Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Boo! Again.

I found an article in The Atlantic online about one last "low-grade game of nuclear blackmail" by the Libyan government in 2009. The idea was that the last of Libya's nuclear materials was supposed to be flown out of the country to Russia, but at the last minute, the Libyans refused to allow it to leave the country.

[Libya] left the seven five-ton casks [of highly enriched uranium] out in the open and under light guard, vulnerable to theft by the al-Qaeda factions that still operate in the region or by any rogue government that learned of their presence.
Later in the article, the author notes:
It would have been easy for anyone with a gun and a truck to drive up, overpower the guard, use the crane to load the casks onto the truck, and drive off into the vast Libyan desert.
Makes sense so far. Next up is a description of Libya's demands. After this we're told:
The Russian engineers busied themselves with finding a way to secure the uranium, something that required them to "develop entirely new technology" on the fly, as a U.S. official wrote. Faced with an unprecedented problem--nuclear material abandoned in temporary casks that could not be moved --they set out to improvise a solution. The uranium had to be removed from the casks but was far too radioactive to be handled by humans. The engineers settled on a remote-controlled device that they hoped could safely extract the uranium and move it to the Tajoura facility's built-in ponds, where it would be better contained. The so-called grapple would have been the first of its kind. They even planned to train Tajoura's Libyan engineers in the grapple's use. Department of Energy officials in Libya called it "an unprecedented operation."
Now I'm confused. The Russians have to "develop entirely new technology" to mount "an unprecedented operation" just to put material "far too radioactive to be handled by humans" back into the same facility it had just come out of, but all al-Qaeda has to do to steal it is drive up in a truck? Really? I'm not sure that I believe that for a moment. I get the idea that jihadis aren't terribly concerned with their own safety, but the point behind suicide bombing is to die when the bomb goes off - not while you're attempting to get the materials for it. The idea that al-Qaeda has the NBC-handling capacity to deal with highly radioactive materials seems to be something of a stretch.

This article seems like a scare piece, designed to remind us of why we still need to be hyper-vigilant about what people in other countries that don't look like us, and don't automatically take our word that we're "the good guys" at face value, are doing. The United States is the world's foremost military power. And Russia's no slouch, either. I find it difficult to believe that between the two nations, we couldn't have managed to scare up a hundred guys to keep an eye on that material, and make sure nothing happened to it. What really would the Libyans have done about it? Complained to the United Nations?

The article tells us that "Owing to the sensitive nature of nuclear counterproliferation, a number of technical details have been omitted from this account[...]." Some of those details seem to be important, as the story as written doesn't always square with itself. It's implied that the Libyans were counting on the United States thinking that terrorists might steal the material, in order to give them leverage - but how would they have done that if the "casks could not be moved?" Nothing is said about the Libyans demanding that the casks sit exactly where they were - and if they didn't want the material to move, it wouldn't have made any sense for the Russians to go through the effort of planning their "unprecedented operation," to take the material out of the casks. So the casks must have been effectively immobile for a reason other than Libyan insistence. Again, this leads back to the idea that this incident might not be all it's cracked up to be.
The month-long crisis, never revealed by the Obama administration or reported in the press, is recorded in U.S. State Department documents obtained by The Atlantic. Those documents tell the story of frantic diplomatic maneuvering as U.S. and Russian officials pushed Libyan leaders to honor their disarmament pledge. A person with access to the cables provided them to The Atlantic in order to publicize the dangers of loose nuclear materials under the control of unpredictable regimes in unstable countries.
Looks like there are still neocons in the administration, after all. And people in the press willing to do their dirty work for them.

A Matter of Trust

Videos, like this one featured in Megan McArdle's webblog, are problematic as evidence of anything. Because of the lack of sound, you don't really know what is going on - there's nothing that you can use to verify what the captions tell you is happening.

But in a lot of ways, that's completely beside the point. This video points to a bigger problem - the idea that Transportation Security Administration workers can quickly become tin-plated tyrants, willing to punish people for simply standing up for the rights and privileges that they are supposed to have. Even if you assume that this video is more a less a complete fabrication, and/or deliberately taken out of context by some rabble-rousing terrorist sympathizer, the fact that the media is taking it seriously, and wanting more information is indicative of the greater issue that we're having with our security apparatus.

Security works on trust. That's just the nature of the beast. So, the TSA, unsurprisingly says, "Trust us." But there are segments of the population that are wary of doing so for its own sake. They ask, "How do we know we can trust you?" The problem arises when the perceived answer is "I don't recall phrasing that as a request."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Misanthropy

Back when I was in college, a bunch of us would occasionally sit around and waste time on various incarnations of "what if?" It took many forms, but would sometimes actually be simply "What if this happened? What would you do?" Depending on who was present, the overall themes would vary; one day, it was very science-fiction laden and the following question was posed:

Aliens are attacking the Earth, and have made it clear that they plan to exterminate the whole of the human species. You have the ability to communicate with them. What would you do?
I was feeling somewhat cranky that evening, and so my answer was simply: "Ask if they're still accepting applications." It was good for a laugh.

