letting us all know what precious little we can do to mitigate the effects of this looming public health catastrophe.
Here are some examples for the stout-hearted:
Stock up on non-disposable food and other dry goods.
Get some extra drugs (the prescription variety, though I'm not ruling out the advantages of experimentation with various mind-altering substances in the midst of a plague).
"Tell family members and loved ones about how they would get cared for if they got sick . . ." Hmmmm. History suggests that this may be ill-advised. One of the most common occurrences during the black death was the utter disregard for human bonds of any kind. Once you get sick, you're a street urchin.
Teach the kids to wash their hands right
And tell them to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze.
They don't mention duct tape, but that might come in handy too. But the most startling thing about this list is how utterly benign it is. Aren't we all doing this kind of stuff already? Listen, I understand that they probably aren't ready for this and don't have a lot of good stuff on the shelf to dish out. But why open the web site with a confident statement list this:
"You can prepare for an influenza pandemic now. You should know both the magnitude of what can happen during a pandemic outbreak and what actions you can take to help lessen the impact of an influenza pandemic on you and your family. "
OK, how about ten doses of Tamiflu right now?
News From a Secure Homeland
As word seeps out that pandemic flu is creeping east across the steppes of Asia and into the nether reaches of Europe we should all take a moment to get real scared. And if you're one of those practical sorts who is always looking for the silver lining, you'll be happy to know that the Department of Health and Human Services has launched a new web site dedicated to
Note To Self: Avoid This Creature
January 13, 2006
Straight from the folks who just rolled out a ubiquitous, real-time vehicle tracking system we can now look forward to full-frontal nudity at airport check-ins. The British are testing the feasibility of a new system "capable of digitally strip-searching travelers" to identify potential evil-doers. This is a form of full-disclosure that I can do without. It's not the x-ray vision that bothers me so much, it's the digital search. Sounds painful.
The new scanning technology is being tried at Heathrow and any other major transportation hub that the local security geeks can shoehorn in. Assuming the searchees remain in blissful ignorance about the examination process, I predict a successful outcome. The security guards will surely have a thumb or two on that scale.
Let's hope our own venerated TSA doesn't get it's mitts on this gadget. Thinking back on the luggage fiasco, I'm imagining the endless varieties of mischief that can be perpetrated with nude photos of hapless travelers. Within six months I predict that everybody that has passed through an airport in the US will show up on the Internet in their birthday suit. Happy Birthday!
Avian Flu Update
Good news today from Reuters. Genetic tests of the avian flu virus now bouncing around in Turkey show that, while the virus is mutating, it's "probably not enough to make it more dangerous yet." Wait a minute. Weren't we told that we needn't get too concerned about this avian flu nuisance since it doesn't propagate easily between people, and that we should only start to worry when we see evidence that it is mutating in humans? Isn't that what's happened here? And we're supposed to relax because it didn't mutate "that" much? How much is too much? Is anybody measuring that? How will we know? I guess when rush hour traffic on the beltway starts to ease up.
Pay No Attention To That Man Behind The Curtain
January 16, 2006
Don't Eat Arizona Snow
Remember when Lucy warned Charlie Brown not to eat December snow? Her reasons were philosophical - only pure winter snow satisfies the gourmet palette and December is one of those schizoid months when we turn the page from one season to the next. December snow is for those that lack the will to await that which is to come, and those who partake have forsaken their right to enjoy the fruits of January. Well, if you ski in Flagstaff you've got a different reason to abstain - they're proposing to use treated wastewater to manufacture the snow. And it doesn't get any better in January. Kind of makes you want to make the detour to Aspen, doesn't it?
I'll be the first to admit that I'm not much of a skier so what the hell do I know, but I've never thought of Arizona as a big draw for the skiing aficionado. If you want to ski out west, you go to Aspen or someplace like that, right? Wrong. The Arizona Snowbowl is a day trip for the Phoenix crew, who are not overly choosy about the flavor of the snow since they're lucky to have any at all living in a desert and all.
Besides, the wonderful environmental credentials that come from using recycled water easily make up for the poor eating qualities of the resulting precipitation. According to the Washington Post's description of the Snowbowl's proposal "treated effluent would be delivered by pipeline from Flagstaff, a few miles southeast." At which point it would be quickly converted into snow good enough for even the most discerning tastes - skiers' that is, not eaters. And the folks in Flagstaff get something too - every time they flush they can imagine themselves contributing to the fun of their cohorts on the slopes.
There's only one problem. The Snowbowl, which is privately operated, sits on federal land. A number of Indian tribes have objected to the proposal, claiming that the land is sacred. Imagine, if you will, a huge pipeline spewing treated sewage atop your places of worship and the graves of your ancestors. Would kind of get you uptight, right? So maybe the Indians have a point.
Snowbowl officials are naturally eager to get things squared away. You see, the proposal is "essential to ensure the survival of the ski area, which has struggled with short seasons because of lack of snow." Let's see. Arizona. Desert. Snow? I know skiing is popular and all, but could it be that there are some places on earth where God just didn't intend for man to ski?
Be Careful Where You Land!
