Green Dam Spouts a Leak

For years the Chinese government has relied on the "Great Firewall" to censor its citizens' access to the internet, primarily by filtering packets based on keyword detection and blocking IP addresses of sites the government dislikes (Falun Gong, pro-democracy sites, etc.).  But the firewall has never been as watertight as the government would like, and the next phase was supposed to be the mandatory installation of a piece of software called "Green Dam" on every new computer sold in China.  Interestingly, Chinese computer users are fighting back and apparently winning:

In a last-minute climbdown, the Chinese government announced today that it will delay the launch of censorship software that was supposed to have been sold in every computer from tomorrow.

....The Guardian struggled to find a single retailer who had Green Dam either installed or bundled with computers. Adding to the mystery, Lenovo, Sony, Dell and Hewlett Packard refused to comment on whether their PCs are now being shipped with the software, as the government ordered them to do last month.

....A group of bandit hackers, known as Anonymous, declared "war" on Green Dam and threatened to attack it tomorrow.

According to a source close to the group, they plan to create a remote computer 'bot' that pummels Baidu, Kaixin and other mainland websites with data requests containing forbidden or sensitive terms, such as expletives, Falun Gong, Dalai Lama and "Fifty-cent party member" (the derogatory name given to people paid to post pro-government comments online). They hope the volume of dirty traffic will clog up the keyword filters.

I don't have any special comment about this.  It seemed like a quixotic plan from the start, and I'm not all that surprised that it's been delayed at the least, and possibly abandoned.  It's just hard to see how it can work in the long term.  Still, as with the twittering in Iran, it's interesting to see yet another case of how technology can be simultaneously both servant and bane of autocratic governments.

Freedom House, a Washington-based NGO that monitors political rights and civil liberties worldwide, released its "Nations In Transit" report Tuesday, an annual assessment of Eastern European and former Soviet states' transition to democracy. The report, first released in 1995, has always been something of a downer. And this year's incarnation is on exception. Two thirds (18 of 29) nations evaluated were found to be backsliding from democratic reform.

"2008 was a dark year for democracy in the region, in particular in the former Soviet states," said Vladimir Shkolnikov, who oversaw the report. "With economic conditions worsening, the region is likely to see authoritarians resort to greater repression, rather than adopt needed reforms." Indeed, for the first time, Russia was determined to be "a consolidated authoritarian regime," due to its persistent problems with corruption, press censorship, and rigged courts, not to mention last year's highly suspect presidential election in which Putin acolyte, Dmitry Medvedev, came out on top. Similar authoritarian trends also appeared in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and Georgia. 

Infinite Jest

So a bunch of folks are reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest this summer and blogging about it.  Infinite Summer kicked things off and A Supposedly Fun Blog is the stomping grounds for IJ musings from a bunch of political types.

I feel kind of funny reading the things everyone has to say.  It's an iconic book now, the kind of thing you read partly to say you've read it, and it's famously long and complex.  And the footnotes.  The footnotes.

But that wasn't my experience of Infinite Jest.  It's absolutely not the kind of book I'd normally pick up and read, but for some reason I did back in 1997.  I have no idea why.  I'd never heard of the book and I'd never heard of David Foster Wallace, so I didn't suffer from any preconceptions that I was making a statement by diving into it.  I was completely naive.  And I loved it.  It was long and complex — I could only read about 50 pages a day because my brain just gave out after that many pages — but I never found it pretentious or overly difficult, two adjectives often associated with it.  (A little bit difficult, yes, but a friendly kind of difficult.) To me, Wallace was having fun with the vocabulary he used, not showing off.  I got a huge kick out of the endless footnotes.  And once he finally explained what the chapter headings were about, things started making a whole lot more sense.  (Granted, that doesn't happen until you're a couple hundred pages in, but hey — that's less than 20% of the book!)  If you're interested, my original 1997 thoughts about IJ are here.

I don't think I'm up to the task of rereading it this summer, but I'd recommend it to anyone who asks.  When you're done, be sure to read the first chapter over again.

Medical Myths

The New York Times summarizes a few "medical myths" today, and Ezra Klein says he's glad to hear that knuckle cracking doesn't cause arthritis.  Since I'm a longtime knuckle cracker and it drives my mother crazy, I already knew this.  You gotta keep up with the latest research when you're arguing with Mom.  But this one surprised me:

8. Sugar makes kids hyper. Numerous studies show sugar doesn’t affect behavior, but most parents don’t believe this. In one study, parents were told their kids had sugar and they were more likely to report problem behavior — but in reality, the kids had consumed a sugar-free drink.

