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Finding Osama bin Laden with Biogeography

I saw the coolest thing ever on the Rachel Maddow Show tonight.  EverThomas Gillespie of the Geography Department at UCLA was on the show discussing his attempt to predict bin Laden’s location using satellite imagery and biogeographic theory!  It was so amazingly cool to hear him discussing distance-decay models and island biogeography theory to predict bin Laden’s location.  It’s all the cooler because Gillespie is, at least in part, a tropical forest ecologist, did his Ph.D. on tropical dry forests in Nicaragua, and has published on dry forest fragments in south Florida.

It also make me wonder.  This is fairly basic work as far as biogeography goes.  It seems like a much simpler, much more tractable problem than you tend to get in actual conservation biology.  Gillespie may not be right, and presumably if he was, bin Laden has moved by now.  You tend to think of the intelligence community having highly sophisticated tools for data analysis.  But then you hear things like the fact that they are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data, and that they just don’t have enough analysts to deal with all the information they ‘capture’.  It makes me wonder whether the intelligence community should be hiring more community ecologists.  Community ecologists (and, apparently, environmental geographers) are faced with a “middle numbers” problem – they are faced with far too many data points to actually enumerate, but far too few to truly generalise. While this has posed a huge problem to the development of ecological theory, it hasn’t paralysed the field. Part of learning to function as an ecologist is learning to to deal with the issue.

Last month, after Karl’s funeral, Ryan reminisced about a recent interaction between him, Floyd and Karl.  He and Floyd had been counting and measuring the fish the had captured in their sampling.  After watching them measure and record several hundred fish, Karl pointed out to them that they should simply have put the fish into size classes and tallied the number in each size class.  It’s always hard to discard information that you’ve already gone to the trouble of collecting, but it’s often something you need to do in order to make sense of the data you have collected.  It’s something you learn to do as an ecologist…you learn to focus on that portion of the data that you can actually use.  It get the impression that it’s the kind of experience that might translate well into the world of intelligence analysis.

Gillespie, Thomas W., John A. Agnew, Erika Mariano, Scott Mossler, Nolan Jones, Matt Braughton, and Jorge Gonzalez. 2009. Finding Osama bin Laden: An Application of Biogeographic Theories and Satellite Imagery. MIT International Review. Online edition.


Tunnel vision?

I’ve been watching CNN for the past few days.  Although I usually watch MSNBC, when it comes to something like this CNN is a much better source.  CNN International, that is.  Today they’re back to CNN domestic.  It’s the same correspondents, and some of the anchors are great.  But then Wolf Blitzer comes on in The Situation Room…and it’s probably time to turn away from CNN.

While a lot of people were saying al Qaeda early on, by today it’s pretty clear that the experts believe that talking about an al Qaeda link isn’t terribly useful.  On comes Wolf Blitzer and his first question is “link to al Qaeda?”  Each correspondent he speaks to says “probably not, this appears to be linked more to Pakistan and Kashmir”.  And Blitzer then asks the next one “al Qaeda?”  And they answer “probably not”.  (Actually they give an intelligent, nuanced answer.)

It’s really remarkable.  For two days we had solid coverage from CNN International.  Then we had decent, if not stellar coverage from CNN domestic.  New we get to one of their big-name shows…and the bottom falls out.  Has he been watching CNN?  Does he pay attention to what the correspondents say on his own show?  Or is it that he simply thinks that his audience is too stupid to understand that “terrorism” is a complicated, multi-dimensional question?

Disturbingly self-absorbed

I understand that the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade is a big deal.  But listening to the commentary on the parade yesterday, you would never have known that over 100 people were dead in an ongoing terrorist attack.  I understand that the parade would have gone on no matter what – and it should have gone on…after all, terrorist deal in fear, so the simple act of carrying on as normal is an act of defiance.

It’s one thing to carry on.  It’s another to totally ignore tragedy simply because it’s going on in another country.  A major fire in another US city would have attracted the attention of the commentators, it would have coloured their commentary.  But of the tragedy in Mumbai they seemed blissfully unaware.  What does it take to be that self-absorbed?  It’s very disturbing.

Day three in Mumbai

Indian security forces stormed the Chabad House in Mumbai; the rabbi and his wife, Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, their two small children and their housekeeper are dead.  Not sure if they were killed in the attack or before.  The Oberoi Hotel has been cleared, apparently.  There’s still one gunman at the Taj.

Three days seems like forever.  But then, that’s half as long as the coup.  I don’t mean to downplay the trauma of what’s going on in Mumbai.  I’m trying to understand the magnitude of what we lived through 18 years ago.  And, you know…I can’t wrap my mind around it.

Thoughts on Mumbai

We are victims of our own experience.  I am unable to see the events that are happening in Mumbai through any filter other than my own experience.  It may serve me badly or it may serve me well.  But I’m not trying to write as a journalist, or as a serious commentator.

I have no sense of what Mumbai looks like on a good day, so it’s hard for me to judge exactly how bad the damage is on the streets of Mumbai.  Vinukumar Ranganathan’s photo collection is remarkable.  I was struck by the faces of the crowd, by what appears to be a locally-organised cordon keeping the crowd back.  But what struck me most was the images of the police.

