RantList Archive

Friday, October 26, 2001

Iodine - Maybe A Good Idea After All

The world is full of people who have no idea how to evaluate risk or how to prepare themselves to properly manage it. For example, you can make good money nowadays selling worn-out army surplus gas masks on Ebay to people who think that they need something to help protect them from the next terrorist attack.

It's always fun to laugh at people like that, but it's still valid to ask if there anything sensible that we should do to adjust to the changes in our world. The short answer, in my opinion, is "not much".

If you live out in the sticks, the risk of being touched by any sort of terrorist attack is near zero. Even if you live in a big city that might actually be a target, there really isn't a hell of a lot you can do, outside of the basics, to protect yourself against an unspecified incident that might range anywhere from a truck bomb, a fire, or a chemical or biological attack on your air, food or water.

This is not to say that the basics aren't important. You should be able to get by comfortably in your home for a few days without power or water or access to the grocery store, but this was true long before the 11th of September. If you need to leave your home you should be able to do so without depending on public transportation, and if you have knowledge of first aid you'll want access to the sort of equipment that you know how to use. You should have access to a radio that will actually work without being plugged in, and you should be on speaking terms with your neighbors, even if they do creep you out a little.


Outside of the basics, the only new thing I'd consider would be to keep a bottle of Potassium Iodide (KI) tablets on hand. The reason for this is because there is now, arguably, an increased risk of exposure to radioactive materials. Although this risk is very slight, there is no harm in addressing it with something like KI which is inexpensive, stable, and generally safe to use.

I can imagine three ways in which such exposure could occur; a 'dirty bomb' (an ordinary chemical bomb designed to disperse radioactive materials), an attack on a nuclear plant, or the use of a small nuclear weapon. Although I consider the last two incidents to be so unlikely as to be beneath concern, the first possibility (also called a radiologic bomb) is, in my opinion, a perfectly credible threat. If something like this were to occur even a hundred miles from where I live I'd be very concerned, especially if I were downwind of it.

Believe it or not, iodine tablets actually do offer significant protection against radioactive fallout. A common mechanism of injury involves the uptake of radioactive iodine by the thyroid gland, resulting in an increased risk of thyroid cancer. This can be addressed by ingesting "normal", non-radioactive iodine slightly in excess of your current needs, thereby preventing the uptake of any contaminated iodine you may be exposed to in the environment. This will not protect you against the many other harmful effects of fallout, of course, but it does address one of the bigger risks.


There are lots of people on the web who want to sell you iodine tablets for just such a contingency, and of course most of them are idiots. If you want the straight dope on this stuff, read this:


I will not post advise on the web detailing how you should take this stuff or where you should get it, but the link above should provide you with all the information you need. I will point out that children face the greatest risk from exposure to radioactive iodine, and the WHO actually suggests that people over 40 (like myself) not even bother with the pills because our risk of exposure is near zero.

Of course I'd still want the pills anyway, just to enjoy that warm, smug feeling as I hand them out to those who are younger, less paranoid, and less capable of handling themselves in our rapidly changing world.

Friday, October 19, 2001

Israeli Lessons, Good and Bad

I've offered my humble opinion about Israel's situation before, and I'll repeat it again; Israel is a country that is sharply polarized between hawks and doves, both of whom are right, and, tragically, both of whom are wrong.

The Doves want their country to be secure, safe, and prosperous in the long term, and they are willing to take risks and make sacrifices to see it through. They believe that a strategy of long-term, endless war is neither desirable nor ultimately survivable, and they are correct. In their minds, Peace = Security, so they will work hard for peace.

The Hawks want their country to be secure, safe, and prosperous in the long term, and they are willing to take risks and make sacrifices to see it through. They believe that their enemies would rather see Israel destroyed than to see peace, and they are correct. In their minds, Force = Security, so they will work hard for maintain military control of their neighborhood.

