Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Weekly Links, March 10, 2008

Virtual Black-Out Week! I’m going to be at a conference on Merleau-Ponty next week in Switzerland so here’s some interesting articles (along with my comments and selected quotes) to tide us over until I get back online, up to speed and ready to feed. Happy reading! 1.) Communal Physiology of the Kiss. “In the body, a kiss triggers a cascade of neural messages and chemicals that transmit tactile sensations, sexual excitement, feelings of closeness, motivation and even euphoria” writes Chip Walter at the Scientific American in an interesting article on Why We Kiss. While love and kissing have a physiological and a psychological impact on a person (particularly due to the fact that “the lips are among the most densely populated with sensory neurons of any body region,” that “Of the 12 or 13 cranial nerves that affect cerebral function, five are at work when we kiss, shuttling messages from our lips, tongue, cheeks and nose to a brain that snatches information about the temperature, taste, smell and movements of the entire affair,” and that several hormones are released), it should not be forgotten that love and kissing are communal “affairs”—communicative situations and exchanges of information relating to the status and future of a relationship. In any case, it is not yet clear to scientists why kissing evolved, in spite of the reality that “For us humans, mate choice often involves falling in love.” Complicating our understanding of kissing is the fact that not all societies and cultures do kiss: “In fact, up to 10 percent of humanity does not touch lips, according to human ethology pioneer Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, now head of the Max-Planck-Society Film Archive of Human Ethology in Andechs, Germany, writing in his 1970 book, Love and Hate: The Natural History of Behavior Patterns. Fisher published a similar figure in 1992.”

2.) It’s more and more clear that the U.S. strategies, actions and wars against terrorism have been severely misguided and misinformed, particularly in relation to the real nature of terrorists. (These mistakes are perhaps due to ideological re-representations of the facts for political reasons.) There is a good article in the Washington Post by David Ignatius reviewing a new book by Marc Sageman on the terrorism threat. He writes:

The heart of Sageman’s message is that we have been scaring ourselves into exaggerating the terrorism threat – and then by our unwise actions in Iraq making the problem worse. He attacks head-on the central thesis of the Bush administration, echoed increasingly by Republican presidential candidate John McCain, that, as McCain’s Web site puts it, the United States is facing “a dangerous, relentless enemy in the War against Islamic Extremists” spawned by al-Qaeda. **

He goes on to specify three waves of al-Qaeda terrorists:

*1.) The first wave of al-Qaeda leaders, who joined Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, is down to a few dozen people on the run in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. *

*2.) The second wave of terrorists, who trained in al-Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan during the 1990s, has also been devastated, with about 100 hiding out on the Pakistani frontier. These people are genuinely dangerous, says Sageman, and they must be captured or killed. But they do not pose an existential threat to America, much less a “clash of civilizations.” *

*3.) It’s the third wave of terrorism that is growing, but what is it? By Sageman’s account, it’s a leaderless hodgepodge of thousands of what he calls “terrorist wannabes.” Unlike the first two waves, whose members were well educated and intensely religious, the new jihadists are a weird species of the Internet culture. Outraged by video images of Americans killing Muslims in Iraq, they gather in password-protected chat rooms and dare each other to take action. Like young people across time and religious boundaries, they are bored and looking for thrills…They are disaffected, homicidal kids – closer to urban gang members than to motivated Muslim fanatics. *

3.) David Brooks, an occasionally great and generally thought-provoking columnist at the New York Times, has a great piece up breaking down Democratic presidential voting in terms of demographic:

Hillary Clinton is a classic commodity provider. She caters to the less-educated, less-pretentious consumer. As Ron Brownstein of The National Journal pointed out on Wednesday, she won the non-college-educated voters by 22 points in California, 32 points in Massachusetts and 54 points in Arkansas. She offers voters no frills, just commodities: tax credits, federal subsidies and scholarships. She’s got good programs at good prices.

Barack Obama is an experience provider. He attracts the educated consumer. In the last Pew Research national survey, he led among people with college degrees by 22 points. Educated people get all emotional when they shop and vote. They want an uplifting experience so they can persuade themselves that they’re not engaging in a grubby self-interested transaction. They fall for all that zero-carbon footprint, locally grown, community-enhancing Third Place hype. They want cultural signifiers that enrich their lives with meaning.

…But why would Democratic votes break down so starkly along educational lines?

The consumer marketplace has been bifurcating for years! It’s happening because the educated and uneducated lead different sorts of lives. Educated people are not only growing richer than less-educated people, but their lifestyles are diverging as well. A generation ago, educated families and less-educated families looked the same, but now high school graduates divorce at twice the rate of college graduates. High school grads are much more likely to have kids out of wedlock. High school grads are much more likely to be obese. They’re much more likely to smoke and to die younger.

Their attitudes are different. High school grads are much less optimistic than college grads. They express less social trust. They feel less safe in public. They report having fewer friends and lower aspirations. The less educated speak the dialect of struggle; the more educated, the dialect of self-fulfillment.