As I said, everything I see, I see through the filter of my own experience.  In their light-coloured uniforms,they bring to mind Trinidadian police inspectors.  All the more I am reminded of Hansley in his police inspector uniform from Flight of the Ibis – it wasn’t a real uniform, it was a copy cut from a cheaper cloth – one that wrinkled.  Which made me realise that police uniforms never wrinkled.  Anyway, the thing that strucke me about the Mumbai police were there in riot helmets, armed with antique rifles.  Probably more than adequate for crowd control in the city (although, again, I was struck by the fact that the face plates were mesh, not plastic), but no match for AKs and grenades.  And once again I was reminded of the coup.  It wasn’t that the Jamaat had modern weaponry either, but I remember the policemen in Gasparillo during the coup who were similarly armed with antique shotguns.  Everything changed after the coup – there was a major upgrade in the weaponry carried by the police.  But eighteen years later, the police in Mumbai appear to be equipped for a kinder, gentler time.

I’m not about the criticise them for the way they reacted to the attack.  I rather doubt that they have been trained to deal with something like this.

Another thing that struck me was Barbara Starr’s comments on CNN about the level of sophistication of the attacks, that this was something that terrorism experts found noteworthy.  Granted, it takes some doing to coordinate ten separate attacks, especially when you are arriving by boat in a foreign city.  But again, I think of the coup.  The Jamaat was able to attack the Police Headquarters and the Red House at the same time as they were attacking TTT and Radio Trinidad.  On the other hand, had they coordinated things a little better they would have gotten control of the Guardian building, the other radio station and, far more significantly, Piarco Airport.  Still – I had never thought of the coup as an especially sophisticated attack, or the Jamaat as an especially sophisticated group.  Reactions to the Mumbai attacks makes me wonder.  On the other hand, of course, this is just speculation by (unnamed) terrorism analysts who are simply watching TV like the rest of us.  Perhaps they deserve no more credence than political pundits during elections…


When I went to bed at 3 am, I figured that I would wake up this morning to the aftermath, to stories of what happened, to reports coming from a city that had experienced tragedy.  Sort of like New York in the weeks after 9-11.  It’s difficult to wake up and see a situation that’s still ongoing, with fires and hostages and explosions, with people still not sure what’s going on.  It’s too familiar, it’s too much like Trinidad in 1990.

It’s a little bit like re-living the most traumatic experience of your life.  Not quite re-living it, but kinda.  I don’t know.

Incredibly tragic, incredibly disturbing.

Update: Neha Viswanathan at Global Voices writes

Anger at the media for their coverage of the terror attacks in Mumbai is apparent on the blogosphere. For one, the mainstream media appears to have taken the approach of “shock and shake”, as opposed to verifying rumors before reporting them. But the nation appears glued to their television sets, as it is probably the most “live” source of information at this point in time.

Eighteen years ago, I was deeply struck by the difference between CNN’s coverage of the coup and that of the BBC.  CNN appeared to be reporting every rumour that circulated in TT, while the BBC’s reporting was far more measured.  Usually I see the expansion of media – cable news and new media – as a good thing.  But at times like this, there’s something to be said for measured old media.

Update II: Vinukumar Ranganathan posted a remarkable collection of pictures last night from Mumbai.  I saw some of them on CNN last night, but it’s only this morning that I took a look at them.

I ramble on here…

Ignorance or bigotry?

Rex Duncan, a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, has refused the  “Centennial Qu’ran” offered as a gift by the Governor’s Ethnic American Advisory Council.  Duncan is one of sixteen members of the State House who have refused the offer.  Duncan is free to refuse any gift.  There is nothing that says that he must accept the gift of a Quran, Bible or any other religious text.  Sure, it’s impolite, but well within his rights.  But his rationale for refusing the gift is quite striking.  The Norman Transcript reports that

“Most Oklahomans do not endorse the idea of killing innocent women and children in the name of ideology,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press. Duncan said he objected “to the use of the state Centennial Seal and the state Seal all in an effort to further their (Muslims’) religion.”

However, earlier in the year he accepted a “Centennial Bible”

This spring, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma distributed copies of a centennial Bible.

Duncan said he was pleased to receive the Bible.

“I don’t know any Christians who run around using the Bible as their basis of justification or instruction booklet to keep killing innocent people,” he said.

This raises a number of interesting questions.  Is Duncan (a member of the First Methodist Church of Tulsa) ignorant of what the Bible says?  Is Duncan unaware of the long history of Christian terrorism in the United States?  Or is he simply being a bigot?

Duncan says that he rejects “killing innocent women and children in the name of ideology”.  It makes me wonder if he has ever read much of the Bible.  Unlike the Qu’ran, the Bible commands genocide in the book of Joshua, specifically calling for the murder of women and children.  Failure to commit genocide is criticised in the books of Judges and Samuel.  The assertion that one would reject the gift of a Qu’ran because it endorses the “killing innocent women and children”, and yet accept a Bible, is ludicrous.

Duncan’s further assertion that he doesn’t “know any Christians who run around using the Bible as their basis of justification or instruction booklet to keep killing innocent people” is equally amazing.  Has he not heard of Eric Rudolph?  What about the Army of GodThe Lambs of Christ and James Kopp (who murdered Dr. Barnett Slepian)?  The Ku Klux Klan?  The organisers of “Paul Hill Days“?  There have been strong suggestions of a connection between the Christian Identity movement and the Oklahoma City bombing.

Duncan’s actions were criticised by Darryl DeBorde, pastor of Braden Park Baptist Church and a board member of the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance

“The Tulsa Interfaith Alliance expects all of our elected officials to treat all of their constituents with dignity and respect,” he said.

“To purposefully condemn and denounce all Oklahomans who are members of one religious body is just wrong, whether they be Muslim, Baptist or anything else.” 

H/T Bruce Prescott.