades torch McDonalds restaurants, and dreadlocked Nu Marxists all over McWorld replace their Che T-shirts with Osama ones.
According to Dolnik: 'In a world where one email sent to a news agency translates into a headline stating that al-Qaeda was behind even the blackouts in Italy and the USA, anyone can claim to be al-Qaeda - not only groups but also individuals'.
Sajid Badat, the 24-year-old student arrested by British police in Gloucester yesterday, on suspicion of planning to carry out a terrorist attack, was immediately referred to in media reports as a 'suicide bomber' and 'al-Qaeda terrorist' - after it was revealed that he had boasted to college mates and neighbours: 'I'm in al-Qaeda.' Whatever the truth of the allegations against him, however, it is clear that anybody can make an impact today by claiming a link to the largely mythical al-Qaeda.
Jimmy Cauty's follow-up to his Queen-in-a-gas-mask postage stamp: images of Big Ben exploding like the World Trade Center, labelled "5-11" after the date of Guy Fawkes' Day. The images have triggered widespread public outrage on behalf of 9/11 victims:
Gareth Glover, who helped set up the Robert Eaton Memorial Fund, told the Brighton Argus newspaper: "The images are very cheap and highly insensitive. In my opinion they should be treated with the contempt they deserve."
Cauty's defense is that the images are Tackling Uncomfortable Issues.
Mr Cauty said: "Any uncomfortable reaction to this new artwork may reflect the proximity of the subject. If Blacksmoke 5-11 depicted the government buildings in Baghdad or Kabul, would we pay attention? The war on terrorism starts here."
I wonder what the outraged citizens make of all those computer-generated animations of Big Ben blowing up that were all the rage in action films some years earlier.
(A word of advice to Mr. Cauty: if you wish to avoid public outrage, spraypaint your art pseudonymously on a wall. Nobody expects Banksy to steer away from subject matter verging on the obnoxious (i.e., his stencil of Auschwitz victims wearing lipstick). Come to think of it, could Banksy and Jimmy Cauty be one and the same? The Queen-in-a-gas-mask piece did look somewhat Banksyesque.)
If you can read this, then we're back. A routine machine relocation didn't go quite to plan, but it's all fixed now (hopefully).
And below is the backlog of blog items that didn't get posted to The Null Device over the past few days:
- Your tax dollars at work: A US spy agency as been monitoring webcams at an Islay distillery, just in case they were making chemical weapons instead of whisky. Defense Threat Reduction Agency officials stressed that monitoring Scottish distilleries was not a high priority, but stated that it would take just a "tweak" to modify the whisky-making process to produce chemical weapons. (Hmmm; that suggests some interesting near-future scenarios for potential flashpoints between the United States of America and Britain and a rogue People's Republic of Scotland.)
- An interesting paper on the design of the Google File System, a custom file system optimised for storing huge (multi-gigabyte) files on large farms of fault-prone hardware. (via bOING bOING)
- The latest fad in baby naming in the U.S. involved naming your children after your favourite brands of consumer goods. Looks like Max Barry wasn't all that far off: (via Techdirt)
"His daddy insisted on it because Timberlands were the pride of his wardrobe. The alternative was Reebok," said the 32-year-old nurse, who is now divorced. "I wanted Kevin."
This is only the latest chapter in the boom of giving children unique names.
According to the most recent census, at least 10,000 different names are now in use, two-thirds of which were largely unknown before World War II.
- "We're Gonna Get You After School!" Gibson's Law applies to playground mob psychology, with kids setting up websites and blogs to call their classmates names. This way, technology may be said to have democratised bullying, as it's no longer the musclebound alpha-jocks and the popular rich girls who have a monopoly on making others' lives miserable. (via TechDirt)
One 12-year-old blogger, writing on the popular Angelfire Web site, recently announced she would devote her page to "anyone and everyone i hate and why." She minced no words. "erin used to be aka miss perfect. too bad now u r a train face. hahaha. god did that to u since u r such a b -- . ashley stop acting like a slut wannabe. lauren u fat b -- can't even go out at night w/ ur friends. . . . and laurinda u suck u god damn flat, weird voice, skinny as a stick b -- ."
The author of the article calls for the use of "parental control devices" to stamp out "social cruelty", much in the way that filters have been used to stop pornography. Which sounds more like it would strip those kids put upon by the alpha-jocks/princesses of their online support networks of fellow outsiders.
