The Worst Way to Kill Coyotes: A Few Words About Terrorism

Coyote photo by Yathin S Krishnappa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve got my share of weaknesses, but one thing I’m really good at is spotting patterns. I think it’s a skill I learned in college, though maybe I had it all along and just refined it there. A lot of engineering – whether it’s aerospace or software – is looking at a problem from several perspectives, understanding it, and then categorizing it. Once you know the type of problem, you can figure out which of a set of solutions is the best match.

As a youngster, I spent a fair amount of time in the outdoors around wildlife (usually searching for it in vain). My father was and still is an avid outdoorsman, and taught his sons to fish and hunt starting at an early age, along with associated skills related to wilderness survival. Even though I didn’t have as much interest or skill in hunting and fishing as Dad probably hoped, I always had an interest in wildlife.

In the fall of 2001, I was between jobs. I had been laid off from a dot-com startup in Denver, and took advantage of the time off to go spend some time in the desert in Utah. One night, I was staying at Canyonlands National Park and there was a ranger talk about coyotes. So I decided to go.

Part 1: Breeding More Coyotes

The ranger giving the talk was a research biologist specializing in mammals, so she knew a lot about coyotes, tonight’s topic. I paid close attention. One part of what she explained was a huge surprise to me, and has stuck with me to this day.

The common methods for controlling coyote populations, she said, were 180 degrees backward. It turns out that if you kill coyotes, such as by hunting – as ranchers had been doing for the past 80 years or so – and you don’t make any other changes to the environment, the end result is actually more coyotes. What? How is that possible?

You see, coyote mothers actually change their biology as a result of food pressures. If there is a lot of food pressure, meaning that there are a lot of coyotes in a given area competing for a small amount of food, then the mother will have small litters of pups. Why waste energy producing a lot of pups if some are likely to die of starvation?

But if there is a lot of food in an area, and the population is low, then pregnant mothers create larger litters. So if, for example, humans go shoot half the coyotes in a region, birth rates spike up the next year, and soon there are suddenly even more coyotes than before. But now the area is overpopulated, so the next year’s litter size goes down. Over time, these spikes up and down dampen out like a spring, and things come back to a natural equilibrium.

The arrival of the white man and his sheep about a century ago threw things into imbalance. Now there’s a larger-than-normal supply of food (sheep, trash, pets), so Mother Nature said, “Hey, let’s make more coyote pups to eat all this food.” Of course that wasn’t OK with the sheep ranchers, and so for the past century they have typically shot or poisoned any coyotes they encountered. The US government even sponsors coyote hunts in an effort to protect sheep ranchers’ investments.

But something strange has happened. Despite intense hunting, the overall population of coyotes in North America has actually grown over the past century. Coyotes now live in more parts of the continent than ever before. You can probably guess why – more food and less pressure at the same time! Less pressure from some coyotes getting shot, but also less pressure because we killed off all the wolves that historically kept the coyote populations in check. That has caused coyote populations to expand in both numbers and territory.

As a side point, biologists and smart ranchers have known this since the 1970s, at least. Yet we still shoot coyotes and think we’re reducing their overall numbers. It sure seems like this approach is the right approach! “How could shooting coyotes not reduce their populations?” we ask. And when there are still coyotes eating our lambs, we say, “We must redouble our efforts and shoot or poison even more of them!” That’s been the attitude of both the Department of Agriculture and the sheep ranching industry.

But I’m not here to discuss politics or economics. The point is that ranchers and the US government have spent a huge amount of effort trying to kill off coyotes for a century, and they’ve utterly failed. They caused the exact opposite outcome to occur from what they wanted.

Don’t believe me? OK, I’m just a city boy who doesn’t know squat about ranching, sheep, or coyotes, right? I don’t blame you for being skeptical, so I’ve provided links to a few studies so you can go read about this yourself. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to the scientists who spend their lives in the field tracking coyote populations.


Coyote Management: A Rationale For Population Reduction” by Dale A. Wade, Texas A&M, 1981.

The Effects of Control on Coyote Populations: Another Look” by Guy E. Connolly, USDA-APHIS Animal Damage Control, Denver Wildlife Research Center, 1995.

Wikipedia’s article Coyote

Part 2: Breeding More Terrorists

Also in the fall of 2001, while I was learning this surprising fact about the biology of coyote population control, something else happened. Some terrorists hijacked some airplanes and flew them into some buildings on September 11.

Americans were stunned, and then pissed off. How could these terrorists do such a thing? Why would they do it? The story most people in the media – as well as the US government – liked to tell is that America had just been sailing along minding its own business when out of nowhere these crazy Islamic foreigners decided to hit us with a sucker punch. We hadn’t done anything to warrant this, we told ourselves.

But the reality of it, fairly plain to anyone who paid attention to the history of Middle Eastern geopolitics, was that we had in fact done things to warrant this, at least in the eyes of a lot of the downtrodden. And we’d done these things consistently over a long period of time – a thousand years to those who still held a grudge for the Crusades, or sixty years to those who fault us for treating the region as our personal oil reserve since WWII.

