Archive for January, 2009

Jan 26 2009

Social Network of US Counterinsurgency Policy Authors

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Who is writing the major policies of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what is the Obama administration likely to do? There have been many analyses and news reports of individual policies and events, but it’s hard to wade into this flood of information, and besides, how would I know who to listen to? In an effort to get some perspective on at least one major aspect of American military strategy, I decided to plot out all the authors of (public) counterinsurgency policy over the last decade, and the relationships between them, as evidenced by co-authorship of articles and papers.

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Jan 24 2009

Chinese Dissidents’ Manifesto Celebrated in the West, Ignored in China

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Liu Xiaobo is now imprisoned at an uknown location for his involvement in the Charter ’08 document

On December 10, 2008, a group of 300 Chinese dissidents published an open letter (english translation) to the Chinese government  calling for wide political freedoms and basic human rights in their country. Although this document has become the vegetarian dinner party topic du jour among Western activists, it’s not at all clear whether it will have any impact in China. For one thing, the Chinese government has censored it, removing it from Baidu and Google and even individual blogs. The internet being the internet, people are reading and talking about it anyway, but this only matters if the Chinese populace in general is sympathetic to the notion of government reform and greater personal rights. They may not be.

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Jan 22 2009

Where is Istanbul?

After a week in Istanbul it all seemed terribly glamorous, a city of marble palaces and cosmopolitan streets. But I’d read that 400,000 people arrived every year, hoping for work or a better life.  There was a ten-million person slum somewhere nearby, but where? In a city that had to be mostly struggling migrants, the poor were completely invisible.

My guidebook mentioned the strife of an immigrant sprawl, but only in a sidebar, never really saying where these people actually lived. Googling “Istanbul slums” gave almost nothing substantial, at least in English. Millions of people simply don’t exist in the infosphere of a Western tourist. Eventually I began to find references to the Gaziosmanpaşa district northwest of the center, with a population of a million or so. With a reported population increase of 79% in the decade 1990-2000, this is an immigrant city risen whole from the fields: migrants from all over the country and sometimes further, speaking Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, and Arabic, refugees from rural poverty and violence and the war in neighboring Iraq. Gaziosmanpaşa was on my maps, but just barely, a name on the corner of the page.

“Why do you want to go there?” asked my English teacher acquaintance. She was pretty and professional, clearly as much on the fast track as she could get. “There’s nothing there!” she said. Nonetheless she directed me to a tram line; I took it to the end, a stop named Mescid-i-Selam, approximately 20km from the city center (map).

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(click for larger)

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Jan 14 2009

The Ultimate Volkswagen

Culture wanders, mutates, gets kidnapped, grows up. It spawns distant relatives we never hear from, unknown bastard children. I’ve run into fuax-Disney pillowcases in Cambodia and the Metallica Cafe in Thailand, but this — this takes it for crypto-cultural mutation of memes. From the mean streets of rural Turkey, I give you the Ultimate Volkswagen:

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(click for larger)

That’s right. It’s a VW bus body with a half of a classic VW bug grafted on top as a moon-roof. In funky Lemon Yellow. Holy crap.

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From the front you can see the attention to detail. The spare tire is strapped on front by a nautical helm. The paint scheme is elegantly simple except for the inscription “mashallah” which means “luck” in Turkish. A plush ornament hangs from the rear-view and all the windows are, of course, curtained and tassled. (I assure you the interior is similarly shaggy, with Turkish carpets and deep brown plaid upholstery.)

ultimate-volkswagen-wheel

On the side we find the name of this righteous vehicle: the One Way Goreme (say it  GOR-ray-me, the town where it rolls.)  Naturally, the Volkswagen company didn’t build this — Germans were never so funky.  This makes it a Turkish homebrew, but note the genuine VW hubcaps — a classy nod to the OG.

Nice, kids, nice.

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Jan 11 2009

What Internet Censorship Looks Like, Part 2

The Turkish Government censors internet access from within the country, as I discovered yesterday when attempting to access YouTube from the Turkish town of Selçuk, as this screenshot shows (click to enlarge):

web-censorship-in-turkey

The English text on this page reads: “Access to this web site is banned by ‘TELEKOMÜNİKASYON İLETİŞİM BAŞKANLIĞI’ according to the order of: Ankara 1. Sulh Ceza Mahkemesi, 05.05.2008 of 2008/402″

Just to complete the irony, I was looking for a video of the Oscar Grant shooting when I first discovered this “blocked site” page.

