Saturday, July 06, 2002

Instapundit and Photodude elucidate what I think is becoming pretty clear at this point: the reason we haven't seen an further terrorist attacks of significance from Al Qaeda is because the organisation simply lacks the resources to carry them out. Thus the most we are seeing from them is one or two feeble little attacks. The fact is, the attacks before September 11 (the USS Cole attack, the bombings of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania) didn't really demonstrate tremendous resources either. September 11 itself demonstrated planning, but no physical resources at all, just the ability to find and exploit a weakness in the way in which our infrastructure works. I am not especially scared of Al Qaeda at this point, but I am scared.

For more than five years before September 11, I had been saying that I found the 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo underground by the Aum Shinrikyo cult to be one of the scariest news stories I had ever heard. Here we had a deeply strange independent organisation that had managed to put together an impressive scientific infrastructure and had developed large scale military weapons capable of killing thousands of people, and who had only failed to do so through inadequate delivery of the weapon. I felt sure that where they had failed, some organisation would eventually succeed, be it with a chemical weapon like sarin, be it with something biological, be it with a nuclear device of some kind, and a terrorist attack on a major city killing thousands of people would occur.

The came September 11. A terrorist attack on a major city killing thousands of people did occur. Yet it didn't occur through an independent organisation developing a scientific infrastructure but by an independent organisation hijacking planes and crashing them into buildings. This type of attack could have occurred at any time since 1955, but it occurred just at the moment when chemical or nuclear terrorist attacks were becoming feasible. Therefore, we made the mistake of thinking that such attacks would follow from Al Qaeda, when in fact the nature of the September 11 attack probably indicated that Al Qaeda was not the organisation with the capabilities to make such attacks, for if they were that is what they would have used on September 11.

However, the possibility that someone else is out there collecting nuclear isotopes or producing weird nerve gases remains. This possibility continues to terrify me.
I finally saw Minority Report and I confess that I found the film fairly disappointing and didn't really care for it. It just had a fairly predictable, and very conventional thriller plot grafted on to Philip K. Dick's weirdness, and a bit too much Spielbergian sentimentality. I didn't find the future world presented to be as striking as I had hoped. It was more a matter of start with the present and then extrapolate just a little. We had flying vehicles, advertisements that greet you by name (this happens to me now when I go to Virginia Postrel's Weblog) but little that could be described as strange or unexpected. It was certainly no Blade Runner . The film was okay, but I don't really get the extent of some of the raves it has got.

Spoilers to follow. Stop reading if you haven't seen the movie but intend to.

As for the plot, what was the business with the eyes? Tom Cruise knows that he will be identified by retinal scanners if he attempts to go near his workplace, so he has a black market surgeon replace his eyes with somebody else's. He keeps his old eyes in plastic bags, so that when he gets to his workplace, he can take the disembodied eyes up near the retinal scanner and get into the building. Huh? (Also, he is recognised by several people who know what he looks like). Yes, the new eyes allowed for one or two cool scenes in the movie, plus he could later be greeted by "Hello, Mr Yamamoto" when he went to buy clothes in The Gap, but in terms of hiding his identity, they were a bit of a bust. And if the retinal scanners were so easy to fool with eye transplants and eyes detatched from bodies, is it really such a great idea to use them for security anyway? And why couldn't he be greeted in the Gap outlet with "Hello Mr Hillary, how was the Gore-Tex jacket", or "Hello Mr Hoover, how did the trench coat work out?", or something really fun.

To top it all off, we had one of the hoariest cliches in movie plotting.

"Do you know anything about the death of ?"
"No, I have never heard of her. But I will look into any cases of women who drowned in our records, and if I find anything...".
"I didn't say she drowned".

This is surely on a par with "And so Mr Bond, before I order all my henchmen to go somewhere else and I kill you in a peculiarly ingenious way, I am going to tell you my entire plan". Remind me to be this careful next time I am implementing my plans for world domination.

(Disclaimer: when seeing the movie, my mood was spoiled somewhat by a projectionist who forgot to put the anamorphic lens on the projector, requiring me to leave the film and complain before I was able to watch it properly).

Thursday, July 04, 2002

Two images of July 4 in London.

An enormous American flag attached to the side of a building in the West End. Compare the flag with the cars, to see that is one big flag. The most obvious business in the building is "The Long Island Ice Tea company, which I think is a cafe/bar. (I should have gone in). Lots of pubs had American flags flying and were hosting July 4 celebrations. The ready availability of USA Today is clearly a reason why I should hate America.

The US embassy in Grosvenor Square, surrounded by a mesh wire barrier. No obvious celebratory activity of any kind. This photo only shows the shadow of the statue of Dwight Eisenhower. The figure you can see behind the barrier is a British policeman walking backwards and forward with a machine gun, although I perhaps need a better digital camera.

I was just sitting in a bookshop cafe yesterday, and I picked up this wretched book. (I think I wasn't thinking clearly, and thought I was picking up this issue of Granta, which is full of thoughtful pieces from foreign writers who have had experiences of going on American book tours, where they have found lots of sophisticated and intelligent people turn up to meet them in places like Boise, Idaho, and where they have received much genuine and kind hospitality). From the bits I read, An unending screed explaining why the people of the rest of the world are exploited because America uses a large portion of the worlds resources and is therefore rich when they are poor, how how the presence of McDonald's everywhere wrecks local cultures, and more yawn inducing stuff. (Actually, the publication date of the books is today. That's right - these scumbags feel the need to have it published on the fourth of July. Presumably they are going to feel the need to publish a second volume on September 11). Guys, the world has no shortage of resources, and America uses more of them than anyone else because it has more uses for them than anyone else. It has more uses for them because of everything that is good about America, which is Americans ingenuity, openness and good sense. McDonald's have stores throughout the world because people want to eat in McDonald's. Nobody makes anyone do so. (Actually, personally I have always found that the more American chain stores (and international chain stores that originate in other countries, too. These are not nearly as uncommon as you think) per square mile, the more culturally interesting and culturaly complicated the place. Go to Camden markets in London or Shibuya/Harajuku in Tokyo some time for an example).

In any event, what I mean by all this, is happy fourth of July, everyone. May all of America have a good party.

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