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Children of the Virgin

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Terror Smog

“The Department of Homeland Security has raised the security threat level to Orange.”
I have heard this repeated about one hundred times per day on every one of my twenty business trips this year involving air travel. (It’s the kind of announcement you stop paying attention to, of course, due to numbing repetition.) It seems to have stayed at Orange for a long time now – years? Terror is ever present, and may always be. Kind of like air pollution – call it Terror Smog.

The recent attacks in Mumbai (which I still don’t know how to pronounce) were an example of where we have been for the last 7 years. Or more. Before the rampage of ten gunmen for three days in December 2008, “there was a similar attack in 2006 on a train and killed a similar number of people” according to Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence. Go back to 2001 and there was an attack on the Indian parliament.

Who was responsible? The names change, the people change in and out, but there is no Carlos the Jackal anymore, no one hidden leader and controller hiding out in the hills, to be hunted down and neutralized and ending attacks forever.

Bin Laden and Al Qaeda? Well, before 9/11, there was the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Not the same perpetrators? Well, depends how you define them. They define themselves in a very fluid and somewhat random way. All that is in common is a very loose and broad philosophy, into which someone’s particular beef (CIA support of dictators, failures to wear the veil, too many McDonalds’) can be slotted in.

Since 9-11, what’s the extent of the Al Qaeda war on the Western way of life? There has been a train bombing in Madrid (2004), a bombing in London (2005), and a resort bombing in Bali (2003). All of a piece, but so distributed as to make it clear that one of two things are happening. Stepped up security (and curtailment of civil liberties) has worked – there are only isolated attacks - or there has been no significant dent in the frequency of terrorist attacks in the last fifty years or so.

Except for Iraq, where we conveniently placed a huge army of Westerners and their administrative and journalistic hangers on to be targets for any unemployed terrorists who can get there. In Iraq, you have Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, taking on the general philosophy of killing Americans or anyone who likes them. But, despite the name, the attacks were not directed by Bin Laden, (who has been confined to his caves for the last 7 years,) or any central command.

So maybe what we have is a general rage and discontentment that exists and will always exist in a world where a smaller percentage of the global population is in want, yet still is growing in absolute numbers among a world population that won’t peak at 10 billion until about 30 years from now. That’s an enormous substrate of poverty and ignorance from which can and does emerge periodic groups of nut jobs to carry out the sporadic attacks. But there is no action the targets of the attacks can take to really in a blanket way take care of all the individual grievances.

And the attacks are not enough to change the business of the world. But enough to be an ever-present annoyance, and occasionally and randomly, a threat to health. Can you ever get it to zero?

It strikes me a lot like the situation with air pollution over the last 40 years or so. General levels of pollution are associated with a general level of health effects. Here’s a randomly selected example in New Jersey.

Table 1: Annual Public Health Damage from Fine Soot (PM 10) in New Jersey
Health Effect Number of Cases
Premature Mortality (age 30+) 2,300 to 5,400
Respiratory Hospital Admissions 5,100 to 7,800
Cardiovascular Hospital Admissions 2,700 to 7,500
New Cases of Chronic Bronchitis 450 to 9,500
Missed Work Days 460,000 to 530,000
Asthma Attacks 330,000 to 1.4 million
Restricted Activity Days 7.1 million to 9.7 million
Increased Symptom Days 14 million to 45 million

It is theoretically possible to reduce air pollution to zero, and thus eliminate the health effectds. But after 40 years, depending how you count, it is clearly not politically, socially or economically possible to do so. We have determined that we will live with an ever-present level of pollution and its consequences. Smog is with us forever. And at some level, so is terrorism.

The current Threat Level according to Transportation Security Administration is Orange. The paragraph that explains it (as of 12/24/08) reads:
Currently, there is no indication of plotting within the United States. We believe the arrests of extremists engaged in a substantial plot to destroy multiple passenger aircraft flying from the United Kingdom to the United States have significantly disrupted the threat, but we cannot be sure that the threat has been entirely eliminated or the plot completely thwarted.

However, that particular plot alleged to have been disrupted has not been the reason for the elevation to Orange – it’s been Orange since, well as long as I can remember. The recording says “has been raised to Orange”. The last record I can find is that the level for flights from UK to US was raised in August 2006. But in fact the level is and has been Orange “all commercial aviation operating in or destined for the United States”.

After a Google search, I have now found that the levels have fluctuated since 9/11, but it’s hard to follow which are general aviation, which are other transit (trains after the London bombings), etc. But never below Yellow – Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks - and Orange – High Risk - for more than two years now.

And it’s not a conspiracy or mystery. It’s just what we live with in the 21st Century. It’s Terror Smog.

Source of table:

Source of Threat Level

History of Threat Level

Sunday, December 7, 2008

There's More of Us Than There Are of Them

When Kerry lost to Bush in 2004, my wife was devastated. She had worked her butt off, local state and Federal elections, feeling the choice couldn’t be any clearer. Yeah, Kerry was flawed but the gap was enormous. She even held a Bake Sale for Kerry for Chrissakes.

When it was over, I tried to console her, noting that Colorado had elected a Democratic Senator and moved the state legislature to Democratic control. I argued, it was the idea of a sitting president in wartime – and 2004 was the thick of wartime – you remember the torture, the beheadings, the savagery on all sides. But she didn’t buy it. And I said, well just remember, there are more of us than there are of them.