So now what? America – and especially President Bush – wanted blood, revenge against someone, even though it was hard to say exactly who was really responsible. The US government eventually selected some Muslims to be the targets of our revenge, and then began the campaign to sell the idea to the American public.

In much of America the sentiment was, “Bomb ’em back to the Stone Age!” US citizens honestly thought the solution was to level every city and village in Afghanistan (and Iraq, for some reason). The sentiment felt a lot like the sentiment of the sheep ranchers who had lost some of their lambs to coyotes. And I remember thinking to myself, “Hmm, if we just indiscriminately drop bombs on random Muslims in this area, aren’t we just gonna create more terrorists?” That’s exactly the opposite of the intended outcome!

Imagine some ten-year-old kid living in dusty hut in Afghanistan. There is some chance that he’s going to grow up to be a terrorist with the ability to threaten America later on. But he’s much more likely, left to his own devices, to grow up to be a regular person, a farmer or shopkeeper or maybe a doctor.

Now imagine a scenario where instead of being left to his own devices, this ten-year-old’s parents are killed as collateral damage from an American drone strike trying to take out some terrorism kingpin. Americans justify these deaths to themselves by saying the civilian deaths are an unfortunate cost of war. The process of making America safe from terrorism includes some collateral damage from time to time. But from the kid’s perspective, this is terrorism. His parents, law-abiding citizens just going about their business, were killed by surprise by a missile in the dark.

Now the kid is scared to death – terrified. Is he gonna die next? Let him live in fear for a decade, and what’s that kid going to be like as an adult? Do you think he’d like some revenge against the people who ruined his family for no good reason? That kid has just gone from being unlikely to become a terrorism threat to being reasonably likely. Same with his brothers and his cousins and his friends.

In other words, in the process of killing off terrorists, we just inadvertently created even more terrorists. It’s just like the coyotes. It seems like killing the pests is going to eliminate the pests, but that’s not how it really works.

Now fast forward a decade. That kid who would’ve grown up to be a farmer or shopkeeper or doctor is now a perfect recruit for ISIL.

Why has Iraq turned into such a hotbed of insurgency? Diplomats and military strategists use the term “power vacuum” to explain it. When we caused Iraq to undergo a forcible regime change (the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s government), there was no good, stable, strong leader waiting in the wings to step in and take over.

Hussein had ruled with an iron fist. He committed so many human rights atrocities that America felt justified in removing him even if he didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction. But this power kept a lot of fringe elements in check. With him gone, these fringe elements have been able to expand, the latest being ISIL.

The same thing happened in America with coyotes and wolves. Before the white man arrived, the wolves kept the coyotes at bay in much of what is now the USA. But we killed off wolves, and that left a power vacuum. And in that vacuum, coyotes were able to expand.

So what’s the best approach to reducing the population of ISIL combatants? Don’t ask me; I’m no expert. What’s the best approach to reducing the population of coyotes? I bet that may lead to the solution.

They both follow the same pattern – the more you try to kill them using brute force, the more they reproduce. So I bet they both follow the same pattern of reduction.

Part 3: So Now What?

The parallels between terrorists and coyotes that I was afraid of in 2012 and 2013 all came flooding back to me when I recently read an article by Peter Van Buren, called “You Won’t Like It, But Here’s the Answer to ISIS”.

Van Buren’s suggestion is to admit that what we’ve tried the past 14 years has failed, and try something different. All the current candidates in the presidential race of 2016 support doing the same old thing, though.

Why are the failed options still so attractive? In part, because bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground (after the U.S. military provides the necessary training and weapons). A handful of Special Forces troops, boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will also help turn the tide. By carrot or stick, Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” of “allies” to aid and abet the task at hand. And success will be ours, even though versions of this formula have fallen flat time and again in the Greater Middle East.

But it doesn’t work, and hasn’t worked, partly because “someone else’s boots” never materialize, or if they do they’re woefully ineffective.

Once you admit that the old approaches haven’t worked, Van Buren suggests coming to grips with the real risk of terrorist attack, which he says is significantly lower than the fearmongering government would lead us to believe.

Hard as it is to persuade a constantly re-terrorized American public of the actual situation we face, there have been only 38 Americans killed in the U.S. by Islamic terrorists, lone wolves, or whacked-out individuals professing allegiance to Islamic extremism, or ISIS, or al-Qaeda, since 9/11.

That number is insignificant compared to just about any other source of risk of death – domestic violence, drunk driving, HIV infection, lightning strike, dog bite, etc. So is it right for the government to spend so much of our money (and infringe on so many of our freedoms) to battle Islamic terrorists?

Washington’s war on terror strategy has already sent at least $1.6 trillion down the drain, left thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Muslims dead. Along the way we lost precious freedoms to the ever-expanding national security state.

So what should we do? We’ve gotta do something! Well, here’s where it gets good.

