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America vs. The World

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart. — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Waiting for success

Our visionary president had some things to say about world perception of Israel's recent military adventure:
President Bush acknowledged Friday that it could take time for the people of Lebanon and the world to view the war between Israel and Hezbollah as a loss for the militant group.

"The first reaction of course of Hezbollah and its supporters is to declare victory. I guess I would have done the same thing if I were them," Bush said after a meeting with his economic advisers.

"Sometimes it takes people awhile to come to the sober realization of what forces create stability and what don't," he said. "Hezbollah is a force of instability."
Just like history is going to vindicate the Iraq war, right? No wonder the Bush administration doesn't ever admit mistakes or punish anyone for screwing up — it's impossible to know if someone's failed until years later!

I'm going to start using this logic a lot more in my personal life.

BOSS: You didn't get the proposal in on time and we lost the client.
ME: But, you see, I feel this will ultimately be in the best interest of our firm. We may get a better client in place of the one we lost, who pays more for less work. Or we might get an even better client next year, who replaces the one who replaces the one we lost. We really can't make a determination of whether it was a mistake to not do the proposal for at least five to six years.

GIRL: You cheated on me. You suck.
ME: Actually, I did this for the sake of our relationship. The screaming fight and short-term breakup this induces will ultimately be for the best. We'll have great makeup sex, and it will bring us closer together. You won't think I suck two months from now.

Man, this is fun! I think I'm going to go tell my brother that time I made him drink pee was ultimately responsible for his guitar-playing ability.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Soul searching

In January, the Justice Department subpoenaed the search logs of Google, AOL, MSN and Yahoo. The subpoena asked them "to turn over every query typed into its search engine over the course of one week without providing identifying information about the people who conducted the searches."

Check out the searches of 657,000 AOL users.

View by user id
(try 317966, 5776700, 98280)

View by keywords
(try "penis enlargement", "disney porn", "how to rob a bank")
Three of the four complied; only Google refused.

The Justice Department claimed it needed this information in its Quixotic campaign against Internet pornography. After having a couple laws overturned by the courts on First Amendment grounds, they are apparently taking a more sophisticated approach this time around.

Search engine companies turning over large amounts of data to the federal government probably makes most of us feel a bit uncomfortable. But we can at least be comforted that the information is anonymous, right? No one can tie our searches back to us.

That idea took a big blow last month when AOL posted the March to May search logs for 657,000 anonymized users on their site, for research purposes. After not too long, someone at AOL realized this might not be the best idea in the world and took them down. By then it was too late, though; the information had been forever released to the Web.

Go to this search page and search for user 6281712. Apparently, a member of the field hockey team is thinking about giving away her special gift. Meanwhile, check out the March 20 searches by 393765 compared to those the next day.

The logs are absolutely fascinating as a glimpse into other people's lives. The Editors call 711391's logs "the greatest character study in literary history," and they might have a point. CNET gives some other interesting examples.

But as fascinating as they are, they're still anonymous. We may find it amusing that 1952262 is awfully interested in herpes, but their identity is safely protected. Right?

The New York Times decided to test that out. Could they track down user 4417749 simply from his or her search queries?
And search by search, click by click, the identity of AOL user No. 4417749 became easier to discern. There are queries for "landscapers in Lilburn, Ga," several people with the last name Arnold and "homes sold in shadow lake subdivision gwinnett county georgia."

It did not take much investigating to follow that data trail to Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Ga., frequently researches her friends' medical ailments and loves her three dogs. "Those are my searches," she said, after a reporter read part of the list to her.
It took reporters from the Times to match up Arnold with her queries. But what if you cross-referenced this data with a database containing every conceivable piece of demographic information about you? Given a powerful enough computer, it probably wouldn't be too hard to assign a name to the searches, or at least narrow down the choices.

It's nerve-wracking enough to imagine Time Warner or Microsoft having access to this information. But the government? Should they act because 17556639 might be planning to kill someone? What about 1227287, who is apparently into marijuana, bomb-making and the FBI. Several commenters at Paradigm Shift compared this to the movie Minority Report, where people are arrested for crimes they have not yet committed based on a psychic vision that they will do it in the future.

Is Googling "how to kill a wife" premeditation, or just curiosity? Or research for a murder novel? Or song lyrics?

The government isn't just interested in anonymous search logs, though. Cross-referencing those with databases and designing data-mining programs powerful enough to match up the information would take an awful lot of work. Instead, the government wants to just require ISPs to hand over everything they want.