4.) Holes and Loopholes in the Great Firewall of China. It’s common knowledge that China isn’t exactly as free (or is differently free) as Western countries in numerous ways, even, as we all know, on its access to the internet. James Fallows, a correspondent in China at the Atlantic, has a great piece called “The Connection has been reset” explaining in detail China’s Great Firewall as well as an interesting interview about how he was able to penetrate this security and technological inter-webbing and some lessons he’s learned living in China. Fallows characterizes principal asset of the entire system as its “unpredictability,” which due to changing criteria can mean one day a site works without a problem and the next it is blocked; essentially this means you never know what they are looking for nor what to be on the look out for. He breaks down four basic ways the China’s internet control system functions to prevent people from reading censored material:

The first and bluntest is the “DNS block.” The DNS, or Domain Name System, is in effect the telephone directory of Internet sites. Each time you enter a Web address, or URL—www.yahoo.com, let’s say—the DNS looks up the IP address where the site can be found. IP addresses are numbers separated by dots—for example, TheAtlantic.com’s is 38.118.42.200. If the DNS is instructed to give back no address, or a bad address, the user can’t reach the site in question—as a phone user could not make a call if given a bad number. Typing in the URL for the BBC’s main news site often gets the no-address treatment: if you try news.bbc.co.uk, you may get a “Site not found” message on the screen. For two months in 2002, Google’s Chinese site, Google.cn, got a different kind of bad-address treatment, which shunted users to its main competitor, the dominant Chinese search engine, Baidu. Chinese academics complained that this was hampering their work. The government, which does not have to stand for reelection but still tries not to antagonize important groups needlessly, let Google.cn back online. During politically sensitive times, like last fall’s 17th Communist Party Congress, many foreign sites have been temporarily shut down this way.

Next is the perilous “connect” phase. If the DNS has looked up and provided the right IP address, your computer sends a signal requesting a connection with that remote site. While your signal is going out, and as the other system is sending a reply, the surveillance computers within China are looking over your request, which has been mirrored to them. They quickly check a list of forbidden IP sites. If you’re trying to reach one on that blacklist, the Chinese international-gateway servers will interrupt the transmission by sending an Internet “Reset” command both to your computer and to the one you’re trying to reach. Reset is a perfectly routine Internet function, which is used to repair connections that have become unsynchronized. But in this case it’s equivalent to forcing the phones on each end of a conversation to hang up. Instead of the site you want, you usually see an onscreen message beginning “The connection has been reset”; sometimes instead you get “Site not found.” Annoyingly, blogs hosted by the popular system Blogspot are on this IP blacklist. For a typical Google-type search, many of the links shown on the results page are from Wikipedia or one of these main blog sites. You will see these links when you search from inside China, but if you click on them, you won’t get what you want.

The third barrier comes with what Lih calls “URL keyword block.” The numerical Internet address you are trying to reach might not be on the blacklist. But if the words in its URL include forbidden terms, the connection will also be reset. (The Uniform Resource Locator is a site’s address in plain English—say, www.microsoft.com—rather than its all-numeric IP address.) The site FalunGong .com appears to have no active content, but even if it did, Internet users in China would not be able to see it. The forbidden list contains words in English, Chinese, and other languages, and is frequently revised—“like, with the name of the latest town with a coal mine disaster,” as Lih put it. Here the GFW’s programming technique is not a reset command but a “black-hole loop,” in which a request for a page is trapped in a sequence of delaying commands. These are the programming equivalent of the old saw about how to keep an idiot busy: you take a piece of paper and write “Please turn over” on each side. When the Firefox browser detects that it is in this kind of loop, it gives an error message saying: “The server is redirecting the request for this address in a way that will never complete.”

The final step involves the newest and most sophisticated part of the GFW: scanning the actual contents of each page—which stories The New York Times is featuring, what a China-related blog carries in its latest update—to judge its page-by-page acceptability. This again is done with mirrors. When you reach a favorite blog or news site and ask to see particular items, the requested pages come to you—and to the surveillance system at the same time. The GFW scanner checks the content of each item against its list of forbidden terms. If it finds something it doesn’t like, it breaks the connection to the offending site and won’t let you download anything further from it. The GFW then imposes a temporary blackout on further “IP1 to IP2” attempts—that is, efforts to establish communications between the user and the offending site. Usually the first time-out is for two minutes. If the user tries to reach the site during that time, a five-minute time-out might begin. On a third try, the time-out might be 30 minutes or an hour—and so on through an escalating sequence of punishments.

While the firewall applies to external sites and their content, it is important note that the Chinese like other societies often focus most of their internet searches and their daily lives on local happenings, meaning things within the country. Consequently this equates to an increased attention and readership put on sites, blogs and writings within China. As such, the Chinese government focuses mostly on censorship and auto-censorship, because:

“If you want to have traction in China, you have to be in China,” she told me. And being inside China means operating under the sweeping rules that govern all forms of media here: guidance from the authorities; the threat of financial ruin or time in jail; the unavoidable self-censorship as the cost of defiance sinks in.

“Whether or not Americans supported George W. Bush, they could not avoid learning about Abu Ghraib,” Rebecca Mac­Kinnon says. In China, “the controls mean that whole topics inconvenient for the regime simply don’t exist in public discussion.” Most Chinese people remain wholly unaware of internationally noticed issues like, for instance, the controversy over the Three Gorges Dam.

5.) UN has recently criticized the USA on race. “The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination harshly criticized the US record on race after considering oral and written testimony submitted by the US government. In its conclusions issued today, the committee urged the US to rectify the “stark racial disparities” in criminal justice systems throughout the country.”

6.) Electric chair banned as “cruel and unusual punishment” in Nebraska.

Statistic of the Week:

210 million
Number of China residents online
(only the United States currently has more Internet users)
Go to Source

Hip-Hop Inspirational of the Week:

Nujabes ft. Cise Starr – Highs 2 Lows
from YouTube.com

Politically Inspiration of the Week:

Barack Obama’s “Yes, We Can” Speech in New Hampshire
Posted 9 January, 2008 on YouTube.com

Wanderlust Quote of the Week:

I rather would entreat they company
To see the wonders of the world abroad
Than, living dully sluggardiz’d at home,
Wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness.

  • Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of **Verona, I, i