The impulse to see the entire human race wiped out is, I think, what happens in those rare moments when one is, for better or (likely) worse, cynical enough to keep up. In a lot of ways, it's the dark side of serenity - resignation mixed with more than a little contempt. The difficult thing about it is that people feed it without knowing it - I'm sure that I've done more than my share of pushing people into wishing for the destruction of the species, even if I couldn't actually tell you about a single episode.

Being okay with who we are as individuals is work enough on its own - being okay with who we are as the entire mass of humanity usually requires living under one of the few rocks that still lacks cable and high-speed Internet access. (I heard a Buddhist remark that he's heartened by the fact the news is so dominated by the nasty things we do unto each other, as the fact that we considered them newsworthy meant that we considered them unusual. I gave him top marks for creativity.) But that, of course, is something of a cop-out. Which brings me back to the dark side of serenity. Understanding that there are things you can't change can bring wonderful peace of mind. But it can also become a convenient cover for apathy - or, perhaps more accurately, learned helplessness.

Setting out to change the world is, to be blunt, a fool's errand. But if dreams come true, then one might as well dream big. And it beats signing on with an alien armada.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Choices

"If you have two planes getting ready to depart and one, you say, everybody has been thoroughly screened on this plane, and you can either go on that plane or another plane where we have not done a thorough screening because people did not feel comfortable with that, I think most if not all of the traveling public will say, 'I want to go on that plane that has been thoroughly screened.' "
TSA Administrator John Pistole
I think I'll take the unscreened plane. If Pistole is wrong, I get to be on a plane full of people who don't go for the whole "security theater" thing. If he's right, I get a plane all to myself. Either way, however, I doubt it does much for my chances of being killed in a terrorist incident.

Lost In The Myth

Today is Thanksgiving Day, 2010. Back before the holiday became little more than the day of rest before the craziness that is the first official day of the Christmas shopping season, it was well, Thanksgiving. Original settlers from England held a feast to give thanks to God for the fact that they were still alive; it became a tradition, and eventually, it was made into a national holiday.

But despite the fact that there is a large part of the mythology of Thanksgiving devoted to the cooperation between the settlers and the Native Americans, and how the "Indians" were so instrumental in the survival of the colonists, it really seems to me that somewhere along the way, the natives have been forgotten. Of the six traditional continents that have nation-states on them, three of them have nations that come across as being by, for and of people who are native to the areas that they inhabit. North America is not one of them. The Native American population in the United States (I can't speak to Canada or Mexico, so I won't.) seems to be really marginal. Of all of the people that I've met that claim connection to the native population, all but one seemed to fall back on, in one way or another the One Drop Rule - they're 1/8th Cherokee or 3/64ths Blackfoot. Being some small amount Native American has become a mark of honor in some way - or a ticket to a slice of casino money; I'm not sure which. But these are people who don't live on reservations, out in the middle of nowhere on often marginal land, segregated from the mainstream of national society.

I don't know if I actually care more about the Native American population today than I did a week ago. Something tells me that I'm just fed up with the basic falsity of the mythology of the modern Thanksgiving holiday, and recalling the natives allows me to feel like less of an accessory after the fact.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Let It Snow


Believe it or not, the snow isn't really the problem. As the temperature continues to drop, the roads are icing over, and pretty badly - there have already been fatalities from traffic accidents. But overall conditions are wildly variable... In any event it's going to be a long lead-up until the Thanksgiving holiday, when things are expected to warm up.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Good Stuff on the Web

Okay, bear with me for a minute.

One of the annoying things about the Internet is that you can always find something that hacks you off. I seem to have spent a pretty good amount of the last four years cataloging things on the World Wide Web that get on my nerves.

So it's cool to find some of the fun and unusual stuff that the Internet has to offer. This outfit called xtranormal has created a site at which you can make your own cartoons. It's nothing super-spectactular, but it is pretty fun, and some people have taken it in some pretty interesting directions. Which is where Ursula Hitler comes in. (I did ask that you bear with me.) "Inside Ursula Hitler's Head," is a funny send up of the old Fox show Herman's Head from back in the 90's. The basic premise is this - there are two people, Mr. Meanie and Sweetie, who live inside of Ursula's mind, and at the same time, inhabit the universe created by the xtranormal software. Craziness ensues. It's actually REALLY funny (well, at least I think so), much funnier than I can make it sound here. (The variations on Jesus H. Christ alone are worth the price of admission.) It's not for everybody, but if the initial episodes strike you as humorous, it's an excellent time-waster on a lazy afternoon.