January 17, 2006
Department of Planning Ahead
Noah's got nothing on the Norwegians, who are planning to squirrel away one of virtually every seed found in nature - nearly 2,000,000 in all - "buried deep within a sandstone mountain, locked in permafrost and encased in concrete behind blast-proof doors designed to foil terrorists" according to the Globe and Mail, a Canadian rag. Jeez, the Norwegians are even more paranoid than we are.
Who Ate All The Pecans?
The government of Norway, perhaps because they know something that our own government is keeping.under wraps, has developed a fail-safe all-hazards solution designed to carry them through nuclear holocaust, catastrophic terrorist attack, or whiplash-inducing climactic swings. Not that Norway is in any imminent danger from any of these things, mind you. They occupy that unfortunate set of nations that will suffer the collateral damage inflicted by attacks for which we're the primary target. To be more specific, if the continental United States gets obliterated, Norway will probably die a slow, painful death as radiation plumes waft over or sea levels slowly creep up on them. They might just get lucky and hang on, but if they do they'll be hungry and that's where the seed bank comes in. Anybody remember the combination?
"If worst came to worst, this would allow the world to reconstruct agriculture on this planet," according to Gary Fowler, executive secretary of Global Crop Diversity Trust, which is in Rome. How convenient for him.
I think what we're observing here is a little of that Norwegian pessimism. Or is it Finnish pessimism? I always get confused. Either way, it takes an intense lack of faith in mankind, the Creator, or both to start a project that aspires to gather every seed on the planet in case we have to start again from scratch. Most of us decided long ago that if we degenerate into a condition that requires remedies this severe, we don't deserve to continue as a species. Maybe Norwegians aren't human and don't feel like joining us homo sapiens on the Extinction Express.
January 19, 2006
Paranoia in the Wilderness
While Congress is using one hand to thrash W about his tendency to eavesdrop in ways that may not be entirely consistent with the framers' intent, they're doling out cash to the Department of Homeland Security with the other so we can enjoy enhanced surveillance on the sidestreets of even the nation's smallest burb.
Today's Washington Post includes detailed coverage of the heartwarming story. You see, DHS has lots of money to spend on state and local security-enhancing measures - $750M this year last time I checked. Most towns choose to spend this bounty on boring stuff like police radios and the occasional jet. But many have now decided that no nook is to small to escape notice, preferably assisted by klieg lights and a zoom lens. And local first responders are learning that staring at fifteen video displays on an eight hour shift is more stimulating than a six pack of Dunkin' Donuts java. Friends and family do such unpredictable things when observed unobtrusively in their native habitat.
What Happened to the Stoplights?
The police chief isn't helping to make the case for his department when he says things like this: "People don't notice things, now technology is there to do that." Hmmm. Aren't cops supposed to notice things? Isn't that what they're getting paid for? Maybe, but according to Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, "nothing will be happening most of the time. Multiply that by several cameras with nothing happening, all the time." Mr. Scott, who gets federal funding to write guidelines for police procedures, is never happy when the need for procedures is replaced by the need for software.
To be fair, the locals are in a real pickle. The money from DHS is flowing at a rate that is causing them to scurry around wildly looking for overflow receptacles. "It was difficult to be able to find something to use the money for," said Ridgely, MD police chief Merl Evans. DHS kind of insists that the money be used for "target hardening" and "the cameras fit in real nice." So does a Viagra prescription, and it's a whole lot cheaper.
Bellows Falls, VT, which the Post turns into a poster child for insecurity, has just made the prudent decision to place sixteen video cameras on guard duty, which doesn't sound like many until you discover that the nation's capitol only has nineteen and the BFPD gets by with eight full-time humans on patrol. If you assume every two cameras is the functional equivalent of one strapping gumshoe, the BFPD might find itself voted into oblivion at the next meeting of the Bellows Falls town council, whose members, unlike DHS, come face-to-face with the taxpayers' wrath up close and personal.
Bellows Falls, Safe and Secure
Well, if nothing else the videos are providing much-needed entertainment for the men in blue. Chief D. L. Meadows has fond memories of the time he nabbed a crime in progress. "I was sitting in my office, and watched him break and run" as officers arrived, Meadows said. "It was great. I mean, I enjoyed it." What/who did this guy break? And why did he enjoy it? Now the locals don't have to wait until Saturday night to get their fix of Cops.
But local folk, terrified of roving bands of hoodlums on rural streets, need no more convincing then this:
"Within the last two or three years, we've had one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight -- at least eight windows broken" downtown, said Patricia A. Fowler, 56, co-owner of Village Square Booksellers. She went on, "We know we have a problem, and maybe this will solve the problem."
We now know with absolute precision that the number of windows broken in Bellows Falls during this crime spree lies somewhere between 0 and another impossibly small number and that Patricia will gladly sacrifice her personal privacy in a hopeless quest for a negative crime rate. It amazes me sometimes how little Americans value their liberties.
Some privacy advocates are concerned by the lack of clear surveillance policies. And depending on where the prying eyes are pointed things could get dicey. "Hey Chief, isn't that your wife with Trooper Jones leaving the Motel 6? Again?"