Seriously?  Sugar has no effect on kids' behavior?  This must be one of the most widely believed myths in history.  I'm not sure I want to buy the book all this stuff is excerpted from, but I might head over to the bookstore just to skim this part.  It sounds fascinatingly contrary.

Phase 1 of the Iraqi withdrawal plan brokered by George Bush is now complete:

Six years and three months after the March 2003 invasion, the United States has withdrawn its remaining combat troops from Iraq's cities, the U.S. commander here said, and is turning over security to Iraqi police and soldiers.

While more than 130,000 U.S. troops remain in the country, patrols by heavily armed soldiers in hulking vehicles have largely disappeared from Baghdad, Mosul and Iraq's other urban centers. Iraqis danced in the streets and set off fireworks overnight in impromptu celebrations of a pivotal moment in their nation's troubled history. The government staged a military parade to mark the new national holiday of "National Sovereignty Day," and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made a triumphant, nationally televised address.

The general consensus seems to be that this is a big deal.  And in one sense it unquestionably is: in a lot of ways, the "surge" was less about the number of new troops sent to Iraq than it was about the way they were deployed.  Gen. David Petraeus insisted from the beginning that they establish a direct presence in neighborhoods throughout Baghdad and other cities, and that presence — along with several other factors — played a substantial role in reducing violence.  Now that presence is gone.

And yet — those "other factors" were a big deal.  In combination, they were certainly a bigger deal than the surge itself.  So the big question now is whether the Sunni Awakening holds; whether Muqtada al-Sadr has genuinely been defanged; whether the sectarian cleansing of the past couple of years is over; and whether Maliki can keep things together if and when Kirkuk blows up.  And the even bigger question is whether he can do that when he no longer has American troops as a backstop to his own power.

We won't know that until U.S. troops actually leave the country, not just regroup outside the cities.  That's the real test.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Kenneth Casey (center), commander of 1st Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, sits with Lt. Col. Hassan (front), commander of 2nd Battalion, 12th Brigade, 2nd Iraqi Army Division, during the turnover ceremony of Multi-National Force - Iraq, Combat Outpost Power in the Aden District of Mosul, Iraq, June 7. Tuesday was the official deadline for US troops to leave Iraqi cities. (Photo courtesy army.mil).

Vivek Kundra is a rock star.

At least at the annual Personal Democracy Forum conference. On Tuesday morning, Kundra, the chief information officer of the Obama administration, opened the second day of this gathering of digital techies by unveiling a new dashboard that taxpayers can use to track the federal government's spending on information technology. The crowd went wild. They greeted his announcement with a standing ovation.

You can go to Data.gov to see this new tool, which will allow you to obtain and mash data about IT programs across the federal government. For example, as Kundra said, you could check out "how much the US Department of Agriculture spends on information technology projects and what is the health of those projects." You can see who's getting the IT contracts, assess the performance of those contracts, and provide feedback to the CIOs of these agencies.

Not your idea of a hot time? Okay. But as Kundra pointed out, the US government spends about $70 billion a year on IT, and much of this money gets wasted on lousy IT. He noted that a 1994 report found that billions of dollars in federal IT investments went down the drain. And he referred to a 2008 report that concluded that $30 billion in IT programs were in trouble. That report, Kundra griped, didn't even provide a list of the specific IT programs in jeopardy. And, he said, big federal IT programs often take 18 months to two years to get off the launching pad, but by then the technology has changed and outpaced the project's original specs. Remember those FBI computers?

So getting IT right in the federal government is a big deal. By putting all this data on line, Kundra is inviting outside-the-government experts to vet what is happening within the government. He's also applying principles of accountability and transparency to this uber-wonky aspect of governance. Kundra also noted that CIOs in federal agencies have been ordered to inspect every single IT investment. And when he declared that the IT dashboard has been released in beta form--signaling that the government would seek input from users on how to improve it--the PDF audience exploded in applause.

Kundra was introduced to the conference by Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist. Newmark said he was enthusiastic about Washington these days, noting that the government was now in the hands of nerds, wonks, and hybrids he calls "nonks" Kundra may be the top nonk of the administration. When Kundra said, "This is a new approach to advancing technology in government," the hundreds of nonks in the room smiled and nodded approvingly. If this jazzes them so much, non-nonks should be heartened.

This was first posted at CQPolitics.com. You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

On this last day of June, a look at health, environment, and science news from our other blogs:

Dough for "no" on cap-and-trade: 3,446,089 very compelling reasons that some legislators voted against Waxman-Markey.

