Tuesday, July 30


Another controversy has emerged over authenticity and which writers have the proper background to write and speak out on certain topics.

Critics, including Daniel Politi of Slate, are blasting an interviewer who questioned scholar Reza Aslan about why, as a Muslim, he set out to write a book about Jesus. Critics on the opposite side have suggested that Aslan and some interviewers were devious in hiding his faith. Aslan responded firmly and masterfully on that point and others:  He mentions his Muslim faith on page 2 of the book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and he is an academic and historian. Being a practicing Muslim and historian are not exclusive.

Likewise a woman who was raised by Catholics can write about a Muslim woman in rural Afghanistan. 

Demanding that authors segregate their writing toward their own countries, their own beliefs, their own politics or experiences - denying human capability for research, analysis, and imagination in making connections - is an insidious form of censorship and control.

The most pointed analysis can come from commenters, and one, fingersfly, responded to the Erik Wemple blog in The Washington Post: 

Aslan is seen as a threat because he writes about "Jesus the man" and points out the contradictions between him and the "Jesus of myth" created by the Roman Church. Jesus the man and his socialist message would not serve the masters' agenda so they co-opted and changed him from socialist revolutionary to peaceful obey-er of all things secular. Religions are invisible chains to enslave believers into living lives in fear .... It's a hideously twisted way to control people, but sadly it works.  

Writing is judgment, from the very moment one picks up a pen and selects a topic. And yes, authors can and should write about other countries and time periods.
Aslan can't complain though. Controversy helps a book, and this morning his book ranks first on Amazon.    

Thursday, July 11

Need to share

In war, what you don't know can hurt you. 

Yet "The US military has blocked access to the Guardian’s website for troops in the Middle East and south Asia, after disclosures about widespread US surveillance," reports the Guardian. The message that comes up instead of the newspaper suggests that the newspaper's recent reports on US National Security Agency surveillance activities include classified information, some of which may be inaccurate, and the block could assist troops from inadvertently releasing classified information.

But the troops on the front lines should probably not be censored. Richard A. Best, Jr.,  analyzed "Intelligence Information: Need-to-Know vs. Need-to-Share" for the Congressional Research Service in June 2011:

"It is possible to limit dissemination of especially sensitive information, whether it is sensitive because of the nature of its contents or because it was acquired from an especially sensitive It is also possible to prevent the downloading and reproduction of large masses of information. It is possible to trace the identities of those who had access to particular pieces of information. Ultimately, however, security depends on the loyalty of cleared officials at all levels."

Readers around the globe are poring over the Guardian reports about the US surveillance, especially since the president suggested that privacy protections may not apply to non-citizens. The latest NSA statement reframes that sentiment more elegantly: "Not all countries have equivalent oversight requirements to protect civil liberties and privacy." Of course, the blocks on the Guardian are not thorough, with other news outlets repeating the reports. NSA secrets have been exposed, and US troops have as much right as anyone else to debate the merits of these programs.

Best went on to conclude: "For the U.S. Intelligence Community, the policy decision of whether the emphasis should be on“need-to-know” or the “need-to-share” can be viewed as a false choice. Information must always be shared with those with a genuine need to know even if this potential universe is a large one....Intelligence efforts are never risk-free.... Government officials must also accept the enduring reality of a media culture that is prepared to publish official secrets and considers such disclosure a patriotic contribution to democratic discourse. That individual civil servants or service members can be very harshly punished for their role in releasing information while editors and reporters are honored and celebrated seems to some as paradoxical."

Censorship puts a spotlight on the withheld information. "Even though people may want to withhold information, they will give us more information than what they realize," explains Mark McClish, retired deputy US marshal.

Philosophers have long debated if withholding information is lying, and Thomas L. Carson has suggested "withholding information can constitute deception if there is a clear expectation, promise, and/or professional obligation that such information will be provided."So, no, there is no clear expectation that the US would provide its troops with access to surveillance secrets or articles in the Guardian. Most members of the US service would not have heard of the Guardian, based in Great Britain, if not for news about the block.

Troops overseas must prepare for encounters with would-be terrorists and that entails understanding what an enemy combatant might know and how he or she might use the new reports to their advantage, possibly a sudden avoidance of Skype. Of course, federal employees, and probably members of the US armed service, too, in the course of their duties can request special authorization to visit blocked sites.