- More on the internet's impact on human interaction: Internet chat addiction can stunt social skills in introverted adolescents, says a researcher in "social administration". Dr. Mubarak Rahamathulla says that research suggests that chat rooms have contributed to some teenagers fearing conventional social interaction, and becoming more dependent on anonymity or pseudonymity. However, he says, webcams may be a safe, healthy way for to explore their sexuality. Perhaps the future belongs to asocial chatroom onanists, who are into anything as long as it doesn't involve actual human contact?
- The AT&T text-to-speech demo site now has two British voices; the male one sounds somewhat deranged, as if having at some time in the past eaten some BSE-contaminated beef. (via kineticfactory)
- A company is now selling licensed arcade ROMs for MAME. StarROMs currently have a few dozen titles, all from Atari, but plan to have more; games cost between US$2 and US$6 per title, and all are unencrypted ROM images suitable for MAME, with no DRM chicanery to be seen. Let's hope this idea catches on.
- Transcosmopolitan, or Spider Jerusalem's stint as features writer for a women's lifestyle magazine. (via Warren Ellis' LiveJournal comments)
Naomi Klein on how the War on Terror has become a universal tool for smashing dissent, with everyone from unassimilated ethnic minorities to trade unionists becoming terrorists-by-association, and thus exempt from pesky human-rights considerations:
[Spanish PM] Aznar has resisted calls to negotiate with the Basque autonomous government and banned the political party Batasuna (even though, as the New York Times noted in June, "no direct link has been established between Batasuna and terrorist acts"). He has also shut down Basque human rights groups, magazines and the only entirely Basque-language newspaper. Last February, the Spanish police raided the Association of Basque Middle Schools, accusing it of having terrorist ties.
So Basque separatists are all tarred with the brush of terrorism now? I wonder whether we'll see Tony Blair or one of his successors cracking down on Plaid Cymru or the Scottish National Party in this fashion. Those pesky Welsh-speakers are probably all up to something...
Post-September 11, the [Indonesian] government cast Aceh's movement for national liberation as "terrorist" - which means human rights concerns no longer apply. Rizal Mallarangeng, a senior adviser to Megawati, called it the "blessing of September 11".
And then those who practice that most heinous form of economic terrorism, trying to sabotage the efficiency of export processing zones by agitating for workers' rights:
Last August, speaking to soldiers at a military academy, [Philippine president] Arroyo extended the war beyond terrorists and armed separatists to include "those who terrorise factories that provide jobs" - clear code for trade unions. Labour groups in Philippine free trade zones report that union organisers are facing increased threats, and strikes are being broken up with extreme police violence.
The Spanish troops sent to patrol Iraq are wearing the symbol of an anti-Moorish crusader. Spain's 2,000-strong contribution to Truth, Justice and Cheap SUV Fuel wear on their shoulders the Cross of St. James of Compostella, popularly known as "Matamoros" or "the Moor killer" for his role in the Christian reconquest of Moorish spain. The troops will patrol the sacred Shia city of Najaf.
Stupidity, or a calculated "fuck you" to the Islamic world? Perhaps someone in charge wants to foment anti-Western resentment in the Islamosphere, for some reason or other; like keeping McWorld in a permanent (and profitable) state of siege? (via Anthony)
After an Intel engineer pleaded guilty to terrorism charges for (donating to the wrong charity/taking up arms alongside the Taliban), Ian Clarke, inventor of the anonymous peer-to-peer filesharing program Freenet, has announced his intention to leave the US:
As an Irish citizen living in the US - I have decided that it is time to leave this country - it is starting to look, smell, and act as Germany did during the 1930s. I wish you Americans luck in regaining civilized justice in your broken country, if not, I hope that the EU will be accepting of political refugees from this brave but failed experiment.
Paranoia, common sense, or somewhere in between? Meanwhile, the Slashdot replies are divided between the usual poorly-spelled "good riddance traitor scum/the Irish are all drunken cowards who supported Hitler" flamage and "USA sucks/Bush is a moron" counter-flames.
Funny how for the FOXNews-following Patriot Pack, it's pretty much an article of faith that Hamidi took up arms alongside the Taliban against the U.S., whereas the goddamnliberals asert that he was railroaded for (a) being Middle-Eastern and (b) doing insufficient research before donating to a charity.