The greatest threat to our future privacy isn't warrantless wiretapping, or overzealous police, or even traffic cameras (which are even worse than parking tickets). It's simple computing power. As data storage gets cheaper and cheaper (anyone run out of space in your e-mail account recently?), eventually every single action you take online will be stored in a database somewhere. And somewhere else will be stored every item you purchased at the grocery store, every credit card transaction you've made, every plane fight you've ever been on.

All that's missing is the ability to put it all together. Guess who has the most computing power in the world right now, combined with the most advanced data-sorting programs known to man?

I'm glad Google's motto is "Don't be evil." Let's hope they keep it up.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Tour de Farce?

Note from Buck: We will have several guest bloggers while Mero is on his honeymoon. George knows more about cycling than you know about your mother.

Several weeks ago Buck and I were on our feet, cheering wildly for a dude riding a bike in some very revealing clothes. Floyd Landis was kicking some ass in Stage 17 of the Tour de France. And not just regular ass-kicking. This was the greatest comeback in the history of professional cycling.  

Floyd Landis
Looking goofy is not a crime.
Landis had been dominating all year. 1st, overall, Tour of Georgia; 1st, individual time trial, Tour de Georgia; 1st, overall, Paris Nice; 1st, overall, Tour of California; 1st, individual time trial, Tour of California. He's having a career year. 

Even so, I'm a skeptical person by nature, and as Landis' comeback was unfolding I couldn't help but think if he had something "extra" in the tank. But I brushed away those thoughts as foolish and enjoyed the conclusion of the race — an American had won the Tour de France, again! The elation wouldn't last though: Days later Floyd Landis was busted for doping.  

Makes sense right? This guy rides past every other rider like they were standing still, after riding a bike 100 miles a day for the better part of three weeks over some huge fuckin' mountains. I wouldn't want to drive a car the distances that these guys pedal their bikes. Turns out Landis had elevated testosterone levels. The ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone was 11:1. Normal human ratios are closer to 1:1. Sounds pretty bad huh? 10 times the testosterone than he should have? He must have 'roided up before that amazing comeback. Everything adds up. Throw the book at him. 

Hold on. Something's bugging me. It's not that simple. 

Landis was tested eight times during the tour. The sample taken after Stage 17 was the only one that came back positive. The other tests were taken two days before and two days after Stage 17. You have to realize that steroids aren't used as a one day pick-me-up. They are usually taken weeks ahead of time to "load-up" your system. You don't really reap immediate benefits from taking them.

The 11:1 ratio is also a source of question. The UCI never stated wether Landis' testosterone level is high for a human, or if it was just high relative to the epitestosterone in his system. Really high testosterone or really low epitestosterone, big difference. 

Steroids are a very non-traditional drug in cycling. Cyclists seek to have their endurance increased, not necessarily their strength. So it seems strange to me that even a desperate cyclist would turn to steroids to enhance his performance.  

Plus, he's a damn Mennonite! Have you seen these people? 'Nuf said. 

I don't know how to explain the rest results except for my conspiracy theories. Hey, he's in France. It's hard to ignore the fact that he's not exactly in the most friendly country for Americans. Not like murder you bad, but you know, spit in your food bad. It is not out of the question that a disgruntled person could slip a mickey into a blood sample to frame Landis. Remember, testosterone can be injected, taken orally or taken topically (cream or patch).  

I don't think Landis' guilt can be determined by one "positive" test. His guilt or innocence will be determined by a hearing conducted by USA Cycling in 5 to 6 months. But as for myself, there are too many odd circumstances and coincidences to label him a cheat right now. Say it ain't so Floyd. Say it ain't so.

Buck adds:

A lot of people have been commenting on Landis' "kitchen-sink" defense, where he threw out like 12 possible excuses for the test in the first week, as evidence that he must be guilty. That's complete bullshit.

Throwing out every excuse you can think of is what you do when you're innocent, not guilty. If you're completely blindsided by an accusation, you start trying to think of all the things that could possibly explain it. "Maybe it's the medicine I'm on. Maybe it was the whiskey I drank. Maybe I was dehydrated...I've got no idea!"

If you've actually cheated, especially the premeditated kind of cheating that cycling requires, you have an iron-clad excuse ready to go. You cover your tracks and come up with alibis well ahead of time.

It's not like the International Cycling Union is some unimpeachable organization. They crusaded against Lance for years, and the entire world of cycling is so infused with drug use and accusations of it that it's hard to trust what anyone says. I generally find conspiracy theories silly and an easy excuse to keep from tackling real problems. But here I'm being asked to choose what I want to believe:

1.) Landis, having the best year of his career, took a drug that gave him no benefit when he knew full well he'd be tested for it as soon as he got off his bike.