The Army Ranger Handbook ends with Standing Orders for Roger's Rangers, guidelines created in 1757 by Robert Rogers during the French and Indian War. Number four notes: "tell the truth about what you see and what you do. There is a[n] Army depending on us for correct information."

So much trust, loyalty, democracy and more rely on correct information.

Note: A main character in Fear of Beauty relies for guidance on a 1992 copy of the Ranger Handbook as much as an Afghan counterpart relies on the Koran.

Illustration of Robert Rogers, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, July 1

The Iris Farm

Every farm has a certain time of year when it offers pure delight. And early June is that time for the Iris Farm in Michigan.The farm small, at six acres, was once a cherry farm, but the soil, weather and birds pose constant challenges for fruit farmers in in northern Michigan. "Seventeen years ago, this fifth generation Leelanau farmer decided to no longer fight against the elements, and instead choose to embrace the offerings of his land," reports the Leelanau.com Blog about the farming family of William Black. "The family noticed that the iris plants blooming around the farm thrived."

Smart farmers don't fight nature, and instead they study and appreciate its many whims. Today, the farm has more than 700 hybrids of Iris and several hundred of day lilies. The farm doesn't seem to have a website. Teh family doesn't do much advertising, but the two brothers are obviously delighted by the attention their new crop attracts. Passersby on Route M-72 recognize something special and slam on the brakes.

The genus Iris has about 250 species - and the name comes from the Greek word for rainbow. 

So of course, I strolled along the rows of colorful irises, searching for Iris afghanica or some variation, but of course, those are not well suited for Michigan weather. "Iris afghanica is a striking species," report Malin Rivers and Richard Wilford, science editors of  Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. "The slender, bluish-green leaves can be up to 30 cm long, though are often shorter, and the outer ones are sickle-shaped.... At higher altitudes the plants are more strongly coloured and only about 10 cm tall. At lower altitudes the flowers are larger and more softly coloured, and the plants can reach 25 or 30 cm tall."

The plant was noticed by an iris collector in 1964 and named in 1972.And it grows among boulders and on steep rocky slopes at altitudes from 1,500 to 3,300 meters - and likely might be found in the mountains overlooking the imaginary village of Laashekoh in the novel Fear of Beauty. 

Iris afghanica has been cultivated, Kew reports, but is rare. It thrives in hot dry summers and freezing winters - with little rain and the Kew species is in Kew House. Kew Gardens in London has 300 acres of wonder and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site - with shopping is available online.   

So, Iris Farm has no Iris afghanica, but some other purple varieties will soon join my garden and offer memories well into the future, and I look forward to returning to Traverse City later this summer and retrieving my rhizomes.

Photos of the Iris Farm, courtesy of Douglas Olsen. Thumbnail photo of Iris afghanica, courtesy of Kew Gardens and Richard Wilford.

Thursday, June 27

Empty promises

Negotiating with the Taliban is likely a futile endeavor - unless they are prepared to ensure equal rights for Afghanistan's women. They must be required to "frankly state their position on the status of women, particularly with regard to health, education, access to justice and above all political representation," writes Orzala Ashraf Nemat, an activist from Afghanistan, for The Guardian. 

Firm conditions must be set before any negotiations begin. And the negotiators in this case should be required to post a bond of some sort, held in escrow, to prevent walking walking back on promises.  

Some members of the Taliban may be prepared to renounce extremism and be prepared to compromise and live with decisions that are not exactly to their liking.  And they should prove this by walking away from the organization.The Taliban are few in number. And the opinion of a minority group that does not respect majority rights should not be over-weighted in global or regional circles.

But negotiators can't even be sure that the Taliban gathering in Qatar are representative of the region's Taliban.  The BBC reports that the group of 20 men includes no Taliban of Pakistan. "For years, the Afghan government and its Western backers have been trying to contact the Taliban, but they did not have a known address," reports the BBC News. "As a confidence-building measure, providing protection to those Taliban leaders participating in peace talks and finding them a permanent address became a priority for the US and the Afghan High Peace Council." The Taliban chose Qatar and the United States and Afghanistan went along. The Afghan government is rightly worried about the Taliban using the new base for promotion, recruitment or fundraising.

A few members of the Taliban are in a new locale, enjoying luxuries not available to them in Afghanistan. There are no guarantees they speak for other so-called Taliban in Afghanistan or have control over putting a top to extremism - convincing others to abide by political process.

