Be indomitable. Refuse to be terrorized.

Lynne Kiesling

This week we have many introspective analyses of the consequences of an evil act perpetrated 10 years ago. Those consequences are a mix of good and bad, ranging from no successful coordinated attacks in the U.S. to foreign wars with gruesome human and financial costs. The consequences in which I am most interested, and about which I am most concerned, are those attached to the growth of the surveillance state toward a police state.

For most of the past decade the federal government has implemented, and the American people have accepted, invasive search, extensive surveillance, and increased militarization of law enforcement, and have done so with little or no analysis of whether or not the benefits of reduced attacks are large enough to justify the enormous financial, social, and cultural costs of, in my opinion, the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about in 1961. I wrote about this in May in the context of the TSA’s increasing use of untested x-ray radiation scanners that are ineffective at identifying weapons and explosives and invasive criminal-style frisks of airline passengers, referring to John Mueller’s and Mark Stewart’s performance of the benefit-cost analysis that the GAO repeatedly recommended that the Department of Homeland Security should do and has refused to do.

I think we should all be more concerned about, and pay more attention to, the consequences of our increasingly authoritarian/submissive society (can’t have one without the other!). Glenn Greenwald has been a stalwart voice, doing investigative analysis of the growth of the surveillance state, with this recent omnibus and link-filled post as a thorough compendium of the information- and data-related surveillance and secrecy authority and control that the federal government is exerting. I also wrote in May about how the Patriot Act has reduced our civil liberties, including economic liberties as an important component of our civil liberties. The government’s enforcement of the Constitutional protections of our rights to be free from unreasonable government search have evaporated into near-nonexistence (both at the airport and elsewhere), which increases our general uncertainty and reduces our productive and valuable social-economic engagement and interaction with others. In the process it also dehumanizes those who are in positions where they can exert this coercive authority and control, as anyone familiar with the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority and the Zimbardo Stanford prison experiment knows too well. Actually, one of my favorite quotes about authority is from Stanley Milgram:

The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority.

I fear that we have witnessed some disappearance of a sense of responsibility and individual moral agency in American culture, and that is one of the greatest costs of the evil act of a decade ago.

And to what end — how justified is this fear? High financial, human, cultural costs, to avert events that are one-quarter as likely as being struck by lightning. Some may criticize the performance of relative risk assessments between accidents and deliberate attacks, but it’s precisely these crucial relative risk assessments that enable us to recognize the unavoidable reality that neither accidents nor deliberate attacks can be prevented, and that to maintain both mental and financial balance we cannot delude ourselves about that, or give in to the panic that is the objective of the deliberate attacks in the first place. Thus the title of this post, which comes from two separate quotes from Bruce Schneier — the first from his excellent remarks at EPIC’s January The Stripping of Freedom event about the TSA’s use of x-ray body scanners, the second from his classic 2006 Wired essay of the same title:

The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics.

The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.

And we’re doing exactly what the terrorists want.

Other than the above links, I have found two recent essays on the subject exceptionally good. The first, from a symposium in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is from Alex Gourevitch on fear, in which he notes

The great lie of the war on terror is not that we can sacrifice a little liberty for greater security. It is that fear can be eliminated, and that all we need to do to improve our society is defeat terrorism, rather than look at the other causes of our social, economic, and political anxiety. That is the great seduction of fear: It allows us to do nothing. It is easier to find new threats than new possibilities.

A decade after 9/11, we look backward and find ourselves in all-too-familiar surroundings. We have, in fact, accomplished very little. We have yet to do any of the serious thinking that might carry us beyond the banal, stifling quest for security. That kind of thinking would require us to have a different relationship to fear: a willingness to accept it, even cause it.

The second is by American writer Paul Theroux, but is not to be found in an American publication, interestingly enough, but in the Telegraph. It is outstanding and thoughtful in its entirety, but this part really resonated with me:

Of all the agencies created by the panicky response to 9/11, the Transportation Security Agency [sic.; it’s Administration–ed.] (TSA) is the most visible and to me one of the most obnoxious for its obstinacy, its clumsiness, its inefficiency and its ubiquity. There was a time when bag searches and interrogation of travellers was purely a feature of travel in eastern Europe. Now such searches and screenings are a common feature of life in America; and that we have become habituated to it, submitting without complaint, is one of the saddest consequences of 9/11. I think of it as the Gestapo-with-a-grin, Stasi-with-a-smile method of intimidation, a species of security theatre that has redefined what a weapon is (a small bottle of liquid, a nail file, a hat pin, a shoe) – it has redefined the notion of privacy, of travel, of freedom.

Heck, even Business Week is arguing that it’s time to rethink counterterrorism spending.

So let’s get on with it. Be neither authoritarian nor submissive. Be indomitable. Refuse to be terrorized.

Biking and climbing and driving … and eating!