With coyotes, if you want to get rid of them, you take away their food source. If you’re a sheep rancher, you put your lambs in a safe area that coyotes can’t get to. If you’re a resident of the prairie, you put your trash in containers that coyotes can’t get into and you keep your lap dogs indoors.

With Islamic terrorists, if you want to get rid of them, you take away their food source. That means removing their cash flow. ISIL gets its money from selling petroleum and from private donations. So you blow up the trucks of smuggled oil they’re selling in Turkey. And you use the international banking system to make it impossible for our allies (and our enemies) to transfer money to them.

Then you move all America’s military assets out of the area, and cut your losses.

Land the planes, ground the drones, and withdraw. Pull out the boots, the trainers, the American combatants and near combatants (whatever the euphemism of the moment for them may be). Anybody who has ever listened to a country and western song knows that there’s always a time to step away from the table and cut your losses. Throwing more money (lives, global prestige…) into the pot won’t alter the cards you’re holding. All you’re doing is postponing the inevitable at great cost.

In the end, there is nothing the United States can do about the processes now underway in the Middle East except stand on the beach trying to push back the waves.

This is history talking to us.

When will we be ready to listen?


Eastern Hemisphere Politics Travel

Indian gender representation in public places

During our one month in India, I noticed a few things related to men and women in public places. As my friend Glenn would rightfully point out, being here as a tourist for a short time doesn’t somehow make me an expert. But I’m an observant person, and I do want to jot down what I saw, even if I can’t explain the “why” of it. If you understand more than me, please chime in below in the comments.

I had an impression before visiting India that the culture(s) here had a mostly equal approach to the sexes. For one thing, India had a female prime minister long before the United States. Indira Ghandi was elected Prime Minister in 1966, at least 50 years before America elected a woman President. In (English-language) movies I’ve seen, it seems like women are treated as, you know, human beings. And in the IT field, it seems like the ratio of female Indians to male Indians is better than the ratio of female Americans to male Americans (though still not equal).

But on the streets and in businesses we’ve encountered, there have generally been very few women. There have been almost no female servers at restaurants, zero female tour guides, zero female taxi drivers, and so on. I asked one of our tour guides about this, and he said there is in fact one female taxi driver in Jaipur. That’s a city of around 2.5 million, so I’d estimate there must be a thousand taxi drivers. One woman out of a thousand. Also we read there are female tour guides in Delhi (at Delhi Magic Tours); we just never saw any with our own eyes.

As you’ve no doubt seen in photos, there are a lot of bicycle rickshaw pullers who deliver various things around town. Those are all men. Most of the shops we saw in India, from plumbing to cookware to pharmacies to clothes, have only male employees. I did see women at women’s clothing shops, hair salons, and cosmetics stores. Some police and security officers are women. Flight attendants are almost all women. A small number of vegetable sellers at fresh markets are women. Around a quarter of beggars we’ve seen are women, often with children. Some hotels had one female front desk clerk, though most hotels had an all-male staff, and none had more than one woman we saw. And the train car attendant for both trains we took was a woman, though the conductor was a man.

Each of the two Airtel stores I visited had one woman employee. For whatever reason in both cases she was the one who helped me, while the three or four men just sat around watching or doing something on a computer.

There was a similar thing at Cafe Coffee Day (India’s version of Starbucks) in Amritsar. There was one woman and two men (a lot of staff for a store with only three customers). The woman took my order, gave me my change, made the coffee, and served it. The men sat on the floor fiddling with their mobile phones the whole time I was there.

Speaking of which, nearly everywhere we went, I saw there were always men just standing around on the street, as if they’re waiting for something to happen, but the people standing around are never women. The women in public were almost always in motion doing something, either working or traveling or occasionally eating.

When we went to the Wagah border ceremony, there were about 40 male soldiers involved in the ceremony, and 2 female soldiers. That was on the Indian side. I don’t know about the Pakistan side, since we couldn’t see that side; but I would bet they have zero women.

In India there were security checks at a lot of places you wouldn’t see in America. Of course, there were security checks at airports, but also at national parks and shopping malls. Women always have a separate security line from men, with a semi-private area where the (female) security guard will wand them or pat them down out of sight of men. Men, of course, get wanded and patted down in plain view of everyone.

Similarly, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, I already mentioned that men just strip down to their shorts to bathe in the holy water, in front of everyone. Women, on the other hand, go to a separate little building so they can bathe out of view of men.

Also, everywhere we went, men would strip down to their underwear in public view to bathe – along the side of the road, in streams, under water tanks, etc. This was a little shocking to me at first, since in America you don’t usually see some guy pull his car over to the highway shoulder, get out, strip, and have a bucket bath with soap and toothbrush and toothpaste. Women, from what we saw, never bathe in public and must only do so at home, out of sight of men.

