21 August 2006

Digital Second Amendment

I'm fixated on privacy.

I was watching a friend do a little hacking a couple months ago, and as I watched the pokeing and prodding at servers around the world (nothing illegal, just demonstrating technique!), I realized that basically this person had superpowers.

I was jealous.

Very Jealous.

While I stewed over my thoroughly lame skill set in comparison, I also started thinking about security issues. And so as our lives move increasingly into digital domains, and increasingly substantial chunks of our well being are wrapped up in electronic traces, everyday citizens remain pretty clueless about how to protect themselves. I started browsing computer security shelves in bookstores. The tools are designed for enterprise systems, the audience is businesses or institutions -- not much is directed to the end user (aka, me!). What I want is transparency. I want to know how to protect myself. I want to know who has access to what information about me, what my vulnerabilities are in the electronic sphere. Actually, I'd be pretty happy if I could tell if my front door is locked.

But it turns out that I don't know how to do the equivalent of scanning a dark street at night to see if it's one I'll walk down alone. I also don't know how to check to make sure my wallet is still in my pocket. And I don't know how to draw my blinds, or lock my windows. I don't know how to see if someone is following me, or if there is a huge gaping hole in the roof of my house from a windstorm. I'm not stupid, and I'm pretty good at figuring things out. I think that I have as much of a need as any large institution to make sure I'm protected. And I think I've decided that I want the ability to protect myself. I don't know of many tools, though, that make it possible for individuals without specialized skill to ensure their own electronic security. On one bookstore trip I found a book called Security and Usability. I'm looking for more around this conversation.

This is not to say that my car can't be stolen or my house broken into. I'm not looking for any sort of guaranteed protection. But I at least want to know when someone has rifled through my stuff.

Summer rites

I'm going to try to heed advice and blog from Seattle as well as from the road.

We'll see how that goes.

I've been re-entering life slowly after my last trip. It was a terrific trip from a research standpoint, but for some reason it took a lot out of me and I'm taking a signficant amount of time to recover.

But I'm also enjoying summer. Which, in Seattle, is about as good as it comes.

One day blackberry picking with my friend Will at a park near the water, getting gouged repeatedly by thorns that look like something out of a horror movie, flagging down a passing ice cream truck for a little refreshment. Despite the scratches that still mar my skin, there's nothing quite like cradling a handful of berries and feeling them still warm from the sun against your skin. Then, of course, mashing them to a pulp hours later to make jam.

A few days later over at my colleague Karen's house, climbing her ladder to pluck apples from an early-season tree. Taking a break from the ladder at some point and climbing the tree -- I can't remember the last time I did that. Bags full of apples sitting in the corner of my kitchen, one batch of gingered applesauce down, about three nights of canning left to go.

Long walks, a trip to the locks, and back in the groove of the bike commute to work.

I love summer so much.

16 August 2006

My first bribe!!

Trying to leave Tajikistan it finally happened. After six long years of traveling in and out and around Central Asia, I finally got to pay my first real bribe! This was a major milestone for me. Most of my friends have harrowing bribery stories, but I had never been shaken down, not once. Not in the city, not in rural areas, not in airports (well, there was that once in the airport in Tashkent, but that guy had his own desk and it was pratically a semi-official transaction. This one, well, this was the real deal).

If Erica were here she would interject (rightly so), "well, we *did* break the law."

Okay. So we did.

But, it's a stupid law. Plus, we didn't mean to break it. Plus, we thought about it and we did think we were on the right side (barely) of the law. But apparently not.

We're at the airport in Dushanbe, and we finally make it to the front of the glacial passport control line. Erica -- the one who actually speaks the language -- is going first. She is asked a couple questions, she answers, the woman checking passports is about to let her go. And then a guard who was sitting outside her booth walks forward. Where is your registration certificate, he asks...

So, in this region (with the exception of Kyrgyzstan for citizens of certain countries) you have to register with the local police when you get to town. You generally have three days in which to register. Local OVIR offices are notoriously bureaurocratic, but it's just one of the hassles of traveling in the region. It's especially a hassle when you want to stay with friends in an apartment, but I have my workarounds for that and I usually go to a hotel I've stayed at in the past and they kindly help me out. Because when you stay in a hotel, generally they register you and you get a slip of paper or they put your name in a book or some such. Well, we had three days in which to register in Dushanbe. We spent the first night at the Hotel Tajikistan, so we figured we were registered for that night. After that we rented an apartment where we stayed for three nights. But we talked it over at brunch on Sunday and decided we were probably okay because we had registration for our first night from the hotel, and then we would be at the three-day max in the apartment. One more day and we would have had to go to OVIR, but we genuinely (mostly) thought we were okay.

