Occasional thoughts on diverse subjects

September 30, 2001

Another long one. I’d really rather be writing small updates frequently than monsters every couple of weeks, but I guess you take what you can get. At least it isn’t all about the Recent Events. Just most of it. #

Looking back

In a way, I feel like a lava flow that’s been exposed to the air. The surface has cooled and crusted over, becoming indistinguishable from older igneous rocks that cooled centuries ago, but if you poke at it… maybe it’s solid rock, and maybe it’s molten underneath. The disaster at the World Trade Center (and also the Pentagon, although that seems to have been less traumatic overall) is two and a half weeks old now, and my life has pretty much returned to normal. But under the surface… I don’t know. At some point in the next few weeks, I’ll find myself in a position where I can see New York’s new skyline, and I’m not sure how I’ll react.

I haven’t read my entries following the disaster (starting on Wednesday) since I wrote them. It’s still too close, and all I’d see are the disorganized thinking and incoherent thrashing about. (Those of you reading this today can just scroll down a bit and check it out. I could be completely wrong here.) I still remember the themes I was thinking, even if I can’t recall the wording, and I worry that what I’ve said may seem inappropriate or unpatriotic or naïve.

Part of that worry also stems from my childhood as a liberal growing up in a very Republican town. To avoid getting grief in school, I learned to avoid political discussion. I fear sometimes that I might lose friends if I staked out a position different from theirs. But that’s my hangup.

Anyway, some clarification: I do think that we should act against those who committed this act. This will be difficult, because those directly responsible are already dead, but it should be done. My arguments against war and my recognition of America’s arrogance in the past in no way cause me to agree with or have any sympathy for the terrorists. We must act in response to this attack, but we must also learn from it.

War—the deliberate murder of others in the service of an abstract concept—is a terrible thing. It doesn’t matter how noble the cause or how limited the option; war is still terrible. But in some cases, there may be no visible alternative. If I am cornered by some predator, I might have to kill it. That’s regrettable, but sometimes there is no alternative to violence, or one simply can’t think of such an alternative quickly enough. Afterward, though, I would try to understand what had happened. If the situation were to arise again, would there be another, less-violent solution? What lead up to the situation, and how might I act to prevent the situation before it happens? What are the consequences of the action I took, and how can I minimize any negative side effects? Killing a predator may be necessary to save my life, but it may lead to an overpopulation of prey, which might outstrip their food supply and starve.

The goal, of course, is to prevent bad things from happening again. We may end up fighting an actual war as part of the metaphorical War on Terrorism, and it may be that war is the best visible option at the time, but it is not enough simply to punish those responsible. We must also try to prevent it from happening again, both the terrorist attack and the war fought in response.

There are two parts to prevention. We must be able to deal with further attacks, both by attempting to prevent them from happening and by limiting the damage that they can do. People talk about we can prevent terrorists from turning more planes into bombs, but most important step has already been taken. The terrorists were able to capture the planes because passengers assume that the hijackers have some motivation beyond capturing the plane, and therefore it’s better to go along than to risk confronting them. Now they must consider the possibility of a suicide attack that would kill them all and possibly thousands more. This alone will make hijacking airplanes a riskier proposition, because the terrorists will always be significantly outnumbered.

There are other ways to attack, some more difficult to block. There is no fool-proof way to prevent someone from putting nerve gas in a skyscraper’s ventilation system, but we should take what steps we can to make it difficult, without compromising the rights of those who are not terrorists. Furthermore, we should recognize that no police force or security system works all the time and design buildings to minimize the damage that one could do with such a plan.

We can’t forsee every possible attack, either, so we must prepare ourselves to react quickly to unanticipated disasters. If planes go off-course and cut all communication, it shouldn’t take hours for authorities to respond. It may be necessary to shoot such a plane down, but it would be better to react quickly enough such that other options are available.

The second part of prevention involves understanding the underlying causes and working to reduce or eliminate them. Why do so many in the Arab world dislike the U.S.? What turns this dislike into a holy war? What can be done about this? I won’t even pretend to have answers here, but I sincerely hope that people in power are thinking these questions. Yes, building a levee can keep most of the flood waters out of your house, but if doing so makes the river run higher, then you may have made the eventual flood even more destructive. Best to prepare for floods while simultaneously working to prevent them from happening.