The doves are wrong when they assume that peace is achievable. Their enemy is not fighting for a logical, reasonable outcome that can be derived from concession and mutual understanding, their enemies are fighting for their destruction. It's like trying to negotiate with a serial killer or a rabid dog, and agreeing to unlock the front door in exchange for a promise not to bite.

The hawks are wrong when they assume that security can be maintained over time with force. They are like farmers tending a thriving crop of opponents, harvesting blood in regular cycles, just marking time until some new weapon or new opportunity falls into enemy hands and finally shifts the balance against them.

They are in a no-win situation, a stark choice between genocide and defeat. They are in this position because the people on both sides are fighting a religious war, born of an idiotic insistence that certain piles of dirt have a magical significance worth killing for, an insistence which makes concession impossible.


We are not Israel. We are not squatting on somebody else's holy land, and we are surrounded by water and by allies, not enemies. More importantly, we do not have to defend ourselves on a daily basis against ordinary people who live in mud huts within mortar range of our homes. Those who wish to attack us must have the means to travel, and the education to move about in our society and blend in to some minimal degree. Attacking America requires a hell of a lot more infrastructure than attacking Israel.

This means we have options that Israel does not; we are able to use force credibly as a means of maintaining long-term security, and we have a far greater ability to negotiate with those upon whom our enemies depend. We do not have to fight all those who oppose us, and those we do fight are less numerous and more vulnerable than you might imagine.


So, why is this little lecture important now? It looks to me as if thing are going to get complicated soon, and I just wanted to get out ahead of it. First of all, I believe there is going to be a major incident in Israel, perhaps the plan I described earlier, in which the Palestinian territories are taken by force and divided into regions which are made to fight amongst themselves. I also suspect that Arafat may not live to see it happen.

Israel says Arafat era is over
PLO fears leader is target of assassination plot
Sharon warning of war within a week

I also believe we are going to get hit again, and that it will be large, ugly, and fairly soon. I expect that this second hit will sharply polarize our nation and that we will risk becoming lost in the no-win debate the Israelis have had between themselves for many years.

That polarization would be a terrible mistake. The people we are fighting are not invincible, they are not numerous, and we can use both diplomacy and military power to create a climate in which their organization cannot survive. We should not allow ourselves to be drawn into a false debate; for us, it is not a matter of choosing one approach but using both to their best advantage.

Monday, October 08, 2001

Weird Scenes Inside The Gold Mine

People in Chicago got a hell of a start this afternoon when sonic booms broke windows and rattled homes. It seems that a mentally disturbed man, riding with his father in a 767 from LA to Chicago, became agitated and tried to enter the cockpit. The pilots sounded an alarm and two F-16s scrambled into position at a very no-nonsense speed to escort the jetliner to a safe landing.

We actually have fighter planes on round-the-clock combat air patrol over our major cities now. Incredible.


The anthrax thing is looking as fucked up as ever. Current talk suggests a contaminated letter and a creepy, Arabic-looking mail clerk might be to blame. Why did the terrorists choose to attack our tabloid infrastructure? Did they get frustrated reading of BatBoy's latest escape?

Maybe they just happened to have access to this place and wanted to test their dispersal method. Hell, maybe it was simply an unrelated criminal act that will be remembered as the coincidence of the century. I think we all know that this one is not going to turn out good no matter what happens.

Personally, I'm waiting for a genetic test to match this stuff to the strain the Iraq sprayed all over their Kurdish population before the Gulf War, or the strain they loaded into their scud missiles but never fired. I would not be scheduling a vacation in Iraq any time soon.


The wife and I go to the supermarket this evening and there is an unattended, funny-looking, covered box in the middle of a nearby parking space. I actually walk over with my flashlight to check it out. It's a produce drawer from somebody's refrigerator, empty, and covered with a plexiglass refrigerator shelf.

In Israel this would have be cause to bring out the bomb squad. I guess we are not quite there yet as a society, although it seems that I'm at about that point now.


