Thursday, May 31, 2007

Science Fiction Writers Aid DHS


In “Sci-fi writers join war on terror,” Mimi Hall describes Sigma, a group of science-fiction writers who are helping the DHS brainstorm ways to protect the U.S.:

The last time the group gathered was in the late 1990s, when members met with government scientists to discuss what a post-nuclear age might look like, says group member Greg Bear. He has written 30 sci-fi books, including the best seller Darwin's Radio.

Now, the Homeland Security Department is calling on the group to help with the government's latest top mission of combating terrorism.

Although some sci-fi writers' futuristic ideas might sound crazy now, scientists know that they often have what seems to be an uncanny ability to see into the future.

"Fifty years ago, science-fiction writers told us about flying cars and a wireless handheld communicator," says Christopher Kelly, spokesman for Homeland Security's Science and Technology division. "Although flying cars haven't evolved, cellphones today are a way of life. We need to look everywhere for ideas, and science-fiction writers clearly inform the debate."

Bear says the writers offer powerful imaginations that can conjure up not only possible methods of attack, but also ideas about how governments and individuals will respond and what kinds of high-tech tools could prevent attacks.

The group's motto is "Science Fiction in the National Interest." To join the group, Andrews says, you have to have at least one technical doctorate degree.

Bear is the perfect pick for a group like this; I had the good fortune to meet him a few years ago, at a conference that looked at ways to enhance human performance, and he had the twin attributes of deep insight (Darwin’s Radio and its sequel deal with periodic jumps in human evolution) and the affability needed to work in group settings.

Authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are also Sigma members, and they’re no strangers to thinking hard about the future, either. In fact, they’ve been doing it for over 30 years, by my count, having co-written the seminal asteroid-impact epic Lucifer’s Hammer in the mid-1970s.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

All You Bhojpuri Speakers


Hollywood is increasingly cutting into Bollywood’s ticket sales thanks to simultaneous releases of blockbusters in Indian dialects like Bhojpuri, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.

As this Christian Science Monitor article notes, Hollywood movies have frequently not done well in India since dubbed versions, if any, tended to be released only after English-language versions had finished their runs.

U.S. studios are wising up, and Spider-Man 3 is breaking the recent record set by Casino Royale—an American movie about a British spy that takes place in Africa and Europe—which was also released in multiple Subcontinental dialects.

It’s clearly worth the money for Hollywood studios to dub films into major foreign languages and dialects, although I’d love to see where the cut-off is; hypothetically, do the studios decide to spend money to dub for 101 million Bhojpuri speakers but consider dubbing for 90 million Gujarati speakers not worth the investment?

If Hollywood moguls can bring the cost of dubbing for smaller and smaller dialects down, they will. The question is, will Bollywood do the same, toning down its musical melodramas for non-Indian audiences and dubbing into Mandarin, English and Spanish for overseas consumption?

(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item.)

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

From the Mouths of Mice


It is extremely rare that Hamas makes a strategic mistake. But it has.

The Palestinian militia/political party/social-services agency has adopted a thinly veiled ripoff of Mickey Mouse as the mascot for one of its kids’ shows:

A giant black-and-white rodent — named "Farfour," or "butterfly," but unmistakably a rip-off of the Disney character — does his high-pitched preaching against the U.S. and Israel on a children's show each Friday on Al-Aqsa TV, a station run by Hamas. The militant group, sworn to Israel's destruction, shares power in the Palestinian government.

"You and I are laying the foundation for a world led by Islamists," Farfour squeaked on a recent episode of the show, which is called "Tomorrow's Pioneers."

"We will return the Islamic community to its former greatness, and liberate Jerusalem, God willing, liberate Iraq, God willing, and liberate all the countries of the Muslims invaded by the murderers."

Children call in to the show, many singing Hamas anthems about fighting Israel.

The reason I call this a Hamas mistake is that the group can face down the U.S., stand off the Israeli Army, alienate the European Union, and even thumb its nose at various regional sponsors—but it is now subject to attack by the most relentless opponents in the Western Hemisphere: Walt Disney Co. intellectual-property lawyers.

Nothing can stop them. Nothing can placate them. Unmarked private jets have been seen flying east from Bob Hope Airport even as I write this.

It’s a shame that none of Osama bin Laden’s broadcasts have tried to appeal to kids in this way; Osama would long ago have been found by Disney lawyers and flown back to Burbank to face justice.