Man questioned by FBI for reading a critique of corporate media domination; apparently, no true patriotic American would ever read such
commie terrorist propaganda; or at least anybody with a suspiciously Islamic-looking beard who is concerned about Murdoch's media hegemony is a potential threat to national security. The offending article may be found here.
Recently aircraft were banned from the skies above Disneyland, to prevent terrorists from striking America in its heart (and to prevent competitors from advertising to its customers; one of the profitable side-effects of the War On Terror). Now Christian Fundamentalist groups are suing to have the ban lifted on Gay Days, allowing them to overfly the park with giant banners condemning homosexuality. Words fail me. (via MeFi)
A fine old British tradition is falling foul of post-9/11 paranoia: as Greater America turns itself into the Soviet Union in the name of defending liberty, trainspotters are increasingly being harrassed by the authorities. The rationale is that terrorists could be disguising themselves as trainspotters, photographing infrastructure and taking notes on train movements to plan devastating attacks.
Others have alleged various forms of unpleasant treatment, including being frogmarched from the platform and yelled at over the public address system. One 15-year-old was seen having the film taken out of his camera.
"A couple of readers have described how Britain is beginning to look like the eastern Europe of old when taking a camera out of a bag was a dangerous thing to do. It is very sad that it has come to this. It is a total over-reaction by the authorities."
Mind you, not all railway companies are cracking down on trainspotters; some station operators are urging spotters to register their names at stations (and presumably fill in a form which says "I am a terrorist [ ] Yes [ ] No" or something), so as to avoid misunderstandings. Perhaps we can see a National Trainspotter ID Card system out of this, or even a Patriotic Trainspotters' Union, sworn to keep an eye out for suspicious activities as they sit on the platform with notebook and thermos of tea?
Another sign of the rising culture of militarism in America? First toy soldiers started appearing in easter egg baskets, and now online merchandise emporium CafePress are offering printable teddy bears in military uniform:
And they're available in "Army Green" and "Marine Camouflage", and printable with your message of choice.
U.S. officials complain about Canada's human rights. That's right, not "human rights abuses" (which are only a bad thing if the other party has oil and isn't willing to share), but human rights. Canada has too many civil liberties to effectively pull its weight in the War On Terrorism. The U.S. has also singled out Canada's plan to decriminalise marijuana, as something that will have Serious Consequences if it goes ahead. Clearly the Canadians have abused their sovereignty, and if they continue to do so, their sovereignty may, by the rules of the Rumsfeld Doctrine, be forfeit.
On a similar theme, Little Johnny's loyalty to Washington has paid off, with Uncle George offering him a "free trade deal" between Australia and the U.S., agribusiness lobbyists permitting. Mind you, one aspect of the treaty will involve harmonisation of "intellectual property" laws, which will be bad for both sides. It's not just the matter of Australia's copyright laws being co-written by Jack Valenti and things which inconvenience Big Copyright becoming crimes in Australia; Americans stand to lose when their politicians decide to amend the DMCA and realise that they can't because international treaties prevent them. Closer to home, one effect of the "free trade" treaty's copyright provisions is likely to be a ban on multi-region DVD players and "mod chips", neatly sidestepping Alan Fels' attacks on DVD region coding.
After 9/11, governments quickly pulled formerly public information and restricted areas of scientific publication to keep them out of the hands of terrorists. Now DARPA, the US Department of Defense's research funding body has cancelled funding for OpenBSD security research because open-source software could help terrorist nation-states. Is this an isolated incident, or the start of a governmental purge of open standards and open-source software, and the start of a "national security"-driven shift towards proprietary standards kept on a strict need-to-know basis? After all, if Cisco, Microsoft and TRW hold the keys, the reasoning goes, Saddam Bin Laden can't use the technology to kill us. And replacing publically documented standards and open-source software with secret black-box technologies has numerous other advantages, from surveillance hooks to catch more terrorists, paedophiles, tax cheats and miscellaneous troublemakers to tremendous "peace dividends" such as end-to-end copyright enforcement and whistleblower-proof rights management for documents; not to mention handsome dividends for the shareholders of the keepers of the keys.
Eliot of FmH is back, and has a raft of links about the present cock-up in Iraq, which is apparently not going as swimmingly as CNN and FauxNews would have you believe. (Of course, that could all be liberal lies, and the newly-liberated Iraqis could be welcoming Our Boys right now with a tickertape parade, though somehow I doubt it.)