2.) The French are shady bastards who are trying to bring down an American sports hero.

Hmmm. Tough choice.

Schizo foreign policy

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tells USA Today (h/t to War Room):
QUESTION: But if — say Hezbollah decides it does not choose to live up to this agreement and does not choose to disarm. What happens then?

SECRETARY RICE: ...And then I think there will be a lot of pressure on Hezbollah to make a choice and if, in fact, they make the wrong choice, one would have to assume that there will be others who are willing to call Hezbollah what we are willing to call it, which is a terrorist organization. Europe does not, for instance, currently list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. I would think that a refusal to live up to obligations that were undertaken by the Lebanese Government, clearly putting Hezbollah outside of the Lebanese Government consensus might trigger, for instance, something like that.

QUESTION: So it would isolate Hezbollah in the world?

SECRETARY RICE: Yes, in ways that — we consider them a terrorist organization now, but Hezbollah is a little different than Hamas. Hamas is listed as a terrorist organization by the Europeans; Hezbollah is not. I would think that this would be another further isolation for Hezbollah.
Huh? What the hell is she talking about? Wasn't Hezbollah pretty isolated from the rest of the world before the war, with the notable exceptions of Syria and Iran? Didn't this conflict actually make them less isolated, by increasing their popularity on the Arab street?

That's the crazy thing about the Bush administration. They're not just aggressive, warmongering assholes — they're schizo aggressive, warmongering assholes. One second they're all full-throated war cries: Grr, argh, let's kill all the Hezbos! With us or against us! Blargh.

Then, all of a sudden, it's back to replying on diplomatic pressure and world opinion. How can the same people who constantly belittle Europe (especially our newfound diplomatic buddy France), the United Nations and the value of international consensus (and actually invaded a country against that consensus) talk about relying on isolation to beat the terrorists? Do we have to kill them all or not?

Oy vey, I've got a headache. Mero, where are you? Please, help us figure out if these people are stupid, or just full of shit. Or both.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Capitol offense

Note from Buck: We will have several guest bloggers while Mero is on his honeymoon. Having served in the Peace Corps, Julie Beth gets the moral high ground for life.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer serving in the West African nation of Mali, I was sent to Washington, D.C., for medical tests. It was the first time I had been to the city since a family trip when I was 9 years old. I remembered loving it then, and I was excited to be able to see the sights again as a 23-year-old.

The Capitol
Your tax dollars at work.
One of my clearest memories from the family trip was racing up the Capitol steps with my cousins, running in the front doors and sneaking a peak into the Senate chambers as we walked by. There were security guards then, and metal detectors, but I did not notice them. I was too excited to meet my childhood senator, Sen. Bob Graham. The room was bustling with the activity of lobbyists, congressmen and women, staffers and citizens, all witnessing the processes of a democratic society. And I was thrilled to be a part of it all.

When I returned as a 23-year-old, I was sad to see that I would not be able to run up those steps again. And when I saw the signs for the new visitor center and the rules that say citizens cannot enter the Capitol except on a tour, I knew that my future children would never be allowed to run up those steps as I was.

Instead, they will be ushered through a back door, where the security checks are exactly the same as they were when I was a child. They will not be able to wander the halls alongside their senators and representatives, because those elected leaders have their own passageways now. In fact, they will enter the Capitol only if they make advance calls to their senators and representatives, or if they wake up early to stand in the long line to get the limited number of tickets for the day.

All of this will send my children the message that government is not for them, that it is only for those few who get elected, or for those who know the right people, or for those who do not sleep in.

There are many sights in Washington where you do not have to stand in line and you do not need to take a tour, but those places are museums. Museums are interesting and valuable, but they are buildings where things that are no longer alive go to rest. The Capitol is not a museum, though it surely seems like one to the hundreds of children who visit it each day and hear low voices where there was once lively discussion.

I do not know everything about security, but I do know that before Sept. 11, the Capitol was no less safe because its country's citizens came in through the front door. I do not know all the security precautions that were not chosen, but I do know that building an underground visitor center is not going to stop a terrorist who wants to terrorize.

I do not know all the evils that threaten all the doors of our Capitol, but I do know that only leaving the back door open to our citizens is just another door terrorists point to and say, "We're winning."

And I am sad that future 9-year-olds on their first trip to Washington will probably not know what they have lost as they wait in line in the basement of the Capitol.