After World War I, the Allies demanded reparations from Germany and gave it harsh sanctions. It seemed a fitting punishment for the nation which had, arguably, plunged Europe into such destructive horror. As a result, the German people were humiliated and poverty-stricken, ideal conditions for the rise of nationalists peddling easy answers and a chance to restore the nation’s pride. After World War II, the United States invested billions of dollars in Germany and the rest of Europe, helped rebuild them, and demonstrated that their support during crises like the blockade of Berlin. Since then, western Europe has gone fifty years without war breaking out, which is stunning when you consider the history of the area. We saw how Hitler rose to power and worked to prevent those conditions from occurring again.

That also illustrates the need to understand side-effects, and this is one that worries me. War with Afghanistan is a difficult task all by itself, but what other effects will it have? Our Pakistani allies have a fairly tenuous grip on power; would an attack enrage the people and put fundamentalists in power? What does it say if the richest, most powerful nation in the world invades one the poorest, most ruined? Will it be seen as an attack not on terrorism, but on Muslims?

Such an attack may prove unnecessary. If not, we must be careful. Our actions should have the feel of justice, not vengeance.

I recognize the need for war, although I am not yet convinced that this situation calls for one. But no matter what we do, we must consider the future and learn from the past. #

Referrer madness

On a whim, I threw together a perl script that searches the Eyrie web server logs for the referrers of ZedneWeb’s incoming traffic. Some background: when you follow a link on the web, your browser requests the destination page from the server where page is hosted. In addition to specifying which page it wants, the browser also tells the server a bit about itself, like what sort of browser it is and where it was when it encountered the link to the requested page. These are useful for gauging a site’s audience, debugging, and just getting a better picture of the web in general.

(This generally only happens when following a link present on a page. Picking a site from one’s bookmarks or typing the URL directly does not involve a referrer, so the field is left blank. Also, since this is potentially a privacy violation, sophisticated browsers like iCab allow users to disable sending referrer information at all.)

Anyway, I set the script up to run nightly and produce a page listing ZedneWeb’s outside referrers, mostly for my own amusement. It’s been educational. For example: my friend Sharon Cichelli maintains a weblog with a comment feature that lets people respond to her posts. When they identify themselves, they can give an address for their web site, if they have one. I responded recently to a post she made about the World Trade Center and included ZedneWeb’s address. Since then, I’ve seen perhaps half a dozen visitors come to this site after reading that comment. I mentioned this to Sharon, and she noted that on her site, including a link. I have since seen a number of people come in through there. (She also indirectly noted that I had misspelled “referrer”, much to my chagrin. The referrer log itself only has three “r”s, but that’s no excuse.)

The majority of my incoming traffic (excluding regular visitors who have the site bookmarked or type the address manually) comes from people searching the web. (And the most popular search engine among ZedneWeb visitors, unsurprisingly, is Google.) As I’ve known for several months, most people who come to ZedneWeb are looking for information about Aqua, Apple’s name for the interface style of Mac OS X. Back in January 2000, after Apple first demonstrated it, I wrote up my impressions of the new style and, for some reason, it remains one of the most popular pages here. I don’t get the impression that these visitors stick around to browse, but I hope the page isn’t too great a disappointment for them. (It has no information about ways to make your current computer’s interface look like Aqua, which is what most of these visitors seem to be looking for.)

(Historical aside: Four months after I posted the comments, I changed its URL slightly, leaving some information to redirect anyone using the old address. It’s fortunate I did so, because some search engines still haven’t updated their indexes to reflect the address change. This was a few months before I switched to a more weblog-like style for the site, which is why the article is separate from that day’s proto-entry.)

The other discovery I’ve found is that Google’s results for “humor script” include an old, silly comedy project of mine as the second result, which is quite surprising and somewhat disconcerting. It’s an old piece that I wrote back in high school, one of three older pieces that I put up before I started work on Starcruiser Anonymous so that the library would have something in it. Since then, I’ve thought about taking them down or de-emphasizing them on multiple occasions, since I’ve gotten a lot better, in my opinion, since I wrote them. Now I find out that Google is happily pointing it out to people looking for humor scripts. I don’t know how I feel about that.

Then there’s stuff that’s just weird. People looking for “nude villains” have come to my Sfstory in-jokes page. People wondering how to fool Google get my note about attempts to scam Google. (Which actually has what they want, but it’s still weird.)

Interestingly, because Google updates its index frequently, but less frequently than ZedneWeb is updated (if you can believe it), people often get a legitimate result at ZedneWeb that was on the front page the last time Google went through. Google displays the front page, which may no longer contain the sought-after information, instead of the lower-ranked archive page, which does. That, unfortunately, is the peril of infrequent updates, but it would be nice if one could specify that a certain portion of a page is merely a temporary excerpt from somewhere else. #