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Jan 09 2009

Why Do The BART Police Have Guns?

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On Jan 1, an unarmed man was shot and killed while lying on his stomach on a BART train platform in Oakland. I don’t think I have anything substantial to add to what has already been said, except to ask this: why do the BART police carry guns?

It may surprise Americans to learn that even bona-fide police officers do not routinely carry guns in many countries, e.g. Britain. While I can certainly imagine public-transit situations that would require deadly force, other countries seem to have sorted out unarmed policing, even on the city streets.

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Jan 07 2009

From Electronic to Cryptographic Voting

Electronic voting machines were supposed to make elections cheaper, faster, and more secure, but so far they have failed. In the last decade there has been something of a rush to adopt  e-voting, followed by suspicion and controversy over the black-box, “just trust us” nature of the first generation of commercial systems, followed by a return to paper ballots in many jurisdictions. However, if we wish to improve election processes, cheap and fast is probably the wrong goal. It may be possible to use cryptographic techniques to implement end-to-end auditable elections, new in human history.

The e-voting fiasco has illustrated that paper ballots are a better system than they might at first seem. Paper preserves voter secrecy, it is auditable after the fact, and it is even reasonably transparent, if one also allows election observers. But paper ballots must be closely guarded and cannot be directly counted by members of the general public, who in the end have no choice but to trust election officials,  observers, counting equipment, and the entire chain of custody. Rather than simply duplicating paper ballots electronically, we should strive to improve upon them.

This seems to be possible. Modern cryptography suggests the possibility of a new kind of incredibly transparent and fair election, where ordinary citizens can verify the soundness of the election for themselves, without ever needing to trust blindly that a huge array of machines and people have acted correctly. This represents a fundamentally new ability: for the first time, it may be possible to hold truly “open” elections.

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Jan 05 2009

Afghanistan is a Complex Place

Afghan local points something out to Western soldiers

(photo from Ghosts of Alexander)

Actually, all places are complex. It’s hard to understand what this means if you’ve only spent time in your own culture, especially if it’s a reasonbly functional first-world democracy. The developing world in particular can be phenomally fluid and mystifying, and one of the feelings I associate most intensely with travel there is the sense that not all is as it seems, that I can’t quite grasp the true motivations and power relations of the people around me. In my more paranoic moments I even suspect that my interactions are, to some extent, stage-managed by the locals so as to give me a particular impression.

If a recent article by a sociologist studying Afghanistan is any indication, I was right about all of this: the local socio-political scene is very complex, and it is deliberately hidden from “outsiders” of various types. The implications are dire for any sort of foreigner who wants to try to come in and “help.”

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Jan 03 2009

Airports Should Not Confiscate Liquids

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Here’s a terrorism scenario: a stream of passengers walks through airport security one afternoon, each of whom is carrying a bottle over the TSA’s 3 ounce limit. Bored or sheepish, they each surrender their bottle to TSA screeners, who throw them into a nearby wastebin. However, each of the bottles contains a small quantity of high-explosive. One of them contains a timer and a detonator.

The result is a terrorist attack that was specifically enabled by policies designed to prevent terrorist attacks.

I think this scenario re-illustrates several things:

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Jan 01 2009

The Censored Story of Wikileaks

Wikileaks founders presenting at the 25th CCC

Wikileaks is often in the news, but for the wrong reasons. The web site provides a highly public outlet for “classified, censored, or otherwise restricted material of political, diplomatic, or ethical significance.” It is designed to be a journalistic tool for whistle-blowers and citizens of oppressive government and corporate regimes, a place of first and last resort for sensitive information from sources who need protection. It is a great irony, then, that an organization which specializes in censored information only makes the news when somebody violently objects.

I first stumbled upon Wikileaks about a year ago and have been watching it closely ever since. Despite its mission of openness, the site has a certain mystery about it: nowhere on the site are the principals publicly named. I was delighted, then, to attend a talk by two of the Wikileaks founders at the 25th Annual Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin. The 50-minute presentation was titled Wikileaks vs. The World, or “a talk about some conclusions observing Wikileaks.”

You may have heard about some of the things we’ve done in the media, but what you hear about tends to be what is frequently of greatest salacious interest to the Western media and to people in general. That doesn’t tend to be our everyday work.

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