The Qatar office could be nothing more than a scam.  

NATO troops are withdrawing, and Afghans must choose the type of society they want. Most in the country probably do not want to go backward. 

Photo of Afghan man beating a woman for removing her burqa in 2001, courtesy of RAWA and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, June 25


As the author of a mystery novel set in Afghanistan, I have often wondered if my internet wanderings have triggered alarms among analysts at the National Security Agency. And as reports emerged abut PRISM, I filed a request with the NSA’s convenient online form – inquiring about any files with my name or the title of my fourth book. 

I would not be surprised if the months of research for the novel, Fear of Beauty, set in Afghanistan, didn’t hit some nerves. The story is told from conflicting points of view of a rural and illiterate Afghan woman and an Army Ranger, with a plot focusing on extremism, varying interpretations of the Koran, weapons and war, conflict among members of a provincial reconstructions team, surveillance and more. So I headed to the National Security Agency’s web page on the Freedom of Information Act and found: “If you are seeking personal records on yourself (i.e., security, medical, personnel, applicant, etc.) or the reason why you were denied a position with this Agency, you will need to submit a PRIVACY ACT (PA) request instead of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.”

After filing a request, I stumbled on the advice from the National Security Archive for filing a FOIA request – and that advice could be a model for the National Security Agency as they go about the business of collecting and storing vast amounts of our personal phone and internet data.

The archive warns the public seeking FOIA requests that obtaining records can take a long time and be costly.   Many documents are already public available – and alternative sources should be checked first. “Overly broad requests are wasteful in time (yours, and the government’s),” the site notes. Appeals can be filed, and the public is advised to check in occasionally, but not harass the FOIA officers.  

Long delays can be expected and the site notes that “agencies that handle national security information have delays ranging from a few months to several years…. Delays are exacerbated by the fact that, for most agencies, FOIA is not an agency priority -- budget or otherwise.”

Finally, the archive advises:  "Don’t send frivolous letters or file pointless appeals; they will delay the processing of yours –and others’ – requests."  My request was not frivolous, and the NSA and our political leaders need to know that a huge range of Americans, of all ages and backgrounds, are concerned.

A response arrived in less than two weeks, notifying me the request was denied.  I won't appeal, but Congress must review these programs, and eventually much of the methods and data collections will be declassified to truly determine what works and what doesn’t. Transparency could contribute to ongoing public support of the widespread surveillance while eliminating the many questions and concerns. 

To conduct blanket sweeps on internet and phone conversations or not?  Blanket sweeps are time consuming and may not be helpful and the analysts have many alternative avenues to investigate. Opponents of gun control in the United States insist that blanket applications of background checks are ineffective – and that’s for actual weapons.  And perhaps that justifies outlawing the most lethal weapons, military-style assault rifles, just as government prohibits bombs, tanks and other military armaments. 

Of course, blanket searches of any type may eliminate some bias of targeted searches and profiling, but not the labeling and stereotyping that may go on among thousands of analysts with minimal education and training who have access to our data.

And that’s the most troubling aspect of these programs. Hundreds of thousands of contractors with questionable backgrounds seem to have access to data, with so much potential for misuse and a lack of accountability among the managers who devised this unwieldy system.

Congress needs to get straight answers on the operations of the National Security Agency – determining what kind of data should be collected, the appropriate number of analysts who need access, and the proper level of training. The House of Representatives hearing on NSA surveillance was a start.

NSA headquarters at night courtesy of the NSA and Wikimedia Commons. 

Saturday, June 22

Facial recognition

Survivalists suggest that "A human face is a dead giveaway to the trained eye against a heavily forested background."

Actually, the face of any creature attracts attention, particularly a big creature like a bear. Leaving a state park on one of Michigan's rural peninsulas, I noticed a face peering at me over a road sign, and my brain immediately registered curiosity and bear. Ducking, the bear moved out of sight and I thought I must have seen a stump.

Then the bear crossed the road.

Perhaps it was not the face, but the eyes - and the reason I initially registered an emotion over the creature  itself. Another survivalist page advises carrying sunglasses: "Being able to look into someone's eyes gives you a lot of insight into what they are feeling and thinking."