One reason we didn’t see as many women as men in public places is that women are supposed to stay at home, traditionally, while men are supposed to go out and work a job. When I wrote about Jaipur, I mentioned what I learned from the textile factory owner, which explains why out of forty or fifty people working at his factory, there is only one woman:

These carpets are all made by women. There was one woman in the shop giving a demonstration to the tourists like me, but that’s a special case. But normally, the carpets are all made in the villages, at the women’s homes. Although men come into the city to work in the factories, women do not. Women stay at home. So if women want to participate in industry, they work from home. The textile factory takes raw materials out to the countryside and drops it off with this network of women carpet makers, each of whom has a loom in her house. Then she works for months making one carpet. When it’s ready, the textile factory comes back out to pick up the finished product, take it back to the city, and sell it.

This assumption of women being at home rather than in public is even ingrained in political leaders, the elected officials who are supposed to be setting the tone for the society to at least some degree. Check out the quotes from various Indian politicians in this article: “Women should not venture out with men who are not relatives” and “Why should a woman go to play tennis at 9.30 in the night?”

It seems to be assumed that every woman of childbearing age will have children, and that she will stay home to take care of these children. It’s like the America of my grandmother’s day. So even though India is 50 years ahead in electing a woman to the highest office, it seems 50 years behind in how women are present in public spaces.


There is a related topic I thought of writing about, but I couldn’t fit it into this post. It is about how men treated Beth and I differently in most of the places we visited in north India. I was present, and Beth was invisible, even when we were both standing right next to each other. We lost count of how many people we dealt with at hotels, restaurants, or stores who would talk congenially to me, but not even say one word to her. I think Beth is going to write about this on her blog. I may, too. We’ll see.


Todd’s Criteria for President

You may have heard that I’m not running for President of the United States in the 2016 election. I ran in 2012 with Jeff Stampes. We didn’t win, as you probably noticed. But we gave it our best shot, because we felt like the candidates the two major political parties gave us were both assmunches. Regardless, they both got way more votes than we did, proving that, apparently…

America Wants an Assmunch in the White House

Well, it’s spring of 2015 and people are talking about who’s going to run in the primaries. So I might as well lay out the simple requirements for my vote. If any political party can produce a candidate that meets these criteria, I will vote for him or her. And if we’re lucky enough to have multiple candidates who meet these criteria, I’ll consider their further qualifications. If we have nobody who fits the bill, I probably won’t even vote; I’m sick of voting for the “lesser of two evils” and think America deserves better than that.

Todd’s Criteria for President

  1. Candidate is not a pinhead or hypocrite or sleazeball
  2. Candidate can unite instead of divide

Wow, it’s really only two things? Yeah, should be easy, right?

Let me point to the Wiktionary definitions, in case any of Criterion #1 isn’t clear.

pinhead: An ignorantnaïvefoolish, or stupid person.

hypocrite: Someone who practices hypocrisy, who pretends to hold beliefs, or whose actions are not consistent with their claimed beliefs.

sleazeball: A morally reprehensibledisreputable, or sleazy person; a cad.

Also, like in a job interview, just saying you can unite instead of divide isn’t enough. You must be able to cite specific examples from your previous work. We will be checking references!

Consumer Experiences Politics

marijuana candy scare 2014

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, I’m sure you know that starting in January 2014, the state of Colorado has allowed licensed dispensaries to legally sell marijuana (aka cannabis) and related products, including “edibles”. Edibles are usually candy or cookies (but sometimes things like butter, pretzels, etc.) that are infused or coated with hash oil. You could buy this stuff before 2014 if you had a special medical marijuana card, issued by the state. But starting this year, anyone over 21 can buy it.

According to some, this has caused a noticeable rise in the availability of cannabis products to children. Around the start of October 2014, one big concern expressed by the police, local media, and some parents was that people would be give out these medicinal candies to trick-or-treaters, and that children would each them by accident, not realizing what they were. And the kids would go crazy, commit violence to themselves or others, or end up in the hospital.

Here is a 9 News report about this.

And here is a video the Denver Police made to inform parents about this threat:

While many parents were concerned about widespread nefarious dosing, many others had a response like mine:

Why would any stoner give a child a $5.00 medicated piece of unwrapped candy instead of a $0.02 non-medicated candy? Do cannabis edible users have too much money and they want to waste a bunch of it giving kids their medicine? All the cannabis users I know and have known in the past wouldn’t do such a thing. And if you’re a sociopath who wanted to harm kids, why not poison the candy with rat poison or something that would really cause long term harm (at much lower cost), rather than just make a kid high for a few hours?

Regardless, Halloween came and went. The morning after, I searched the news for widespread — or even spotty — reports of cannabis candy getting into the hands of children. Who knows, maybe it would be a big deal that would trigger a backlash against THC edibles in the shape of candy.

Here are the news reports I found so far:

Halloween Pot-Candy Scare Baseless So Far (CBS Denver, October 31)
“My honest opinion is that’s an overblown fear that was created by the police,” said CB Scientific CEO Bill Short.”