I ate lunch at Diamonds, a local Indian restaurant, and noticed the cook as we came briefly out of the kitchen. He looked like an Arab straight out of central casting, complete with turban, beard, flowing white clothes and a dagger at his waist. I commented to my friends that it was nice to live in a town where a guy like that could still dress the way he wanted.

Later, my buddy points out to me that this guy was probably a Sikh, a member of a Hindu warrior caste which has traditionally spent a great deal of time and energy killing Moslems, long before the idea started to become popular here in the States. This guy is walking around like a target among us, and in our ignorance we don't realize that he probably represents the exact opposite of what we imagine him to be.


Finally, Rush Limbaugh announced tonight that he is actually gone deaf, as a result of some unspecified medical condition. I know there is a good joke in there somewhere but I just can't seem to find it. Honestly, taking shots at fellow Americans - even those who richly deserve it - is not nearly as much fun as it used to be. I don't even rag on Hillary anymore.

Friday, October 05, 2001

Everything You Never Wanted To Know About Anthrax

In my opinion, a biological weapons attack by a terrorist is unlikely. I base this opinion on my belief that mounting such an attack is significantly harder than it appears to laypeople, and on my observation that we have never seen a successful biological attack launched by a small, covert groups in modern times.

My opinions got modified in a hurry at about two o'clock yesterday when a man was diagnosed with inhalation anthrax in Florida. Everything we know at this time tells us that this was not the result of terrorist action, but rather a rare and unfortunate natural occurrence.

However... there have only been 18 known cases of inhalation anthrax in this country during the 20th century, the last one in 1978. To see a case now, just weeks into a period of high risk for terrorist activity, raises legitimate (if balanced) concerns that there may be more cases of this disease to follow.

Anthrax spores, which are responsible for this form of the disease, are probably the most likely sort of biological agent to be used by terrorists. Anthrax spores are fairly accessible, relatively easy to produce in quantity, extraordinarily stabile, and relatively easy to disperse. Furthermore, we know that Iraq has already produced weaponized Anthrax for use in their Scud missiles and may represent a ready source of high-quality, correctly packaged material.

If this guy in Florida got sick as a result of a small-scale test of a terrorist weapon, or got sick as a result of unwitting exposure to a terrorist weapon under development, we may be facing a very, very serious threat. (Personally, I am going to have my own little private freak-out if additional, confirmed cases emerge).


The good news is that Anthrax is not considered a communicable disease. You will not get this disease just because a co-worker has it, and it will not spread in epidemic fashion from the original site of the attack.

That, unfortunatly, is about it for the good news.

The bad news is that Inhalation Anthrax is 90-100% fatal. Symptoms usually develop within a week of exposure, and once you are showing symptoms of the disease, there is essentially no treatment for it. Anthrax may also be contacted through ingestion of contaminated material, yielding a 25% to 60% fatality rate.

A human vaccine is available, and is now (I believe) routinely used in the US Military.


About 1-6 days after inhaling Bacillus anthracis spores there would be a gradual onset of vague symptoms of illness such as fatigue, fever, mild discomfort in the chest and a possibly a dry cough. The symptoms would improve for a few hours or 2-3 days. Then, there would be sudden onset of difficulty in breathing, profuse sweating, cyanosis (blue colored skin), shock and death in 24-36 hours.


The largest experience with inhalation anthrax occurred after the accidental release of aerosolized anthrax spores in 1979 at a military biology facility in Sverdlovsk, Russia. Some 79 cases of inhalation anthrax were reported, of which 68 were fatal.

One of the major problems with anthrax spores is the potentially long incubation period of subsequent infections. Exposure to an aerosol of anthrax spores could cause symptoms as soon as 2 days after exposure. However, illness could also develop as late as 6-8 weeks after exposure -- in Sverdlovsk, one case developed 46 days after exposure.

Further, the early presentation of anthrax disease would resemble a fever or cough and would therefore be exceedingly difficult to diagnose without a high degree of suspicion. Once symptoms begin, death follows 1-3 days later for most people. If appropriate antibiotics are not started before development of symptoms, the mortality rate is estimated to be 90%.