Lynne Kiesling

I am just back from a long weekend trip to Denver, to participate in Sunday’s Deer Creek Challenge bike ride. We did the metric century — 62 miles, with 7,022′ of elevation gain along the way. Pretty daunting for a flatlander! But this event was my “A race” (although not a race, but triathletes tend to prioritize events as a way to structure training across multiple events), so I have been doing some rides with climbs and lots of mileage … and, of course, in the midwest we have the perennial “headwinds are hill training” opportunity. So although I was a bit slow, I got it done, and it was a gorgeous ride.

We drove from Chicago to Denver (in large part due to my flying boycott thanks to the TSA, our feckless Congress that does not rein them in, and the airlines that go along with it to reduce their security liabililty), stopping in Omaha for one night on the way there. As an enthusiast for early American colonial and frontier history, I was excited to drive through the parts of Iowa, Nebraska, and Colorado that I’d not seen before, and I thought the high plains in western Nebraska and eastern Colorado were particularly beautiful; I love the combination of rolling hills and semi-arid landscape.

In Omaha we visited the Art Deco Union Station, which now houses the Durham Museum, so it’s a great stop if you like history and architecture. But the highlight of our Omaha visit was dinner at the Boiler Room, a fantastic restaurant in, you guessed it, an old renovated boiler room for The Bemis Company in the Old Market area of town. The food was fresh, seasonal, and creative, and we happened in to a special winemaker dinner. Outstanding from beginning to end.

We didn’t intend for this trip to be a foodie trip, but then in Denver we ate at Potager, which was also outstanding. Again fresh and seasonal, with a great wine list; melon soup with shrimp, zucchini carpaccio, lots of dishes based on just-harvested peaches, wonderful bread.

Our drive home was a bit of a quick blast, but we did stop in Des Moines yesterday for lunch at Smokey D’s BBQ, which was very good. We shared beef brisket and pork ribs; both were really good, but the brisket was especially good. Their sauces ranged from mild to extra-fiery, which definitely lived up to its name.

All in all, a fun late-summer road trip.

Unfair prices for holiday air travel in India? Any lasting effects?

Michael Giberson

Leigh Caldwell, at Knowing and Making, notes concerns raised by representatives of India’s government about unfair airline prices during the festival of Diwali.  Caldwell mostly ignore the government’s chatter about unfair prices, but wonders how consumer reactions may influence company pricing decisions over time.  I think he offers interesting speculations, but I think that consumer price expectations won’t work in the way he thinks in the relatively dynamic air travel market in India.

The Financial Times reported (via GulfNews.com):

India’s government has warned domestic airlines that it intends to crack down on “predatory pricing” after carriers sharply increased fares on popular routes during a recent festival, as overall passenger traffic surges.

Indian travellers were outraged during the recent festival of Diwali — Hinduism’s biggest gift-giving holiday — when some carriers charged about Rs25,000 (Dh2,000) for a last-minute Delhi-Mumbai round trip ticket, a route on which fares usually range from Rs10,000-Rs15,000.

Fares on other popular routes also surged during the holiday period, as local airlines sought to cash in on a newly buoyant market.

“This predatory pricing can’t be allowed to continue,” Praful Patel, the civil aviation minister, said at an industry conference in New Delhi on Thursday. “We shall try our best to bring discipline.”

Caldwell tried to assess how consumer perceptions of price fairness will affect the market. Caldwell said:

In any case, like all suppliers, Indian airlines must keep an ear open to what their customers regard as fair, but need not pay too much attention to the protests of those who are not actually buying the tickets. Perceptions of fairness can shift quickly in consumer markets. However, new brands, services and routes have an advantage over incumbents who have been using a particular model for years. People who have never tried a newly launched airline will have no strong price expectations. While those who have used the same one for years may feel ripped off by a price increase.

The likely outcome of this dynamic is that existing airlines are under more pressure to keep prices low, and will sell out all their tickets quickly. New airlines can charge more, will mop up the excess demand and, as a result of the higher prices, may be perceived as a higher quality service. This will give them a competitive advantage when demand returns to its usual lower level from February onwards.

I’m not sure there is any lasting reputational effect at stake.  Research suggests that pioneering brands (first product in a consumer category) and long-dominant brands obtain a psychological position as a prototypical example of a product in the category.  Prices of prototypes can strongly affect price expectations for other products in the category, but prices of non-prototypes don’t strongly affect price expectations for prototypes.  But this affect is strongest in especially innovative product categories, and weaker otherwise.  I’d suspect that airlines fall into the “weaker otherwise” set.