January 23, 2006
Somewhere in the far reaches of Bethesda, MD, cloaked in an impenetrable shroud of secrecy lies a humble agency called the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. When I ran Google Earth on their address, I got a nice hi-res image of their campus on my screen, but every attempt I made to save it so I could post it on the site led to the results shown to the right. This is a crew that doesn't want to be found.
And maybe for good reason. The NGA, not to be confused with the NSA, is in a pretty straitforward business. They take detailed pictures, mostly from satellites, and make these images available to those having a need to know. Many of these folks happen to work over in Fort Meade, the epicenter of the NSA. While the NSA is engulfed in controversy, the NGA is going through an agency makeover with corporate overtones.
I remember working at a company called Bellcore. Somewhere along the line our executives got it into their heads that our culture needed a bit of spiffing up. More like an overhaul. So they hired a bunch of consultants who injected a scripted serum called the "Bellcore Way" into our arteries. This crew evidently moved from victim to victim perpetrated this crime, each time changing the title to "X" Way, X being the name of the unfortunate firm undergoing cultural shock therapy. A word to the wise: when your executives have decided that you're so far gone that they need to remake your culture, it's time to polish up your resume. Even if they're right, the place will be crawling with management consultants that will make your life miserable and you're probably too far gone for any consultant to fix you up right anyway. Jump!
Well, it looks like the "X Way" team found the NGA. This otherwise profoundly secretive organization has proudly announced the establishment of a new "Vision Statement". This is usually the first step in the "X Way" road to hell. It customarily reads like the forced confession of a fallen communist apparatchik. Here are the key goals, followed by my customary smarmy commentary:
Establish an integrated, collaborative analysis and production environment that is responsive to and predictive of continuing and emerging global threats. What did we have before - a loosely coupled, dysfunctional collection of dolts?
Institute and expand an interoperable, strategically aligned [cross−governmental] National System for Geospatial Intelligence (NSG). When all else fails, create a new agency and blame everything on a misaligned organizational structure. If you're really thinking, set it up to fail by making it "cross-governmental" so that they'll have to call you back a few years hence.
Attract, develop, sustain and engage a workforce with the skills and competencies required to meet current and future threats and challenges. As opposed to the mindless slouches that have been taking up space in the cubicles until now.
Identify, develop, acquire and deploy capabilities and technologies to anticipate and meet the ever−increasing demand for timely, relevant and accurate GEOINT NSG Statement of Strategic Intent. This is code for "buy lots of useless stuff that's relevant for some meaningless purpose (like GEOINT NSG)". Ever wonder why it's hard to balance the budget?
Remember, this is only step 1 in the 14 step NGA Way process. Think of the agony that awaits these wretched souls. By June there will be blood on the streets of Bethesda.
The NGA At Night
January 25, 2006
The Germans have found a wonderful new pest control technology, and it avoids the use of those messy and toxic insecticides! Scientists at the Max Planck Society have learned that plants will kindly permit their genes to be manipulated in a way that causes them to emit a curious smell when they are infested with a particular variety of voracious caterpillar. The odor attracts another species of insect that exterminates the parasite. Here it is, strait from the press release:
What twisted mind thought this insidious scheme up? The hapless caterpillar settles in for a hearty meal, the enjoyment of which ironically triggers the release of the gas that will lead to his demise. But it doesn't end there. Like Odysseus and his crew caught in the trance of a Siren's Smell, killer wasps make a nest of the helpless creature, who is probably beginning to suspect a trap by now. Too late. The nesting process results in a slow, painful death as hundreds of hungry wasp babies gradually consume the host. Had enough? I haven't. Now that the wasp babies have made a meal of their host where are they going to turn for food? So the process ends with the mass starvation of a generation of wasps. Can you imagine a more grim spectacle? Where's the DDT.
This mutation can turn up naturally in humans. My wife has discovered that I'm blessed with the "insecticide gene". Seems that when I've ingested some spicy or noxious new recipe to which my body has yet to build up a resistance I'm prone to my own particular brand of emission. The "cry for help" attracts its own wasps - in this case my angry spouse. She has tried to beat the gene out of me, but it's a stubborn bit of DNA.
What's That Buzzing Sound?
"Corn plants emit a cocktail of scents when they are attacked by certain pests, such as a caterpillar known as the Egyptian cotton leaf worm. Parasitic wasps use these plant scents to localize the caterpillar and deposit their eggs on it, so that their offspring can feed on the caterpillar. Soon after, the caterpillar dies and the plant is relieved from its attacker."
Avian Flu Update
Last time we talked the avian flu was mutating in strange and potentially dangerous ways in Turkey. The good news then was that the virus had not mutated quite enough to cause concern. Now we have a few more details - turns out there are three mutations one of which "allows the flu virus to bind to the receptors on the surface of its host's cells." That's bad. And yet Maria Cheng, of the World Health Organization (WHO), said, "it is not clear what role this particular change plays." I've got my hand up. The role it plays is that it causes the virus to bind to US. Not birds. That seems clear enough to me. Peole seem to be paranoid about all the wrong things these days. Video surveillance cameras aren't going to protect us against a domestic avian flu outbreak.