So the war appears not to be about weapons of mass destruction, or indeed Saddam's complicity in 9/11; and if a LATimes piece is to be believed, it's not about making Iraq a democracy either, but rather about making the U.S. less of one:
Our opposition party has disappeared, corporate interests dictate public policy, and the feds may be rummaging through your e-mail.
If you don't earn enough to hit the jackpot on President Bush's proposed tax cuts, you're just going to have to fend for yourself. The whole idea is to train you to expect less and to feel patriotic about it.
And, via bOINGbOING, Dan Gillmor on why the liberties curtailed in the war may not return:
Even if America somehow persuades all Islamic radicals that we are a good and just society, there will still be some evil and deranged people who will try to wreck things and lives in spectacular ways. In other words, the ``war on terrorism'' can't possibly end.
Moreover, the architecture of tomorrow is being embedded with the tools of a surveillance society: ubiquitous cameras; the creation and linking of all manner of databases; insecure networks; and policies that invite abuse. They are being put into place by an unholy, if loose, alliance of government, private industry and just plain nosy regular folks.
Lugubrious Montréal postrock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor, known for their left-wing views and disdain for U.S. foreign policy, detained as suspected terrorists at Oklahoma petrol station. An attendant became suspicious and called the police, and soon enough they were surrounded by heavily-armed FBI agents.
"I just feel very lucky that we weren't Pakistani or Korean," Godspeed You! Black Emperor frontman Efrim Menuck told Pitchfork at the band's Chicago performance on Friday night. "They detained 1,000 people in California, no one knows what happened to them. We're just lucky we're nice white kids from Canada. That's what I feel lucky about."
This is apparently not the first time they have been harassed by The Man. Though, with incendiary albums like Yanqui UXO, it's not really surprising. (via Rocknerd)
Welcome to the Bush Era: In the U.S., Plastic figurines of soldiers replace chocolate rabbits in Easter baskets.
At the Astor Place Kmart, the encampment is on display just inside the main entrance. A camouflaged sandy-haired soldier with an American-flag arm patch stands alert in a teal, pink, and yellow basket beneath a pretty green-and-purple bow. Within a doll-arm's reach are a machine gun, rifle, hand grenade, large knife, pistol, and round of ammunition. In the next basket a buzz-cut blond with a snazzy dress uniform hawks over homeland security, an American eagle shield on his arm, and a machine gun, pistol, Bowie knife, two grenades, truncheon, and handcuffs at the ready.
Easter provides a way for makers of generic troops to capitalize on the trend. Unlike superhero dolls, war toys don't come with costly trademarks attached. That lowers the bar to entry for small manufacturers, today typically Chinese. That industry has followed confectioners to transform Easter into the second-largest selling season, Rice says.
(via bOING bOING)
Just the thing to wear for when Osama comes to take out the mall: Mickey Mouse gas masks. Originally designed for children during World War 2, perhaps we can expect them to return to shops in a few terrorist alerts' time. Though perhaps this day we'd be more likely to see Hello Kitty or Jar-Jar Binks gas masks. (via bOING bOING)
An interesting WIRED article about E-Gold, an anonymous, gold-based online payment system which can be used to buy everything from EFF memberships to ammunition to cheap books and flag-burning kits (not to mention shares in pyramid schemes and online gambling). It has a related denomination called the E-Dinar, based on an Islamic gold standard defined in the Koran, and for all the anarcho-libertarian kudos it gets, it owes its existence to a radical Islamic sufi sect sworn to the cause of eliminating the evil of paper currency and destroying capitalism:
E-dinar's British COO, Yahya Cattanach, and his family share a communal condo with Castiñeira in the comfortable Jumeirah district of Dubai. The company's Spanish president, Umar Ibrahim Vadillo, is also the president of the Islamic Mint. And finally, uniting all three men - as well as e-dinar's Swiss CEO, Malaysian CFO, and German CTO - is one crucial biographical datum: All are high-placed members of the Murabitun movement, a modern, Western offshoot of Sufi Islam and possibly the only religious sect in history whose defining article of faith is a financial theory.
A global gold-backed Islamic currency may not be so far-fetched. Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad (best known for berating Australia for its racist commitment to pluralism and intolerance of "Asian values" and such, and denouncing currency trading as a Jewish plot to destroy the economies of Muslim nations) has proposed a global "Islamic trading block" based around the gold-backed "Islamic dinar", which would instantly make E-Gold the currency of a big chunk of the world.
Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League, the pressure group best known for releasing a list of "hate symbols" including the "peace" and "anarchy" symbols and the Wiccan five-pointed star, has warned that E-Gold is a terrorist tool; then again, aren't open 802.11 access points and MP3 sharing networks also a terrorist tool? Is anything not a terrorist tool these days? (via vigilant.tv)
In under 4 hours, 2002 will be over. It was a mixed year; on one level, things were still going to shit. The belle epoque of the 1990s, which we didn't recognise as such of course, is still over; in its place, an age of recession, random terrorist attacks and perpetual war. The world is still sliding closer to World War 3 proper, with the Iraq invasion still on track, and creepy neo-Stalinist cult-state North Korea making the most of this opportunity to build up its doomsday arsenal (and possibly open up a second front). The economy is still fucked (other than Lockheed and such, of course, who can only keep going from strength to strength). We now all know what the good burghers of Tel Aviv must feel like wondering whether the person next to you on the bus is a suicide bomber. George W. Bush is still the most popular president in US history, and this was borne out in Congressional elections, where Republicans swept to victory. That ol' Bush magic is rubbing off on his regional deputy in Australia, with the formerly much derided reactionary PM now seen as a Great Wartime Leader. Total end-to-end copy-denial mechanisms are well on their way to appear in all PCs and anything capable of receiving copyrighted signals, further stomping on our rights in the name of our corporate masters. Global warming is still here, and still being ignored. Brunswick St. is like Chapel St. only less authentic. Things look like they could get a lot worse before they get better.
(OTOH, there are signs of hope. The Greens have made big gains in elections in Australia, and if they keep it up, they'll actually end up winning some seats outside of the Senate. We still don't have suicide bombers blowing themselves up in crowds or on buses in Australia. And there is the chance that things may not quite go to hell, and that if nothing else happens, the world may snap out of it and things may in fact start to get better. Well, we can hope.)
On a personal level, 2002 was an eventful year. A lot of things happened. The big one was, of course, going to the UK in October, which was a profoundly perspective-changing experience. (There's nothing like travel to shake you out of the relaxed and comfortable complacency that grows on you like a crust if you live in one place for too long; but more about that later.) Other than going to the UK, I also bought a proper digital camera, entered an art exhibition, and saw a lot of great live music (including Morrissey and New Order). So, all in all, it wasn't too bad a year.
See you in 2003.
I just went to post a CD overseas, and the post office clerk asked me for ID; she entered my details into the computer and wrote a long alphanumeric code from the screen on the package. Apparently, this week laws came into force saying that ID is required for posting packages overseas, and the details are entered into databases.
The era of Total Information Awareness has come to Australia, and gradually all forms of anonymity are being criminalised. How ironic it will be when, mere decades after the triumph of global liberal-democratic capitalism and the vanquishment of totalitarianism, the Free World transforms itself into Stalinist Russia with better technology; a huge shopping-mall-cum-prison-camp whose inmates demand tighter security and heavier chains for their own protection from the evil that lurks outside.
(If you mention Big Brother to most people, they will think it was just a stupid TV show, and probably opine about which housemate they found most annoying and/or sexually attractive. It seems that Orwell's cautionary tale has all but disappeared from public consciousness.)
It turns out that the black boxes labelled "Fear" on the New York Subway were an art project, by a student from the New York School of Visual Arts. The artist in question will be charged with public endangerment, becoming another casualty of post-9/11 paranoia.
"Terrorists are the last true performance artists." -- Laurie Anderson
"The greatest surrealist act would be to point a loaded revolver into the crowd and then fire at random." -- Andre Breton
Unknown prankster, performance artist or random lunatic tapes black cardboard boxes labelled FEAR to walls and girders of Union Square subway station in Manhattan; police evacuate station, fearing terrorist attack. This reminds me of the case of the paranoid schizophrenic who taped vials of water to lamp posts in Milwaukee, to detect a radio station broadcasting into his head, two years ago.
The US Department of Homeland Security says open 802.11 access points are a national security threat, intends to mandate strict access controls. There goes that un-American "sharing" idea again.
George W. Bush has a posse, and we're all in it: Britain's television advertising authority has banned advertisements questioning George W. Bush's intelligence as "offensive". (And probably mention likely to sow disunity and affect public morale. I doubt whether criticism of Churchill was tolerated in WW2 either.)