So, at the airport the guard is having an earnest conversation with Erica about her (soon to be discovered "our") missing registration certificates. We stayed at the Hotel Tajikistan, she says to the officer. I offer to show the receipt from the hotel. But it turns out the Hotel Tajikistan is the one hotel of all the hotels I have stayed at in five countries in Central Asia that does *not* automatically register you. Apparently you have to request it and pay an additional fee. It never occured to us that we'd have to ask to be registered, since the hotel knows that all foreigners need registration with OVIR. So Erica is having an intense conversation with the airport official who tells her that we have broken the law and that he is required to arrest us. We will be taken away from the airport, and we will miss our plane. Now, I really need to be on that flight to Bishkek since I leave to return to the US the following day, and there are only 3 or 4 flights per week from Dushanbe to Bishkek. So she tells him that we are leaving for America the next day, we cannot miss our plane. His eyes are smiling, this guard. At no point do we have actual visions of Midnight Express running through our minds, but the possibility of real inconvenience does float by. "Should I arrest you?" he asks Erica finally. "I certainly hope not," she responds. So we are given the choice of being arrested, missing our plane, and paying a US$400 fine, or not being arrested, not missing our plane, and paying US$150 "with no receipt."

Erica says "that sounds better."
"Better for who?" the officer asks.
"Better for everyone," she responds.
And he smiles.

She turns to me and says, "It is being suggested that you put $150 in your passport and they will come and check your passport later."

So I pull out my money belt, extract the money, slip it in my passport, and then we proceed to the next line. But someone else is going to check my passport in this line, so I slip the money back into my pocket. We get to the waiting room and we are both having a really hard time keeping a straight face. "My first bribe!" I exclaim to her excitedly. "Mine, too!" she says. We are biting back grins that seem downright unseemly when one is being extorted. So I slip the money back into my passport now and we are waiting for our officer friend to come collect the cash. We wait. And wait. He does not come. Eventually the flight is called and the line forms at the glass doors. We get in line, still wondering when our cash will be disappeared. We move close to the door, and it looks like we are about to leave the terminal, get led out onto the tarmac for the walk to the plane, when Erica suggests I take the money out of my passport since I am about to hand my passport to yet another person. Good point. So I slip the cash back into my pocket. And just then a guard (not the same one) appears from behind the divider with passport control and strides up to me, takes my passport, opens it, and of course finds no cash. He harumphs at me, points energetically at my open passport in his hands and says "In here!" and then he stalks away. I sheepishly slip the money out of my pocket and back into my passport. Hey, I'm new at this bribing thing! So he eventually comes back, collects my passport, disappears for a few minutes, and comes back with my passport and our customs forms (the excuse for needing to come back to get my passport).

And we head out to the tarmac to climb the stairs to our yak-40.

About those customs forms....There's a good chance we were scouted out before we ever got to passport control. While I was leaning on the table filling out the form -- which requires you to put down what kind of currencies you have and how much of each -- a very friendly guard came up and stood on the opposite side of the table, looking over the side at my form as I was writing, smiling down as he watched me intently. As I was writing that I had Kyrgyz som, Tajik somani, and, oh yeah, US dollars -- 500 of them. He asked us some questions that I didn't pay attention to, but later found out that he was asking if we spoke Russian. I think if we didn't speak Russian we wouldn't have been worth the trouble.

So, I parted with $150, which is probably about 5 months worth of salary for that guy.

The only question now is how I explain the expenditure to the department fiscal person when I file my trip expense.

no coke, no smile?

I've been back over a week now, but my blogging took a pause...

So, it turns out Tajikistan is a country without coca-cola. At least in the capital. A couple days into the visit Erica and I both commented that wasn't it odd there were no big bottles of coke on the tables set for parties at the restaurants...Fanta, sure. But no Coca-Cola. Instead...RC Cola.

It was also remarkable how much Dushanbe reminded us of Uzbekistan a few years ago. Lots more women in traditional dress, but so much similarity, more than in Kyrgyzstan. Even linguistically.

One thing that several people mentioned to us in conversation is that during the civil war many many people left the city. Ethnic Russians headed to Russia, Tajiks who left for other parts of the country or to emigrate did so in large numbers. And what happened is that the people from the villages moved into the city. So although Dushanbe is the capital, the residents are drawn heavily from rural areas. Apparently it makes for an interesting cultural mix. The big city population doesn't necessarily reflect so-called big city mentality.