Thursday, October 04, 2001

A Small Bit Of Justice

A while back, an award-winning book by Emory University historian Michael Bellesiles made an astonishing claim - contrary to popular belief, guns were a small and unimportant part of America's early history, and the whole idea of an armed citizen's militia being a cornerstone of American independance was a myth.

People on my side of the fence ripped into this guy almost immediatly, citing everything for sloppy research to outright fabrication, but of course we were ignored. However, now it seems that fate has caught up with Mr. Bellesiles, and he is about to get his guts handed to him on a plate:


The head of Emory's history department is demanding that Bellesiles write a detailed defense of his book. "What is important is that he defend himself and the integrity of his scholarship immediately," said James Melton, according to yesterday's Boston Globe, which also printed a September 11 story on Bellesiles airing charges similar to NR's. "Depending upon his response, the university will respond appropriately."

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of a colleague. And it gets worse: "If there is prima facie evidence of scholarly misconduct, the university has to conduct a thorough investigation. Whether it be a purely internal inquiry, or the university brings in distinguished scholars in the field, will depend on how Michael responds," said Melton.

The best of the specific criticisim can be read here at http://www.nationalreview.com/15oct01/seckora101501.shtml

Perhaps intellectual honesty is not dead, after all.

This Made Me Feel Better

Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey on our response to terrorisim:

"We are going to disrupt these people through preemptive attack ... we will deceive them, we will run psyops on them, at selected points and times they will be killed suddenly, in significant numbers, and without warning."

"Tomahawk missiles, 2000 pound laser guided weapons dropped from B2's or F22's at very high altitude, remote control, booby traps, blackmail and at places, small groups of soldiers or SEALs will appear in total darkness, blow down the doors and kill them at close range with automatic weapons and hand grenades" [...]

"We will find their money and freeze it. We will arrest their front agents. We will operate against their recruiting and transportation functions. We will locate their training areas and surveil or mine them. We will isolate them from their families.

"We will try to dominate their communication function and alternately listen, jam or spoof it. We will make their couriers disappear. If we can find out how they eat, or play or receive rewards, or where they sleep -- we will go there and kill them by surprise."

Sounds good to me.

Wednesday, October 03, 2001

Something Smells Funny Here...

Late last night, a "foreign looking" man who "had a Middle Eastern accent" and a Croatian passport executed a suicide attack on a Greyhound bus with 32 people aboard. After slitting the driver's throat, he grabbed the steering wheel and directed the bus into oncoming traffic. The bus overturned, killing ten. [Correction: 6 were killed]

It's early in the game and news reports can be conflicting. Maybe the attacker was not foreign looking, did not have a Middle Eastern accent, or did not really have a Croatian passport. However, the media is reporting flat-out that this was not a terrorist attack and even the Justice Department is downplaying the possibility, stating "We're in the early stages of the investigation but we do not believe at this time that is related to terrorism".

Now hold on a goddamn minute here.

I'm not convinced that there is any proof that this was a terrorist attack, but it sure as hell looks like one so far and I think it's irresponsible to be dismissing such an obvious and important possibility. Just because this guy seems to have been acting alone does not mean he was not a terrorist! For example, it's not exactly uncommon for otherwise ordinary Palestinian people to take it upon themselves to attack Israelis, without explicit instruction from organized groups but with a common motivation and similar tactics. By the very nature of their seemingly ordinary background, freelancers like this can launch attacks that are almost impossible to predict or to detect in advance.

Like it or not, part of the threat we are facing comes from random people who share the ideology of our enemies. You do not have to be a member of Bin Ladin's group to believe in his cause or to follow his call to fulfill your 'duty' to kill Americans. This is a legitimate issue and a significant part of the threat that we face.