The US Department of Defense recently investigated ways of redesigning the Internet to eliminate that pesky anonymity that allows terrorists, paedophiles, drug traffickers, Green Party activists and evil, evil people to go about their dastardly deeds undetected. After attempting to fudge a politically expedient result (or at least one likely to get money thrown in its direction, in the name of "national security"), they concluded that it was impractical and scrapped the idea.
I wonder how long until the MPAA/RIAA revive the idea and start pushing hard for Internet protocols to be rewritten to stamp out this un-American "file sharing" idea and protect their business models, late capitalism and the American Way.
Much has been written about the epidemic of obesity in the US: now it turns out that obesity may be America's secret weapon against terrorism, by making it harder for terrorists to blend in.
"The average American today is between fifty and seventy pounds overweight," said Dr. Charles Reardon, author of the study. "That means that a terrorist who hopes to fit in here would have to eat like a pig to do so."
I'm not sure whether this will work against terrorism though; the words "Semtex fatsuit" come to mind. (via Richard)
Then he's over the wall and yelling and charging straight at the machine guns and somehow the bullets aren't hitting him. Gone is the Santa of old: fat, jovial, and bearded. Now he's clean-shaven, square-jawed, buff and barrel-chested in his signature red and white uniform, and the colors blaze amongst the desert browns and greys. And his bag, painted bright blue with little white stars to show his national pride, is slung over his shoulder. He's like a beacon, a big banner that says shoot me, I'm American.
(via bOING bOING)
Forbidden thoughts on 9/11, ranging from political thoughtcrime and hate-mongering to just people getting in touch with their inner sociopath.
"I used to think all firemen were hot. I now think they are slimy. At least four times last October I was in a bar where a fireman was so forward and sleazy, saying things like 'It's been so hard. You can't believe it' while pawing me. I'm sure his buddy who died running into a building on fire would feel vindicated by this slimeball getting laid, but I'm not going to participate." -- Anne, 31, an advertising sales manager in New York
I read [the New York Times'] 'Portraits of Grief'... as object lessons in why one should never aspire to be a model employee.
"The day of 9/11, [my friend and I] spoke frequently, as we always did, being that we were inseparably close. The next day she called and said that she was walking in her neighborhood and some 'Indians wearing saris' were walking down the street and she spit on them -- it was her patriotic duty."
And then there's the response of British artist Damian Hirst, best known for chainsawing cows in half, who acclaimed the terrorist attacks as a work of art; echoing what Laurie Anderson said (many years ago), that terrorists are the last true performance artists. (Wonder what will happen when Hirst next sets foot in New York; I imagine quite a few people would see it as their patriotic duty to grab a Louisville Slugger and form a welcoming committee for him.)
The World's Leading Nation: In the US, 3% of the population are in gaol or on probation; most of these are convicted of drug-related crimes. Perhaps in a few years' time, Howard's Australia will end up following this lead, with massive prison cities in the desert housing hundreds of thousands of inmates, mostly those on the wrong side of morality legislation. (via rotten.com)
An article from an Irish newspaper on Ashcroft's 'Citizen Corps' informer programme, and other erosions of civil rights.
Effectively, if a repair man arrives to fix your fridge, and happens to notice a copy of Michael Moore's book, Stupid White Men, on your counter, he would be within his remit to call the Hotline and you could, depending on how busy the local FBI field office is, find yourself receiving a visit from the federales.
Being dragged away by the FBI at 3AM for owning an un-American book is somewhat unlikely; what seems more likely is that a large number of minor things (possession of subversive literature, professing atheistic views, associating with members of environmental groups, etc.) will contribute to your suspicion rating. If you regularly make phone calls or send emails to people with high suspicion ratings, that increases your rating as well, all done automatically by data-mining software. Not to mention if your supermarket shopping patterns match the characteristics of terrorists, subversives or un-American types, in various seemingly innocuous ways. If your rating exceeds a certain threshold, additional surveillance may be conducted on you, or you may be barred from flying in commercial airliners (like those Green Party members shortly after September 11 last year). This is the Stasi for the information age; subtle and pervasive.
Here come Ashcroft's Stasi. The Bush Administration is planning to recruit 1 in 24 Americans as informants, to watch their neighbours and report "suspicious activity". The Citizen Corps, as it's called, will include a greater proportion of the population than East Germany's notoriously comprehensive informant network ever did.