Human eyes do still out more than others because of the ample white color surrounding the iris and pupil - which allows others to determine what our eyes are staring at even if our head is not pointed n that direction. " Knowing what another person is looking at provides valuable information about what she is thinking and feeling, and what she might do next," wrote Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, for the New York Times. "If I am, in effect, advertising the direction of my eyes, I must be in a social environment full of others who are not often inclined to take advantage of this to my detriment — by, say, beating me to the food or escaping aggression before me. Indeed, I must be in a cooperative social environment in which others following the direction of my eyes somehow benefits me."

The cooperative eye hypothesis might explain why in some societies women don veils, covering the entire face, even the eyes, and why veils in other societies expose the eyes.   

Photo by D. Olsen

Wednesday, June 19

NSA - a hiring scandal

Employers routinely dismiss applicants who are older than 50 years or even 40 years. Political and industry leaders alike repeatedly suggest that the young are automatically better at handling technology than the old. It's not true. It doesn't have to be true.

I might prefer putting my research questions - and yes, my personal and national security - into the hands of a skilled librarian of any age than into the hands of a so-called systems administrator, in his or her twenties and lacking in formal training. I wrote about reorganization of the FBI post-9/11, and the same argument applies to the National Security Agency post-Snowden leaks.

"Reorganization of the FBI requires fundamental change and not just a reshuffle of administrators and agents," noted the opinion essay for The New Haven Register in July 2002.  "In truth, the director must consider hiring a new sort of intelligence agent. Avid readers with meticulous indexing and organizing skills offer potential for uncovering terrorist plots on domestic soil - and no one fits that career profile better than librarians."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics describes the position: "May perform in-depth, strategic research, and synthesize, analyze, edit, and filter information. May set up or work with databases and information systems to catalogue and access information." Yet the numbers hired by the federal government and industry, as reported by BLS, are dismal.

Modern library science requires mastery over a wide range of technology, and it's one of the many ironies of innovation that this same technology is reducing the number of librarians in the community setting and beyond. "Library Science has the fourth highest unemployment rate at 15% and the fifth worst median salary at $36,000," wrote the Annoyed Librarian in 2011 for Library Journal.

Brett Bonfield wrote about the quandary over whether the US is educating too many or too few librarians for In the Library with the Lead Pipe (quite the title - reminds me of Team Crowbar, whose creator insists there is no crowbar except by way of metaphor): "Library science is part humanities, part social science, and, at times in the past, and perhaps in the near future as well, part information science, and even computer science. Figuring out how these tensions might be balanced has everything to do not only with the producing an appropriate supply of new librarians, but also ensuring these new librarians have the requisite skills to meet the demands of the marketplace."

As I wrote back in 2002, government agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as the National Security Agency and Homeland Security could immediately improve intelligence gathering by hiring librarians with technology backgrounds as analysts. Journalists who are adept with technology might come in second place.

Time and time again, industry and political leaders are fooled by the fast talkers and new, shiny toys. Too many tech administrators create a false aura of complex secrecy to bill for unnecessary hours while librarians are eager to train and educate others regardless of their skill level. Cross-training is essential for efficiency.

Bias against these skilled librarians lingers, compounded by bias against women and older workers.

Jennifer Bushong, president of the Federal and Armed Forces Libraries Roundtable, wrote about my Register essay in Fall 2002 for the Federal Librarian and offered a theory:   "For some reason modern managers and organizational developers don't like the title "Librarian". They know what we can do and they know that today's world needs our skills and services, but they can't bring themselves to call us what we are. So they give us titles such as knowledge managers and information specialists, avoiding the world librarian."

Again, I'd prefer a librarian monitoring intelligence-gathering, all the while expected to respect civil rights and privacy, over Edward Snowden and other technicians who share his background. The most alarming aspect of these leaks is NSA hiring policies and strange reliance on contractors and uneducated workers, and fortunately, a few in Congress may pursue these questions.

Another hiring scandal that threatened our economic security: Financial analysts and ratings agency officers who issued reports knowing their analysis is bogus.  Mike Taibbi writes about "The Last Mystery of the Financial Crisis" for Rolling Stone, and quotes one Standard & Poor's analyst: "[T]his has to be the stupidest place I have worked at. As you know, I had difficulties explaining 'HOW' we got to those numbers since there is no science behind it."

People employed in positions lacking in productive tasks, with hours and procedures designed to mislead clients and the public, should speak up or quit.    

Photo courtesy of Raysonho and Wikimedia Commons.