It sure beats the trolls, griefers and pundits that normally inhabit the web.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Questions and Elections

Republicans delighted in telling us, once the election results were in, that the American public was united in its repudiation of President Obama and the Democratic agenda. I seem to remember a similar tune being sung by other voice back in 2008...

But anyone with half the sense that was given a cabbage knows better than this. The Democrats took a drumming because they came to power during a crisis. This election cycle, the public had two questions for the Administration and Congress.

  1. Are we there yet?
  2. Can we see it from here?
Presidential and Congressional rhetoric aside, the answer to both of those questions was pretty clearly "no," to anyone who a) was a partisan for the other side or b) wasn't all that partisan. Despite their renewed hopes of the mythical Permanent Republican Majority, the GOP is going to have to answer those same two questions in 2012. They'd better be prepared to have better answers.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The End

What if America just fails? I mean, now, at this time. What if we can't solve the deficit issues, and the United States goes into default on its debts, both foreign and domestic? What if we can't maintain our economy, and we wind up hurting for resources because we can't afford to pay what other countries can? What if we start one war too many, and out military apparatus becomes hopelessly damaged? What if the divisions between citizens coalesce enough along geographical lines that the dissolution of the Union becomes realistic and workable, either peacefully, or through another civil war? We all know that nothing is going to last forever. Despite the attachment that Americans have to feeling on top, sooner or later, that's not going to be the case anymore. We're going to start sliding down the totem pole, and someone else will be on top. (I wonder if the English, for instance, take solace in the idea that we stood on their shoulders to get where we are?)

The idea that the United States will eventually no longer be #1 seems to fill the entire nation with a terror that chills us to the bone. I wonder if part of it isn't the realization that the new #1 might be in a position to do unto us, as we have done onto others. Or if it's the fact that the United States is a uniquely blended place - will our fall from the summit mean that the Melting Pot wasn't such a good idea after all? Maybe we've simply invested too heavily of ourselves. It's hard to watch something founder when you can no longer easily draw the line between it and yourself.

But its coming - perhaps sooner than we think. We've been able to put off out problems for decades now, but eventually, the issue is forced, and one has to find a solution. What happens if we don't? Will we be ready? Or will the inevitable take us willfully unawares?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Problem

It is said that in order to solve a problem, that you have to acknowledge that there is a problem.

So what if your problem is that you're unwilling to ever admit that you might have a problem?

One wonders what the world would be like, were it not for this little catch-22.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Clues

Sometimes, you can learn more about something from what isn't said, than from what is. Take this apparent missile launch about 35 miles from Los Angeles. The fact that the military is keeping quiet about this, and the Navy is saying it's not their missile - means it's likely an Air Force missile (or, the Navy is lying, and it is theirs). How do we know this? Because there isn't a massive terrorist related freak-out going on.

There is no way on Earth that a missile, large enough to potentially be an ICBM or orbital rocket, launched from within 40 miles of one of the most populated cities in the United States by a truly unknown party wouldn't have put the Pentagon and entire anti-terrorism establishment into hyperdrive. The alert level would be "Double Ultra-secret Mega-Red," and there'd be fighter aircraft, warships and orbital particle beam weapons being deployed to the area from anywhere they could be spared.

When some random choad who's been suckered by the FBI into thinking he's a Jihadi sparks breathless news conferences, a missile that barely draws a yawn HAS to be one of ours.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rainbow

It's going to be all right.
30 seconds of panic, 4 minutes of cold and wet, then a moment of awesome.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Property Of...

I was reading about the Pope's trip to Spain, and the opposition to same, and a thought occurred to me. "You're going to have to change the message, Your Holiness."

I understand where the Pontiff is coming from. I grew up Roman Catholic, and still have a fair idea of Church dogma, theology and ideals. But I'm also an observer of people, and one of things that I've learned is that for the vast majority of people, membership in a particular religion fulfills something for them. And if it stops fulfilling that, they go on to something else (or maybe nothing else, as the case may be).

Now, I didn't listen to the Pope's sermon in Barcelona, so I'm pretty sure that I don't have the context 100% correct. (I should likely do something about that - find a translation, at least, given that I don't speak Spanish at all.) But the primary message that I understood from those of his comments that I have read was that he is dismayed that people are living up to their responsibilities to God and the Church. Which is fine. But if he's going to do more than preach to the choir, sooner or later, he's going to have to articulate what following the Church is going to do for the people who follow. It's fine to consider homosexual activity "intrinsically disordered." But if you're going to ask someone to either a) enter into a permanent relationship with someone that they feel no attraction to or b) remain celibate for their entire lives for something that they feel they have no control over, you're better off offering something in return outside of simply not going to Hell. (There are times when people make God/Yahweh/Allah out to be less of a loving divinity, and more of a supernatural mobster running a protection racket.) The same with things like divorce and abortion. Simply saying this is what you're supposed to do, regardless of the personal consequences, has rarely been a winning strategy.