P.S. The United States Capitol Visitor Center, which was scheduled to be completed in 2004, is now expected to be finished in 2007. The Government Accountability Office has estimated the final project will cost taxpayers about $550 million, more than double the original estimate.

More harm than good

Note from Buck: We will have several guest bloggers while Mero is on his honeymoon. J-Flash, who has been providing intriguing comments as Adam since we began, brings a knowledge of world affairs that rivals Mero's.

Reports following the foiled alleged terrorist plots of last week are pointing to Al Qaeda links in Pakistan. And it would seem that this isn't the first time such a link has been established.

On the one hand, I'm not surprised, because it's long been believed that extremists groups — Qaeda and others — have trained and operated with impunity in the Western provinces of Pakistan. That area that was hardly colonized by the British before Partition; neither the Pakistani government, nor aid agencies can have much reach there.

So it's been a prime territory for an outfit like Qaeda because of the ability to avoid detection and the loyal or fearful sentiments of the residents. Basically, it's a safe haven.

But the discovery of the plots and their thwarting is credited in part to Pakistan. This throws into sharp relief the complicated situation in the country.

Since the country split from India, there has been a multilateral clash among hardline Islamic elements in the country (the cleric establishment as well as the super-secret Interserivces Intelligence agency), the military (as separate from ISI)and the descendants of the Westernized elite left from the partition of India by Britain.

Despite what the West tends to think, Pakistan is not entirely in the grips of an Islamic revolution. Moderation is still very much alive. Though some in Pakistan were complicit in the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, if not outright encouraging of it, there's a sizable population of this mostly Muslim country that truly has no interest in that brand of extremism.

In actuality, many of Pakistan's residents (similar to most of India's Muslims) view the Islamic extremist movement as anathema. The same is true of the country's military leadership, because extremism is a direct threat to the ruling coalition's power.

That's because these elements: business-, democratic-, and military-interests have no desire for instability. While they're not likely to put Western concepts of capitalism and governance ahead of their religion (anyone who expects or even hopes this shows his or her own ignorance of Islam), they know extremism makes life worse for rank-and-file Pakistani residents, not better.

That had been one of the main reasons why relations between Pakistan and India were warming. Both countries' economies have been growing, and both populations were beginning to understand that compromise in the Kashmir situationis a must. Both sides were growing tired of the perpetual hatred and fighting.

Well, I should say: that was true until recent years, in part because of the United State's actions elsewhere. Now, Pakistanis are being forced — because of our ideas of Islam, democracy, freedom, etc. — to choose between being Muslim and being comfortable. Guess what they'll choose if push comes to shove.

Now, I don't want to just make the cliche argument that U.S. aggression is breeding hostility, because it's more than that. It's the U.S. habit of ignorant diplomacy and arrogant ideas.

For one, the United States plays India and Pakistan off each other. Enlist Pakistan in the war on terror and then give her most-favored-nation trading status. Stand beside India in democracy and step around the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to give her civilian nuclear technology (a move I actually support).

From the Pakistani side, it looks as if the America giveth and taketh away. And India has felt spurned at times too.

(As an aside, I note that India, too, is worrying about the growth of fundamentalism in its own citizens.)

It also doesn't help when the United States pressures Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to play along in the war on terror. The expectation on Pakistan, to simply play nice and fall in line is both unreasonable and impossible, given the tensions in the country's body politic.

It doesn't help when the United States backs Israel for its own goals in the current Near East crisis. Then there's Iraq. And Iran. And even China.

Or when we view Islam as the enemy. When we tell Muslim women that they are oppressed and ignorant of such oppression, when we tell Muslim men that they are barbaric, when we say a theocracy can't work, we only do more damage.

In fact, even when we target extremism, we make any kind of understanding more difficult. We seemingly commit to the idea that hardline ideas are absolutely unallowable. It's an arrogant nationalistic trait.

Ultimately, all of the above — particularly with respect to Pakistan — are the failures of U.S. diplomacy. Pakistan is a definite trouble spot on the geopolitical map. We only make matters worse by continuing to march to our ignorant drumbeat. We continually believe that the country can be pressed into the role of Western proxy, that it will simply accept our decree and turn a blind eye to our egocentric actions.

If we continue with that cadence, I wouldn't be surprised if the most recent terror plot out of Pakistan turns out to be only a warmup act.

I stop here, only because I could go one forever. Look for future posts/comments to offer possible solutions.
Jeff Goldstein is a wanker.