Historically, informant systems have been the tools of non-democratic states. According to a 1992 report by Harvard University's Project on Justice, the accuracy of informant reports is problematic, with some informants having embellished the truth, and others suspected of having fabricated their reports.
Present Justice Department procedures mean that informant reports will enter databases for future reference and/or action. The information will then be broadly available within the department, related agencies and local police forces. The targeted individual will remain unaware of the existence of the report and of its contents.
There goes that unpopular notion of the "consent of the governed".
Aren't you glad you live in a country so concerned about your safety? Because if you aren't and say so, your unpatriotic sentiments will end up in the mother of all Oracle databases, to be used against you at some future time.
Do you suspect that your neighbour may be a terrorist? Take this test and find out if your suspicions are true. (via Charlie's Diary)
Take a stroll down your street. Which houses are missing the appropriate decorations for the time of year? Which are missing a well-decorated Christmas tree and lights? Which do not have Fourth of July decorations? Which are missing an American flag? (this is an obvious sign of a terrorist's house.)
(How to determine if your co-worker/neighbour/spouse/brother may be a terrorist (Australian version): ask them which football team they barrack for. If they answer, ask them to name the team captain and several players. If they are unable to provide answers, they may be a terrorist sleeper agent.)
Presiding over a memorial service commemorating the victims of the attack on the Death Star, the Emperor declared that while recent victories over the Rebel Alliance were "encouraging, the War on Terror is not over yet."
"We will continue to fight these terrorists, and the rogue governments who harbor them, until the universe is safe, once and for all, and the security of the Neo-New Cosmik Order ensured."
And then there's this analysis of Star Wars, in which the Empire is good (if somewhat heavy-handed in places, though never without justification) and the Rebels are "an unimpressive crew of anarchic royals who wreck the galaxy so that Princess Leia can have her tiara back".
Make no mistake, as emperor, Palpatine is a dictator--but a relatively benign one, like Pinochet. It's a dictatorship people can do business with. They collect taxes and patrol the skies. They try to stop organized crime (in the form of the smuggling rings run by the Hutts). The Empire has virtually no effect on the daily life of the average, law-abiding citizen.
I wonder whether such an article would have been written before September 11 2001. Or whether the problematically Al-Qaeda-like nature of the Rebel Alliance will bite into the Star Wars franchise's profitability. (via bOING bOING)
The Axis of Evil grows: Cuba, Libya and Syria are now officially Evil, according to our leaders.
Heeding the golden rule that one has to dehumanise an enemy to marshal public opinion against them, Australia's defence minister's office banned the taking of photographs which could "humanise or personalise" asylum seekers, lest they start to seem inconveniently unlike a formless terrorist menace and/or reason to vote Liberal.
Happy citizens of McWorld: no need to fear terrorism, when you can learn to kill terrorists with Coca-Cola cans; and more neat tricks, as anti-terrorism instructors will gladly show you (for a fee and proof of US citizenship).
(I sense a new marketing campaign in this: Coke for Freedom. Perhaps with ads in which sassy US-flag-wearing skater kids defeat vaguely terroristic meanies with Coke cans.)
But how can you identify a terrorist?
"They'd have black hair," one student offers. "Brown skin."
"They probably wear those kinds of shirts you button up at the neck," another says.
"Usually they got brown eyes. They might act nervous. Or maybe they'd show no emotion at all. You know, they sometimes have those dead eyes."
Though Middle Easterners, chronically nervous brown-eyed people and others are perhaps understandably concerned at the prospect of red-blooded patriots preemptively dealing out two-fisted "justice".
"I was on a fight where the pilot came on the radio, telling the passengers we have plenty of weapons at our disposal -- blankets, shoes, pencils," recalls Carol North, the psychiatrist. "It's a little unsettling when you are about to take off." She worries about what could happen if people misread something like mental illness as suspicious behaviour, and there is certainly a new risk for anyone who looks or sounds like they are from the Middle East.
Recently East Timor, which attained independence after years of bloody repression, held presidential elections. A thought that occurred to me: would East Timor have had any chance of getting its independence today, had it not done so before the World Trade Center terrorist attack? Probably not; given how governments across the world have capitalised on the War On Terror to label domestic pro-autonomy movements (from Chechens to Uighurs) as "terrorists" ineligible for sympathy or human rights, I can imagine Indonesia being given carte blanche to pacify its recalcitrant province by all means necessary, with no interference from the Western media, in return for joining the coalition against al-Qaeda.