I’m not even sure I had thought it through when I said it. But now I look at this election and I think again, there’s more of us than there are of them. And Obama appealed to the base of Us in a way Kerry, Gore and even Clinton never did. (cf. Rove strategy of appealing to his base, reprised this year by the choice of Palin.)

The dynamics of this shift in Colorado began a while back(all this applies to New Mexico and Nevada too). We moved here in 1994, the end of a three-year influx of right wing refugees from California’s earthquakes and race riots. The University of Colorado football coach forms the Promise Keepers – Focus on the Family gets huge in Colorado Springs. Elements of these movements appealed to long time Coloradans from ranching, oil and gas, and the Air Force Academy/Lockheed Martin. But those were all shrinking, even shrinking from within. Oil and gas becomes renewable energy. Military tech companies become dot.com funding vehicles. And all the while, the new Coloradans, like us, were growing.

And who are the new Coloradans? High tech kids. Jamband devotees. Extreme sports Olympians. Not to mention the foundational marathon runners and cyclists who made Colorado the place to train. They are young. They are environmental. They are free spirits of personal liberty. They are Us.

Oh, and one more thing, to get me out of my yuppie Boulder-centrismo. Arapahoe Country registers more Dems in 2008 for the first time ever. What drives it? The City of Aurora. Young white professionals? Nope. The international renewal of the American dream. Mexicans? Sure. But also Ethiopians, Sudanese, Vietnamese, Kenyans, Tibetans, Brazilians. Why are they Democrats? Because Democrats are actually compassionate, not sound bite compassionate conservatives. Don’t bullshit me. You couldn’t bullshit my grandparents, immigrants from Europe. And you can’t bullshit this generation of immigrants. They vote for the future, just like scientists.

Did I mention Science? Scientists (more broadly technologists) believe in the future. They invent things. When a Republican platform votes against stem cell research, what’s the message? The Inquisition is paying a visit to Galileo, 400 years later. Technologists and scientists have a long memory, as well as a long view. We decry our educational system all the time, but more American kids go to college than ever, many still study science or if not work in science and technology fields, and they know what side their bread is buttered on.

What do these trends look like elsewhere in the country? Virginia and North Carolina go for Obama. Again, all these same issues. Science and technology in Research Triangle in N.C. and the Dulles corridor in Virginia. Not to mention cosmopolitian beach culture in both states. And the immigrant influx in and around the nation’s capital. Trending Democrat, permanently.

Pennsylvania and Ohio? A little bit different dynamic, as the demographics aren’t changing quite so fast. But the past is not coming back. Republicans failed to deliver any economic recoveries, and so split the Reagan unified business/social conservatism message they had lucked into in the 80’s – the old way was the best – just wait and it will come back. The past is not coming back. So the rust belt also needs to believe in the future – but Obama better deliver on Green Jobs.

And by the way, the economic message of progress through technology, and more generally a future-oriented business climate, brings some of that undecided upper middle class, fiscally conservative/socially moderate vote. Forget voting for moderate Republicans – you can’t trust them not to make a deal with the devil of Americans preaching Taliban culture. (Calling all Log Cabin Republicans – you can come home now too.)

And so in the wake of the Obama victory, my wife and many friends are happier, but their first instinct is to move to the remaining injustices – we lost gay marriage in California? Joe fucking Lieberman? Record number of threats of assassination and gun purchases?

Let’s talk for a minute about what we may now comfortably call, the Fringe. In Colorado, a nut job demagogue named Kristi Burton foisted onto the ballot a “pro-life” referendum, Amendment 48; it would have declared that fertilized ova had all legal rights of personhood. Let’s leave aside that the anti-abortion movement is a stalking horse for a much broader agenda of installing a theocratic government restricting not just sex outside procreation but really fun of any kind. The vote tally: 26.7% voted for, 73.2% against. So there’s the hard core of Them.

I would venture to say it’s even smaller than that, as it picked up some votes owing to the Politics is Hard factor. Remember the first 2001 Satruday Night Live skit about Bush – Will Ferrell asks Cheney, “how long have I been president?” Three weeks. “Man, this is hard!” It’s a fact that about half the population is too busy trying to feed their families, buy a new car, or just sit on the couch and have a beer to spend extra time on understanding politics, even a little. They would like someone to hand them a voter guide that says, we get you, don’t worry about it, just check off here, here and here. Politics is Hard. Ok, thanks. Unless it hits me later (and most of these middle-aged guys aren’t faced with an unwanted pregnancy any time soon) I’m done. And this is just the ones who bother to vote. So some of that 26.7% hasn’t really been listening.

So, any way you slice it, there’s only 26.7% of them, max! The one thing we all have to do now is start acting like there’s more of Us. Curb our excesses. Clinton was painted liberal but governed fiscally conservative (can you say balanced budget?) Don’t gloat now that everyone else has caught up with you and realized Bush is an idiot. And don’t insult the beer drinkers who like to shoot guns. Reach out to them – they (most of them) aren’t shooting at you. You could even reach out to Joe Fucking Lieberman; his days are numbered anyway as Chris Shays becomes the Last Republican in New England.

There’s more of Us than there are of Them.

Good article on voter registration and demographics.



Wednesday, November 19, 2008

DifferNet Mark 2

After a hiatus of ten years, I am reviving DifferNet as a blog.
This is a test.