On the other hand, only after a pricey out-of-court settlement had been reached would Disney have released Osama to U.S. officials for trial.

Update: The last surviving child of Walt Disney condemns the Hamas ripoff as “pure evil.”

May 10 Update: Disney's lawyers have achieved the inevitable victory, and in record time: Mickey Hamouse has been taken off the air and "placed under review."

Thanks to Tyler Davidson for forwarding the initial story as well as a follow-up.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Beacon No. 103: National Security for the Sesame Street Set


It’s nearly impossible to see your foreign-policy tax dollars at work, but in one case your tax dollars are teaching dozens of six-year-olds to speak and write in Arabic.

In eastern Iowa.

At Kalona Elementary School in Kalona, Iowa, Susie Swartzendruber recently won a three-year, $600,000 grant to teach Arabic to all the school’s K-5 students. The Iowa native had lived in rural Egypt from 1982-1985, speaks the Egyptian dialect, and applied for the grant with the goal of increasing cross-cultural understanding.

That hopeful phrase has additional resonance in Kalona, a largely Mennonite farming community of just 2,300 where road signs caution motorists to yield to horse-drawn vehicles.

The Kalona Elementary grant is part of the interagency National Security Language Initiative (NSLI). It can be renewed twice depending on favorable reviews, so by the time today’s first graders turn nine, they’ll already have several years’ more Arabic instruction than almost any other native-born Americans.

I visited Kalona Elementary on May 2 for the premiere of Arabic DVD Dictionary, starring one of the school’s first-grade classes. This video is the brainchild of Erica Ruen, an about-to-graduate education student at the University of Iowa who taught at Kalona Elementary as part of her degree work. Arabic DVD Dictionary is designed to showcase the kids’ achievements and maybe teach viewers a bit of Arabic as well.

The dictionary begins with the first-graders welcoming viewers, introducing themselves (“Ana ismiy Hali!” “Ana ismiy Payton!” “Ana ismiy Paul!”), and naming months, numbers, and some of their favorite things (including several floppy dolls and stuffed animals) in Arabic. They’re clearly having fun and by report are picking up Arabic words and numbers quickly, to the point that can do simple math in Arabic.

The students pronounce their words with a distinctively Iraqi accent thanks to their instructor, Zahra al-Attar, an Iraqi immigrant living in Iowa City with her husband—a doctor at the University of Iowa’s hospitals—and their two children. Al-Attar left Iraq for the U.S. in 1994, finding life under Saddam’s regime intolerable, and lived in Georgia and Michigan before settling in Iowa.

Erica Ruen thinks that having Iraqi students create an English-language video dictionary would be an excellent tool for increasing cross-cultural understanding on the Iraqi end, and her fiancée Peter, on leave from duty in Iraq, agrees, saying it would help the U.S. mission in Iraq to have Iraqis know more about the U.S.

Iraq war or no Iraq war, the U.S. will always need Arabic speakers—and people who have a thorough understanding of the Arab world. Hopefully President Bush and his successors will extend and enhance NSLI funding so these kids can continue learning and, by the 2020s, be part of this country’s first post-9/11 generation of native-born strategic language speakers.

Thanks to Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Lee Hermiston for writing both the original story that led me to Kalona Elementary and his post-premiere follow-up.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Freeway-Collapse "Terrorism"


All that separates the Oakland freeway collapse from terrorism is a claim of responsibility.

If some far-sighted aide had reached Osama bin Laden in his Peshawar apartment and successfully urged him to release a statement about how the tanker-truck fire was part of his Master Plan to bleed the U.S.—direct economic losses from freeway closings are at $6 million/day, never mind the repair costs—the entire United States would be on red alert right now: cops and dogs everywhere, National Guardsmen at the airports, air passengers being fluroscoped.

Better yet: The freeway fire/collapse was an accident, but imagine for a moment that the next such incident is intentional. Create a poisonous cloud by driving a second tanker-truck full of chlorine or anhydrous hydrogen flouride into the fire, add an Osama bin Laden claim of responsibility, and you combine big economic punch with a high body count and extreme terror—all at extremely low cost and risk to al-Qa'ida leadership.

I've previously written about On the Edge of Disaster and want to recommend it again. Stephen Flynn's book gets you thinking about how fragile U.S. infrastructure is, and how terrorists can use that fragility to magnify the effects of system disruptions. And it's got some pretty terrifying scenarios. ...
Site Meter