Destroy everything pink and fluffy: The FBI has warned of a possible Valentine's Day terrorist threat after a man, "possibly of Arab descent", was detected buying 14 gas canisters, 12 packages of lead gun pellets and nine white Valentine teddy bears in January. Perhaps this is Saddam's follow-up to his dastardly plan to steal American childrens' Christmas PlayStations a year and a bit ago?
Did the era of human rights end on September 11? It looks a bit like it, with the preservation of Empire taking precedence over feeling warm and fuzzy about doing the right thing, western countries diplomatically shutting up about their new allies' human-rights problems and everyone from Australia to Zimbabwe using "terrorism" as an excuse to dismiss human rights issues as a holdover from a softer, more decadent era.
But, as the Cold War should have taught the US, cozying up to friendly authoritarians is a poor bet in the long term. America is still paying a price for backing the shah of Iran. In the Arab world today, the US looks as if it is on the side of LouisXVI in 1789; come the revolution in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, American influence may be swept away. The human-rights movement is not in the business of preserving US power. But it should be concerned about stability, about moving strategically vital states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia from closed to open societies without delivering them up to religious fundamentalists.
Via Stumblings in the Dark: Monty Python's Terry Jones on the War on Terrorism, in a critique that's at once Pythonesque and insightful:
However, finally the 'War on Terrorism' is achieving its policy objectives. Osama bin Laden is looking haggard. We may not have caught him or brought him to justice but, at the cost of thousands of innocent Afghan lives, billions of dollars of US citizens' money and the civil liberties of the Free World, we have got him looking haggard.
(And that was the sound of the USA's cable-TV networks cancelling Monty Python reruns.)
Reasons to switch to Linux:
Al Qaeda terrorists
infiltrate Microsoft, plant trojan horses in Windows XP. Or so says
arrested terrorist suspect Mohammad Afroze Abdul Razzak, who has also detailed
plans to destroy the Houses of Parliament in London and Rialto Towers in
Melbourne, among other targets.
A Microsoft spokesman has poured scorn on the allegations, saying that their
source code is strictly monitored to make sure that there is no malicious code
that they didn't plan themselves.
(Then again, what's to say he isn't fnord an Al Qaeda terrorist agent?)
Details have emerged of Britain's anti-terrorism bill, revealing that it contains draconian new police powers and restrictions on protest activity. The bill makes it a criminal offense to publish details of the movement of nuclear waste trains (which sounds like an echo of China's state secret legislation), and gives the police power to jail demonstrators who refuse to remove masks or face paint, as well as including surveillance powers which have previously failed to pass parliament. Various voices in the wilderness have strongly condemned the new bill, which is expected to be passed into law shortly.
Capitalising on the anthrax scare (part 2): Pharmaceutical giant Bayer has approached aging metal band Anthrax (possibly soon to be known as Basket Of Puppies) about advertising its anti-anthrax antibiotic on their web site, which happens to be "anthrax.com".
Doom and gloom roundup: The spooks aren't the only people using the Current Situation to get all the things they've wanted for so long: various corporate interests are trying to as well, from opening up oil drilling in Alaska ("screw the caribou! what have they done for us lately?") to groups trying to rush through everything from tax cuts for the wealthy to expanded free-trade zones, with minimal debate, as Matters of National Urgency. Meanwhile, a librarian at a Florida university has been suspended without pay for 30 days for ordering the removal of "Proud to be American" stickers from the library's public desks. The treacherous Commie ratfink in question said she did it as "not to offend foreign students", and that "librarians should be neutral and not express opinions". A likely story. Meanwhile, closer to home, apparently Bin Liner's terrorist networks are active in Australia, and things can only get more dangerous in this part of the world. (Or so a terrorism researcher says, anyway.) Not only that, but those Taliban fiends are preparing to flood the market with cheap heroin. Is there any low to which they will not stoop?
A big list of songs blacklisted from US radio after the WTC attack. These include obvious choices (songs like "Wipeout", "Hit Me With Your Best Shot", "Crash and Burn" and "In the Air Tonight"), as well as anything by Marxist rockers Rage Against The Machine (whose online message board has been shut down after pressure from the Secret Service), and antiwar anthems (because dissent is now tantamount to treason in the court of public opinion). Some notable omissions from the list are The Cure's Killing An Arab and Public Enemy's Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.