No Halloween pot poisonings in Denver, hospital says (USA Today, November 1)
“Before Halloween, the marijuana industry scoffed at parents’ fears and said the vast majority of users are responsible adults who would never actually do something so stupid as to confuse the two or deliberately hand out expensive pot candy. Afterward, they mourned the deaths of multiple trick-or-treaters killed by vehicles on Friday night.”

Deadly Halloween Across the Nation (New York Times, November 2)
“Halloween took a deadly turn for trick-or-treaters, paradegoers and party guests across the country, on a holiday that federal safety regulators say is one of the deadliest on America’s roadways.”

I thought I was finally on to something big when I found this news article, with the titillating headline Prince George’s Police Seize Halloween Candy Laced With Marijuana (CBS Baltimore, October 31). But then once I read the article I see it’s just bad journalism. The candy wasn’t Halloween candy. It was just regular properly-labeled marijuana edibles (illegal in Maryland) that the local cops found and seized.

“Officers don’t have any indication that the pot candy was destined for trick-or-treaters.”

Officials say no problems with Halloween pot candy (Denver Post / Associated Press, November 3)
“Denver Police and the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center on Monday reported no cases of people slipping marijuana to unsuspecting trick-or-treaters.”

You’re more likely to catch Ebola than to receive marijuana-laced Halloween candy (Washington Post, November 3)
“Despite literally hundreds of wide-eyed press accounts last week of the ‘danger’ of marijuana-infused Halloween candy, we are three days into November without a single instance of Halloween-related pot poisoning coming to light. None. Zero. Zilch.” 

Final update:

It’s now November 16, 2014. I’ve been checking back with the news services from time to time since Halloween. This story totally dropped off the face of the media radar the day after Halloween. I can’t find any follow-up articles. There apparently were never any reports nationwide (much less in Colorado, where I live) of kids getting marijuana candy for Halloween by accident or due to malicious stoners. The police haven’t reported anything, the local schools haven’t reported anything, and the hospitals haven’t reported anything.

I’m not going to bother checking back, because I’m pretty sure that every kid has eaten all their Halloween candy by now. So if there was going to be an issue, we would’ve heard of it by now. I know nobody pays attention to this sort of thing — how often the policy and media get it totally wrong — but wouldn’t it be nice if there was some sort of publicly transparent tally? Imagine a Wikipedia or that listed all the time the police or media scared us about something that turned out to be nothing.

Now I’m off to protect myself against the real threat, which is massive Ebola outbreak at the shopping mall. Oh, wait, the 15 minutes of unfounded fear for that one has already died out, too…

Consumer Experiences Politics

is the US government tapping our Googles?

This started as a Facebook post I made a couple days ago. But on reflection, I think this topic is going to be with us a while. So I’m moving it over here, where it may be a little more permanent.

Late last week – on Thursday June 6, 2013 – the Washington Post and UK newspaper The Guardian simultaneously broke stories about the leak of information about the US government’s PRISM program. Among other things, the leaked PowerPoint document says PRISM allows the NSA the ability of “Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.”

Here’s a link to that Washington Post article:

And here’s a link to the PowerPoint slides (presented in a single HTML page):

Later, the tech companies all came out and made statements that were all essentially variations of “we have no idea what you’re talking about and the NSA doesn’t have such a thing.” Here’s what Google said (from

First, we have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers. Indeed, the U.S. government does not have direct access or a “back door” to the information stored in our data centers. We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday.

Second, we provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law. Our legal team reviews each and every request, and frequently pushes back when requests are overly broad or don’t follow the correct process. Press reports that suggest that Google is providing open-ended access to our users’ data are false, period. Until this week’s reports, we had never heard of the broad type of order that Verizon received—an order that appears to have required them to hand over millions of users’ call records. We were very surprised to learn that such broad orders exist. Any suggestion that Google is disclosing information about our users’ Internet activity on such a scale is completely false.

And so here’s what I wrote on Facebook on Saturday June 8:

Given the Washington Post’s PRISM news, Beth and I are debating which of the following possibilities is most likely:

1) The government is lying. There is no PRISM. The media has been fooled. Some counter-intelligence officer in Washington is giggling to himself right now. And Google et al are telling the truth.

2) Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook are all lying. There is PRISM, and it’s active in their network, and they know it. But they can’t – or won’t – admit it.

3) There is a PRISM and somehow the feds got it integrated into the server infrastructure of all these internet companies without their knowledge. So Google’s telling the truth that it didn’t know, and the feds are telling the truth that it does exist. But if Google didn’t notice an NSA tech sneaking into the server room and tampering with their network gear, how are we supposed to trust that the Chinese or Al Qaeda haven’t done the same? This scenario invalidates everything Google has ever said about “your data is safe with us”.

4) The Washington Post made the whole thing up. It’s just a story fabricated out of thin air that the Obama administration refuses to debunk.