Simply decrying people's rejection of God's "property interest" in them reduces them to pawns to moved around as befits God's purposes. For people that find this unsatisfactory, simply telling them that they have no choice is unlikely to be compelling.

Let Me Rephrase That

Ah, the dangers of the common way of doing things...

"After the jump" is common internet lingo to refer to that part of an article or blog posting that's initially hidden from the reader. You read the first part, and click on a "more" link, or something similar to get the rest of the text.

But yes, that is an unfortunate choice of words when writing about a suicidal woman on the ledge of building, as the Seattle Weekly's Daily Weekly webblog was reminded by its readers.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

I Heard It Through The Grapevine

The choice to fact-check vigorously, even when a story is reported by well-funded news outlets, seems only to happen when the writers in question disagree with the story, while the decision to accept the fact-checking of any traditional media outlet, in order to be able to fast-forward to the aforementioned high dudgeon, seems to come when the weblogger likes repeating or even amplifying the claims made further upstream.
Clay Shirky

All too often the truth is often secondary to what people want to hear and what they want to enjoy getting worked up about, whether it's in a sexual or righteous way. Information finds its level and its target.
Yoz Grahame
"Banning blogging, 'Toothing, and Yoz" Many2Many, 5 April 2005
As you might suspect, when I heard about conservative politicians and media outlets uncritically repeating that the Obama administration was spending more per diem on the President's trip to India than it costs to prosecute the war in Afghanistan, and were renting out more rooms in the Taj Mahal Palace hotel than are actually in the building, this was the first thing that came to my mind.

This idea, that there is nothing too outrageous to believe and/or repeat about people you don't like, is dangerous. (On the other hand, the Obama administration isn't doing themselves any favors in treating the overall cost of the trip as a state secret.) As we become more and more caught up in the idea that politics and morality are related, we inch ever closer to the idea (although I suspect that we're already there to a degree) that there is an objectively "correct" political position to be taken on any given subject. And what follows from that is the idea that dissent from that position is an act of intentional wrongdoing. "Evil," to be blunt about it.

And fights against Evil always end in bloodshed.

Do You Believe

When someone tells me: "The media is liberal," my first thought tends to be: "Wow. Figured that out by yourself, did you?" Not because I buy into the idea that "the media" as an institution, has this deep liberal agenda that it's attempting to advance, but because for the most part, the people who go into journalism feel that they doing a service for the public and it's a line of work that doesn't pay particularly well, except at élite levels. Sounds just like the kind of career that draws young conservatives in droves.

The idea that certain careers have a given political bent more or less as a characteristic became clear to me back when I was working with children. Child care/social work, as you might have guessed, is also a very liberal line of work, perhaps even more so than journalism, given that it's very much rooted in the public and/or non-profit sectors.

As is often the case, groups of like-minded people start to fall into an orthodoxy, and woe betide you if you aren't with the program. And one of the more strident bits of orthodox thinking that everyone was expected to adhere to back in my child care worker days was "weapons are bad." This lead to more than a few disagreements about things. I made the mistake of expressing my skepticism about a television portrayal of the dangerousness of weapons, and wound up having to defend a position that television programs should value accuracy over promoting "social responsibility." Another time, I became embroiled in a particularly heated argument with a co-worker because I couldn't see the pressing need for the immediate destruction of every nuclear weapon on the planet. (She told me that I was "unfit to work with children" as a result of this position.)

Of course, children don't always buy into the groupthink, regardless of what the staff thinks about it - they have an entirely different set of concerns. (Surprising, I know.) Most of them have loss, abandonment and protection issues that rate much more highly for them than esoteric concerns about public safety or world peace. One of the children I worked with bumped into this dichotomy when we were preparing for a group outing to the park. There was a new staffer along, and she'd started quizzing him to test his commitment.

"If we're at the park," she asked, earnestly, "and someone tries to snatch me, would you shoot them?"

"I don't believe in guns," the staffer answered, seeming to (in my estimation) miss the basic point of the question.

The response was immediate and sincere. "They're real."

This, of course, triggered everyone else within earshot to crack up. There is nothing that's funny in quite the same way as a child stating the obvious. Especially when they do so in a way that cuts through some of the BS that we in the "adult" world tend to wrap everything in. Sometimes I think that we should be just as up front about things. We could all use the laugh. And, perhaps, the lesson that there are more important things in life than orthodoxy.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Service

Good customer service is the fine art of not rubbing in the fact that any single transaction is, in fact, unimportant to your business. We all know that, especially for large corporations, that if you take your business elsewhere, unless you can get a very large number of people to do the same, no one will ever notice. There's no real way that any one transaction with a single private citizen can be important.

Its the companies that allow you to forget that, that are the ones you enjoy doing business with.