Starry night: In Afghanistan, US troops on a night mission. Green tank, breathtaking skyscape, one cool photo.

Unscientific American: Does McCain really not understand or use the Internet? Well, uh, you see...

 

No, Blue Marblers, "Island Fox" is not the name of a new reality TV series. It's one of many names for a tiny, adorably fuzzy fox that lives on six of the eight California Channel Islands. The Island Fox, also called the Island Gray Fox because of its descent from mainland gray foxes, weighs only 5 lbs as an adult and is just now recovering from near extinction.

The Island Fox has lived on the Channel Islands for thousands of years, with each island evolving its own subspecies. All the Island Foxes were thriving until the 1990s, when changes in the local ecosystem had a disasterous chain effect on the species. DDT poisoned fish, which in turn poisoned the Islands' native bald eagles. The bald eagles' population decline opened up turf for non-native golden eagles who were attracted by the Islands' feral pigs. Once on the Islands, the golden eagles found Island Foxes easy prey since the foxes never had a predator, much less one that struck from above. In addition, sheep and other livestock had eaten much of the protective scrub and grasses foxes might have used for cover. Golden eagles quickly decimated the foxes. On one island, the fox population plummeted from 450 animals to 15 in just a few years.

To bring back the species, the National Park Service instituted a number of measures. Firstly, they removed golden eagles and re-introduced native bald eagles. Secondly, the Service created an ambitious captive breeding program, which you can learn more about here. And thirdly, the department is working on totally eradicating feral pigs so that golden eagles do not come back. Through this multimillion-dollar, multi-pronged approach, the National Park Service has been successful in bringing the Island Fox back from the brink of extinction in record time.

Now that Island Fox populations are recovering, the diurnal animals can be seen on the Islands living naturally. The foxes eat mostly fruit, insects, and deer mice and are devoted parents. They mate for life, having two to three pups per litter. Foxes communicate not only with body language, but with growls and short, high-pitched barks. Although they are now the subjects of active conservation, the foxes remain federally endangered. To learn more about the Foxes, and learn more about their history, you can visit the National Park Service's page here or visit a conservancy organization here.

 

Follow Jen Phillips on Twitter.

 

It's partly the florid language that makes me and some other Westerners uneasy.

"Arizona, the New Frontier! Armed with an abundance of sunlight, Arizona is the land of sunshine and opportunity."

That palaver could have been lifted from a 19th Century swindler's sheet, written to separate greenhorns from their golden coins. But, in fact, I just cut-and-pasted it from the Bureau of Land Management's current website. The BLM controls vast areas of the West, (68% of Nevada, 40% of Utah, 17% of Arizona) and is pitching the opportunities for "solar development companies, or 'prospectors'" in the old New Frontier of the American Southwest.

Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (who oversees the BLM) designated 670,000 acres in six Western states as Solar Energy Study Areas. The Las Vegas Sun described these tracts of BLM desert lands as being "on a fast track for development" as giant solar power farms. To ensure that permits are issued quickly, Salazar announced that the BLM will open four new offices in California, Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming.

Now, I know we need to kick our addiction to fossil-fuel. And I also believe that using renewable energy sources like solar and getting serious about energy conservation are keys to a livable future. But I'm also aware of our history of "development" -- the Western spin-cycle of boom and bust, hope and despair, professed love of the land and simultaneous destruction of it.

Sandy Bahr knows all of this, too. But, she says, "Maybe this time we can get it right."

Bahr is the director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter, an organization which was working on land use issues before Arizona was a state. "We don't need to get into those old conflicts this time," she says.

There's plenty of "disturbed" land in the West, she points out. Why not build renewable energy power plants on the scars left by the old polluting ones? Why not recycle abandoned agricultural land that should never have been cultivated and let solar power companies buy water-depleting farms and use that land (some forms of solar power plants are water intensive, but still need less than agriculture)?

Transmission lines, which can interfere with migrating wildlife, don't have to be a problem either, Bahr says. Route them alongside freeways, which already prevent animals from crossing.

There are cultural and human rights issues to consider, as well.

During a BLM sponsored public hearing on solar development in California in 2008, Carmen Lucas, a member of the Kumeyaay Nation, told the Bureau that before anything was built in his area, someone from the Kumeyaay community would need to examine the area to make sure it wasn't an ancient burial site. The "need for speed," he told the BLM, must not be allowed to trump Native people's rights.

Over the next several months, the BLM will be making siting decisions for these new solar mega-plants. That, says Bahr, is when we'll see how committed to meaningful change the nation really is.

Osha Gray Davidson covers solar energy for The Phoenix Sun, and is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here.