Since then, the federal government has already declassified and released some information about PRISM, apparently to correct the misperceptions that the media had. First, I’ve never heard of the feds declassifying anything this fast. It took less than 24 hours. Amazing how fast the process works when you’re an insider, when Freedom of Information Act requests take months or years to get processed. But more importantly, the Obama and his administration have admitted, “Yup, PRISM exists, it’s totally legal, your elected officials have known about it for years, and – trust us! – we won’t use it for anything evil.” So that eliminates possibilities 1 and 4 from my list.

Now we’re down to only two possibilities, and I’m really interested to see how this plays out. One possibility is that the tech companies did know about this all along, and are all (except Twitter) lying to their customers about it. The other possibility is that the feds did all this without the knowledge of the tech companies.

In the first case, could I ever trust Google (and again if I know they’re willing to lie about something so big? In the second case, could I ever trust Google again if I know they’re so incompetent that the NSA snuck in some system to gather data from their network without their knowledge?

That’s the question I posed on Google’s blog article about this:

What do you think is going to happen next?

Drivel Politics

my own reflections on 9/11

Earlier this month was the 10-year anniversary of the “9/11” jumbo jet terrorist attacks, and lots of us here in the US are reflecting on the events, how things have changed since then, and what it all means. I don’t know what it says about me, but my own feelings about 9/11 are different than those I most often read about.

The Chickens

On 9/11/01, I was essentially unemployed. I’d been laid off my job at a dot-com startup company a couple months earlier, and was doing my best to establish a consulting business. But due to the post-dot-com economy, I was having a hard time of it. I first heard about the airliner crashing into the World Trade Center by email from an acquaintance of mine. Initially, I didn’t have any sense of the scale of the issue, so I didn’t turn on the news. Then, later there was another email about the second crash, and that’s when I tuned into the television coverage, which was all over every channel.

I was astonished by the immensity of the disaster. I don’t think anyone expected the buildings to come tumbling down; I sure didn’t. To this day, I doubt even the planners of the attack expected their mission to be so “successful” (I should note that although I love conspiracy theories, I’ve never bought into the “9/11 was an inside job” theory). I remember feeling numb at the time, but also immediately thinking this must be the doing of Osama bin Laden. Anyone who had paid any attention to international news over the previous decade knew that his attacks were getting bigger and bigger. And so the attacks didn’t really surprise me as I think they did some people.

In the following days and weeks, I kept reading about how the American people were so “shocked” by the attacks. But as soon as it happened, the phrase that popped into my mind was “chickens coming home to roost.” If you’re not familiar with the idiom, it means that if you do enough bad things to someone, eventually they’ll do bad things back to you. From the perspective of many of the downtrodden in the Middle East, the USA had done a lot of bad things to them. And eventually, I felt, all the bad karma of how we’ve treated the locals created an environment where bin Laden could easily get recruits and funding for terrorism.

This idea that we – America – had done wrong to any of the locals in the Middle East never did get much attention in the press. It certainly wasn’t politically correct to discuss in the hyper-jingoistic days that followed the attacks. Most Americans portrayed in the media had an attitude more like, “We never did anything to them, so how could they do this to us?” Well, unfortunately, we had a long history of doing bad things to “them” – at least from their perspective. As of 2001, Americans had…

  • historically supported Israel over Palestine, which essentially means supporting Judaism over Islam
  • exploited local resources (oil in particular) without any compensation reaching the common people of the lands
  • put into power dictators (like the Saudi royal family, the Shah of Iran, and Saddam Hussein) who were friendly to our extraction interests, and then turned a blind eye when they brutally suppressed factions of their own people

In short, even though we usually don’t think of America as an empire, we acted pretty imperialistic in the 20th century in the Middle East. It shouldn’t have surprised us, the American people, so much when the local commoners in those empires we created rose up. We have our own history of rebellion against imperialism. And yet, we did act surprised.

Leadership and Divisiveness

Another case of my feelings about 9/11 being way different from my friends is regarding the response of our elected officials. It was terrible right from the beginning and never really got any better. Think back to the week following 9/11/2001. This big national shock and tragedy just happened. The talking heads are calling it the Pearl Harbor of our generation. Gas prices spike wildly, based on speculation that OPEC is going to cut off our lifeline. People rush to the grocery stores to stock up on supplies. The airlines are shut down for the first time anyone can remember. Here is the perfect opportunity for our President to bring America together for a unified goal.

Some great possible goals might have gone like this:

  • Our dependence on oil from the Middle East comes at too high of a cost. We as a nation must dedicate ourselves immediately to cutting back.  In the short term, conservation. In the long term, develop local energy sources.
  • Too long have we ignored the ordinary citizens of the Middle East, and allowed a culture of fear and hatred to develop. America will re-dedicate itself to fostering education, health care, and prosperity to being the people of the region into the modern world, where democracy and free speech are treasured.

But instead we got “America is open for business” and repeated messages that it is patriotic to go out and spend, spend, spend. President Bush could have used this opportunity to kick off a program for Americans to achieve any of a number of great things, but he fumbled the ball. All we got was the message to get back to work, and there’s no need to make personal sacrifices. So we launched these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq without any belt-tightening whatsoever.