With airline travel, consumers see many options for a relatively undifferentiated service and compare prices.  While airlines offer full-service brands and discount brands, and may further differentiate between first class and other seating, within each category consumers compare prices across companies.  In such an environment, the specific price expectations that attach to an airline brand itself (as opposed to the product category the brand participates in) are probably quite weakly held.  As the Financial Times article notes, 70 percent of air travel in India is on “low fare” carriers (including the low-fare affiliates of full service airlines).  It is a fluid, contestable market which is unlikely to support the strong, durable price reputations necessary for Caldwell’s effect to work.

NOTE: The Wikipedia “List of airlines in India” reports current market shares and links to additional information.

The fictional (and extremely unhealthy!) Big Rock Candy Mountain

Michael Giberson

From the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Kids Pages, an earnest warning – accompanying the lyrics to the song Big Rock Candy Mountain – not to be lead astray by the wild (and extremely unhealthy!) images conjured up by the songwriter Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock:

IMPORTANT REMINDERS ABOUT THE LYRICS: Mr. McClintock’s song was written from the outdated perspectives and manner of speech common many years ago (in the 1920’s), with the intention of humorously portraying an imaginary place for people living “on the road”. But please remember that being unemployed and homeless are very difficult situations for anyone to face! Visit HUD’s Help the Homeless Children’s website to learn more about how YOU can help!

In addition, smoking and alcohol addictions are extremely harmful to your health; and no situation will be improved by having easy access to cigarettes or alcohol, as promised in the fictional (and extremely unhealthy!) Big Rock Candy Mountains.

And speaking of candy, please also visit Obesity and Your Environment and My Food My World!

I’m surprised the writer failed to warn kids about the hazards of never changing their socks. Talk about your environmental health problems!

Where water management meets electricity consumption, and other notes from New Orleans

Michael Giberson

Phil Carson reports a few parting thoughts from last week’s IEEE Power and Energy Society’s Transmission and Distribution Conference in New Orleans.  One of those thoughts centered on the last-mile link up of communications and energy systems:

Marty Travers, president for telecommunications at Black & Veatch, reminded me that the “telecom” piece at electric utilities is really a toolbox full of options, from fiber optic cable to public wireless networks, from land mobile radio to microwave. These options are being combined in a mix-and-match strategy to meet the unique needs of various utilities in disparate geographies.

As “last mile” mesh networks employ machine-to-machine (M2M) modules, Travers sees “smart farming” as a potential market, where water management meets electricity consumption, literally out in the field.

The communications network overlay on the grid has been made possible, in part, by the simple fact that costs have been driven down, Travers told me. But the United States market remains a state-by-state proposition.

“Our theory is that [smart grid work] is driven by regulatory input from the state public utility commissions, so it’s still a state-by-state patchwork,” Travers said.

By the time I made it to New Orleans last week all of the IEEE PES 2010 fun was over, so there was nothing left to do but get rained on (Friday), trudge through the mud (Saturday), and enjoy the glorious sunshine (Sunday) of the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. (A few more photos here.)

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Michael Giberson

Today is a day celebrated as the day, 20 years ago, the Berlin Wall fell.

Technically speaking, the wall itself was breached a few days after November 9, but this is the day an East German bureaucratic mix-up inadvertently and briefly allowed East Berliners free movement into the west.  When combined with events of the prior several weeks in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, the brief opening between the two halves of the city soon led to a physical assault on the barrier itself.

The Berlin Wall was perhaps the most potent symbol of the divisions between the capitalist West and the authoritarian East, and its fall has stood as symbol of the collapse of communism.  East and West Germany reunited about a year later, and other countries in the former Soviet sphere continued rapid movement toward open societies.

Many video accounts of the fall of the wall are available on YouTube, both historical looks at the fall and many current 20th anniversary reports.  See, for example: “Fall of the Berlin Wall: The 20th Anniversary of the moment“.  (Google News provides links to many, many news stories on the fall.  See also Lynne’s earlier post on the anniversary.)

UPDATE: The minor flap about when now-French President Nicholas Sarkozy arrived and took a small pickaxe to the Berlin Wall reminds me of the Romanian film 12:08 East of Bucharest, which involves similarly disputed accounts of just when (indeed, whether) one of the characters joined protests against the Ceauşescu regime before the Ceauşescus fled the country.

Films more directly related to the Berlin Wall include Der Tunnel (The Tunnel), Goodbye, Lenin, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), or The Spy that Came In from the Cold.  Each film touches on life in East Berlin and the Berlin Wall in some manner.

Any other recommendations?

Weekend jaunt from Chicago: New Glarus, Wisconsin

Lynne Kiesling

The area around New Glarus, Wisconsin, is one of our favorite places when we want to get out of town. Great roads for cycling, camping, beautiful scenery, and of course the newly-expanded New Glarus Brewery. Gone are the days when we could get Spotted Cow and Uff Da Bock around here; now we have to drive to Wisconsin to get some. If you are not familiar with the area, this Gaper’s Block post provides a good weekend getaway guide, including recommendations for bicycling on the several very good trails in the area — especially good for families!