Nobody in the media wants to be seen as attacking an ethic group - nobody wants to point out that Croatia has a large Muslim population that was recently a victim of Serbian ethnic cleansing, nobody wants to play up the possible Middle Eastern or Muslim characteristics that this attacker possibly displayed. But that doesn't change the facts on the ground. If individuals are going to conduct suicide attacks against our people, it think it's a big goddamn mistake to pretend it's just a random criminal act and look the other way.

We are eventually going to have to deal with the fact that some few members of our otherwise sane and loyal Muslim community are going to be trying to kill us. We are going to have to deal with it correctly - by stifling the urge to lump in the innocent with the guilty and by being careful to accord all of our citizens the same right and protections that we expect for ourselves, but also by admitting the truth and not playing games with events as they unfold.

Anybody want to take any bets on this one? I'll give 2: 1 odds, $20 limit, to the first taker.

Tuesday, October 02, 2001

I tell ya, the neighborhood has gone straight to hell

From today's local paper:

[...] a Jordanian man who drives a delivery truck was beaten and slashed by two white attackers in Lansing, state police Maj. William Foley said Monday.

[...] state police said two white men attacked a man driving a Home Depot delivery truck Thursday morning along Route 13 north of Warren Road in Lansing.

Foley said the two attackers in Lansing uttered racial slurs as they attacked the 35-year-old driver with a baseball bat and a sharp instrument. The driver, whose name was not disclosed, was treated at Cayuga Medical Center and released.

Foley said the attackers, described only as white men, were seen driving a black, late-model Pontiac Grand Am headed north on Route 13.

Foley said the beating took place about 11:30 a.m. in broad daylight along the shoulder of the road.

One passing motorist stopped and tried verbally to break up the beating. That's when the two assailants climbed back into their car and drove away, Foley said.

And people wonder why I carry a rifle in my truck.

Blair's Speech

I don't much like Tony Blair, and I don't like the way the British government does things in general. However, I did like some of his speech, and it's worth repeating.


Be in [no] doubt at all, bin Laden and his people organized this atrocity. The Taliban aid[ed] and abet[ed] him. He will not desist from further acts of terror. They will not stop helping him. Whatever the dangers of the action we take, the dangers of inaction are far, far greater.


So what do we do? Don't overreact, some say. We aren't. We haven't lashed out. No missiles on the first night, just for effect.

Don't kill innocent people. We are not the ones who raged war on the innocent. We seek the guilty.

Look for a diplomatic solution. But there is no diplomacy with bin Laden or the Taliban regime.

State an ultimatum and get their response. We stated the ultimatum. They haven't responded.

Understand the causes of terror. Yes, we should try. But let there be no moral ambiguity about this: Nothing could ever justify the events of September 11, and it is to turn justice on its head to pretend it could.

The action that we take will be proportionate, targeted. We will do all we humanly can to avoid civilian casualties, but understand what we are dealing with.

Listen to the calls of those passengers on the planes. Think of the children on them told they were going to die. Think of the cruelty beyond our comprehension, as amongst the screams and the anguish of the innocent, those hijackers drove at full throttle planes laden with fuel into buildings where tens of thousands of people work.

They have no moral inhibition on the slaughter of the innocent. If they could have murdered not 7,000 but 70,000, does anyone doubt they would have done so and rejoiced in it?

So there is no compromise possible with such people. There is no meeting of minds, no point of understanding with such terror. Just a choice: defeat it or be defeated by it. And defeat it, we must.

Any action taken will be against the terrorist network of bin Laden. As for the Taliban, they can surrender the terrorists or face the consequences. And again, in any action, the aim will be to eliminate their military hardware, cut off their finances, disrupt their supplies, target their troops, not civilians. We will put a trap around the regime. And I say to the Taliban: Surrender the terrorists or surrender power. That is your choice.


"There is no meeting of minds, no point of understanding [...] Just a choice: defeat it or be defeated by it."

That's pretty much the key to the castle right there. Anybody disagree?



Original Content Copyright 2001 Mike Spenis