In World War II, that belt-tightening was part of what brought Americans together. Everyone gave up a little for the war effort – gasoline, rubber, cigarettes, whatever. But after 9/11 nobody had to give up anything. Instead, we were encouraged to go buy an SUV and a bigger TV. That’ll show those Muslim extremists!

As the months rolled on, it became more and more clear that Bush’s strings were being pulled by the Vice President, Dick “conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy” Cheney.

An acquaintance of mine (an accomplished part-time sports journalist named Tom George) posted a note to Facebook:

If there is one happy memory about 10 years ago today, it’s how we all came together as a nation. Yeah…we argue and fight amongst each other about all sorts of different things. But when someone takes a swipe at us, nobody circles the wagons like the USA can. As somber as this anniversary is every year, this one happy memory probably fills me with more patriotic pride than the 4th of July or any other national holiday does.

Sadly, I don’t see it that way. My impression of the past 10 years it that my country’s response to the attacks has divided the country more than united us. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote:

The atrocity should have been a unifying event, but instead it became a wedge issue. Fake heroes like Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W. Bush raced to cash in on the horror. And then the attack was used to justify an unrelated war the neocons wanted to fight, for all the wrong reasons.

And a Facebook note from another acquaintance (Jenny Nunemacher) sums up my feelings better than I think I can:

[…]What is most troublesome to me is that the Patriot Act and all those other militaristic actions in the years since have proven that the terrorists got what they wanted. They assaulted our freedom and WE LET IT CONTINUE TO HAPPEN. We may be incrementally more safe, but we are less free.

Our Legacy

I’m very proud to be a US citizen. I’m patriotic and would rather be in America than anywhere else. I know it probably sounds corny to some of you, but I tear up sometimes when they sing the national anthem at a baseball game (or a roller derby bout). So I think I lot about America’s legacy. What will my generation be remembered for? Are we going to leave this world better than it was before?

It’s because I care so much about these things that I feel so negative about 9/11 and our response to it.

We could have set a great example to the rest of the world of how understanding and compassionate Americans can be. But instead we went on a witch hunt, rounded up anyone who looked like they might be a terrorist, tortured some of them, and held the rest as permanent prisoners, breaking our own laws and international law in the process. We definitely didn’t take the moral high road.

We could have set a great example to the rest of the world of how wise the one remaining superpower can be. But instead we treated the attacks not as a criminal matter, but as an international “war”.

We could have used this as an opportunity to demonstrate fiscal responsibility. But instead we deployed our military and thousands of mercenaries without regard to budgets or funding.

We could have thumbed our noses at terrorism. But instead we played right into the terrorists’ plans. Why did the terrorists hate us? They hate us for our freedom, we were told. And then we turned around and gave up some of our freedom in the interests of “security”.

Why are they called terrorists? Because they accomplish their political goals by causing terror in their enemies. So to fight terrorism, we should do things to make ourselves less afraid, right? But instead we made ourselves more afraid. Don’t believe me? Go to any airport, and stand in the security line. Ask people as they pass through the inspection process, “Do you feel more afraid or less afraid to travel today than you would have in 1980?”

I really hope that this is all just a pendulum, and that it’ll swing back, especially in my lifetime. In the decade that has passed since 9/11 I haven’t seen any signs of it, but I still hold out hope.

Consumer Experiences Politics Travel

I got the porno scanner and the grope down both in one day

Beth and I went to South Padre Island for Thanksgiving this year, and I got subjected to not one – but both – of the controversial new security protocols.  I got the “porno scanner” and then got the “grope down” both while passing through the same security checkpoint.  Here’s my story.

I’m writing this at the end of Thanksgiving Weekend 2010.  One of the big topics in the news and on people’s minds right now is a new security program that the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) recently implemented.  The primary “safeguard” is a new set of scanners called “Advanced Imaging Technology”.  There’s a bit of an uproar right now because the radiation from the scanners may be unsafe, and also because the pictures they take of what you look like under your clothes are quite realistic.  The backup plan for someone who “opts out” of the new scanner is what they’re calling an “enhanced pat down” which entails a TSA agent touching the traveler in a rather intimate way (which is why many call it the “grope down” – I guarantee if I touched a stranger that same way, I’d be arrested for sexual assault).

Well, I got both of these, and learned first-hand about the process.  For some reason, the special scanner (occasionally called the “porno scanner” since it essentially makes your clothing invisible to the guy reviewing the photos) was not in use when we flew from Denver to Texas.  It was turned off, and had a big orange cone inside where the people would go.  So they were just using the old fashioned metal detector.  But on the way back, the airport in Harlingen had a working porno scanner, so that was my first direct exposure.

As we were passing through security at Harlingen, I did the usual stuff air travelers have been doing since the increased paranoia that started with the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  I took my shoes off, took my coat off, took my belt off, took my laptop out of its bag, etc.  While my stuff went on the conveyor through the x-ray machine, I stepped into the scanner.  There are marks on the floor to show you where to put your feet, and then you’re supposed to stand there with your hands up in a submission pose (like “don’t tase me, bro”) while they scan you.  A few seconds later, they said I can continue, and so I stepped out of the booth.

Then a TSA agent (a male) came to talk to me.  He asked if I was wearing a necklace or something around my neck.  I wasn’t, and showed him.  Then he told me he was going to pat me down around the buttocks.  He made a big point to emphasize that he would be using only the backs of his hands – not the palms. I guess you can’t really grope someone with the backs of your hands.  Again, I stood with the feet on the special footprint markers on the floor.  He said to put my arms straight out at my sides.  Then he started to pat me down, and quickly came to my wallet.  He asked me to take the wallet out and hold it in my hand with my ticket at arm’s length.

He patted around my sides, on both butt cheeks, and then between my legs.  When I say he patted between my legs, it wasn’t like he put his hands right on my junk.  Instead, he put each hand on an inner thigh, and then slid them up with medium force until they ran into my scrotum.  And then, like that, it was over.

He told me that next time I should take my wallet out of my pocket and send it through the conveyor belt with the rest of my stuff.  When it’s in your pocket, he said, it stops the scanner from being able to see through to your butt cheek, and that triggers a pat down.

The whole time, the guy was nice about it, helpful, and professional.  He was a middle-aged white male, and he was pretty laid back considering he pats nervous strangers’ scrotums all day for a living.  Thinking back on the situation, I remember feeling pretty dehumanized, like a cog in a machine.  But I’ve felt that way about airport security for the past decade.  I also felt that I had absolutely no control of the situation.  Nobody ever asked anything like, “Would you like us to do this in a private room?” or “Do you have any questions?”  Everything they said were very matter-of-fact commands: “Now I’m going to do this, and now you must do that.”

So that’s how my first experience went with both the porno scanner and the enhanced pat down.  And remember the question about the necklace?  I later figured out what must have triggered that comment.  The short sleeved shirt I was wearing had metal snaps, and the very top ones were unbuttoned (or unsnapped, more correctly).  So looking in the mirror, I realized that meant there would have been two halves of the top snap on either side of the next lower snap.  On the porno scanner, I guess that could look like a necklace.

My advice: don’t leave your wallet in your pants pocket when you pass through the porno scanner and don’t wear a shirt with metal snaps.  Or, alternatively, avoid air travel in the USA.


Two Battles Won: PATRIOT Reform AND State Secrets Reform Bills Pass House Committee | Electronic Frontier Foundation

Here is some much-needed GOOD NEWS from the War on Terror:

After a long two days of legislative battle, the House Judiciary Committee just finished its second day of debate on Chairman Conyers’ PATRIOT reform bill, HR 3845 (see our wrap-up of the first day). Thanks in no small part to those of you who used our action alert, the Committee rejected almost all amendments that would have weakened the bill’s reforms and voted to recommend the bill to the House floor by a vote of 16 to 10.

Even better, the Committee kept going after it was finished with PATRIOT to consider Representative Nadler’s State Secret Protection Act (HR 984), which would reform the state secrets privilege that the government has repeatedly used to try and throw EFF’s warrantless wiretapping cases out of court. After an impassioned defense by Mr. Nadler, who described how the government has used the privilege like a “magic incantation” to cover-up wrongdoing and warned that state secrecy “is the greatest threat to liberty at present,” the bill passed with even better numbers than the PATRIOT bill, 18 to 12!

Two Battles Won: PATRIOT Reform AND State Secrets Reform Bills Pass House Committee | Electronic Frontier Foundation


Interracial couple denied marriage license in La. – Yahoo News

Interracial couple denied marriage license in La. – Yahoo News
“A white Louisiana justice of the peace said he refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple out of concern for any children the couple might have.”

The couple live in Hammond, Louisiana, which is where I had my major ear surgery back in January.  The hospital sure was nice, I can say that.

Anyone want to guess how this issue will turn out?  Think the judge will be fired?  Or not re-elected?  Or whatever they do to bad judges in Louisiana?

Music Politics

teenage wasteland

I just heard the most poignant thing I’ve heard on TV in a while. Pete Townshend, writer and guitarist from The Who, said this in reference to his famous song “Baba O’Riley” (which many people mistakenly think is called “Teenage Wasteland”):

“For me – you know – that notion of ‘teenage wasteland’ – it is about waste. It’s not about getting wasted. It’s about waste. It’s about wasted life, wasted opportunity, wasted years. And I take full responsibility for the fact that my generation complained about the state of the planet and did nothing to change it.”

Now that’s a lot of guilt to live with!  But I see his point.  They were the biggest rock band and one of the most significant cultural phenomena in the late 1960s to the mid 1970s.  That’s quite a bully pulpit they had, if they had chosen to use it.