Zara’s Space on the Web – Musings

December 4, 2013

A summary of the article that made me care about the NSA issue

Filed under: Computers,Geekery,Politics — zarazilla @ 8:33 am
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I’m going to admit that I didn’t really care that much about the whole NSA spying thing for a while.  Maybe because I’d assumed it was always already kinda happening.

Then I read an article by the New York Times, which made me care, as it explained exactly how the NSA had managed to do all this spying, including weakening international cryptography standards, which I found most alarming.  If you have time, I highly recommend reading the article, N.S.A. Able to Foil Basic Safeguards of Privacy on Web, by Nicole Perlroth, Jeff Larson and Scott Shane (September 5, 2013).

If not, I’ve attempted to summarise the main points here, with a little restructuring of information to get around newspaper format, which can be repetitive and/or confusing.  I’ve copied text straight from the article when convenient and skipped parts people might already have known/suspected.

Introduction

In the 1990s the NSA attempted to legally insert a government ‘back door’ into all encryption (the Clipper Chip).  This means that they would be able to bypass encryption efforts so that they would be able to access anything they’d want, but the proposition was deeply unpopular and they eventually backed down in 1996.  But rather than stopping there, they went on to try to gain access to anything they wanted through stealth and trickery.

Working with, coercing and deceiving companies

The NSA hacked into computers to retrieve messages before they were encrypted, used super fast computers (I take it they mean supercomputers) to break codes and worked with technology companies in the US and abroad into building in back doors into their security.  Some say they were coerced, and there are cases where companies shut down rather than compromise themselves and their customers.  Lavabit, an e-mail encryption company closed while Silent Circle ended its e-mail service.

According to a leaked intelligence budget document, the NSA spends more than $250 million a year on its Signit Enabling Project, which “actively engages the U.S. and foreign IT industries to covertly influence and/or overtly leverage their commercial products’ designs” to make the “exploitable”.  In one instance after learning that a foreign intelligence target had ordered new computer hardware, the American manufacturer agreed to insert a back door into the product before it was shipped.

Still others have been compromised without them knowing it.  In 2012 GCHQ (the British NSA counterpart) had developed new ‘access opportunities’ into Google’s systems.  Google denied giving any government access and said it had no evidence its systems had been breached (This later article describes what might have happened).

The agency maintains an internal database of encryption keys for specific commercial products, which can automatically decode many messages.  Independent cryptographers say many of the keys are probably acquired by hacking into companies’ computer servers where they are stored.  To hide what the NSA were doing, only keys that have been acquired through legal means (i.e. not hacking) could be shared with other agencies.

Weakening Cryptography standards

Another tool the NSA have been attempting to use to aid them in obtaining information is to introduce weaknesses into encryption standards followed by hardware and software developers around the world. This is a dangerous game for the NSA to play, because although by weakening cryptography standards they are able to access communications from potential enemies, they’re also compromising the security of American communications.

The NSA wrote a standard for cryptography which was adopted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 2006 and later by the International Organization for Standardization, of which 163 countries are members.  In 2007 Microsoft cryptographers found fatal weakness in the standard, which classified NSA memos appear to confirm were engineered by the agency.  The article claims the standard was aggressively pushed on the international group.

October 4, 2013

We don’t actually need to grow that much more food

Filed under: Economics,Food — zarazilla @ 5:46 am
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I wrote this for a forum post on the Coursera Sustainability course I mentioned in my last post and figured since I spent time on it I might as well post it here!

Basically I am arguing that the Jonathan Foley TED video “The other inconveient truth”  that we were asked to watch says that we need to grow 2 to 3 times more food because of a growing population (the estimate is population stabilizes around 2050 at around 9.6 billion people).  So what they are saying is that you need 200-300% more food for 37% more people (assuming world population is currently 7 billion).  What do they base this off of?  That most demand will come from people in developing nations eating more meat and possibly turning food into biofuels.

I disagree that everybody needs/will be eating the amount of meat people in the current developed nations are eating and that we will continue to turn food into biofuel (which gives you 1.2 units of energy for every 1 unit you put in… in other words a very poor energy ratio).

Say, for the purposes of this point, that we reach our limit of food production, due to water, space, whatever before we get to 200%.  This is essentially a limit on the supply of food, which will naturally cause the price of food to go up.  Well the price of meat will go up much more than the price of grains/vegetables, because the cost of feeding livestock is competing against the cost of feeding humans, so the cost of meat will rise as a multiple of the cost of grains/vegetables.  This will cause less meat to be bought.
So yes, food will be more expensive, but it will still be affordable, and it will not be scarce.  Meat will become a premium product, just as it used to be 40 years ago in the developed countries and just as it currently is in the developing countries.  Nobody needs to eat meat 2-3 times a day 7 days a week, although certainly the richest will continue to do so.  But the middle class may cut down on the amount of meat they eat; although they will still be able to afford it regularly.  In fact the US is currently reducing meat consumption per capita.
The main issue I see is the issue as it is today – distribution/equality.  As food prices rise, will we once again leave behind the poorest while the richest chow down on meat that’s been feed the grains the poorest should have?  There will certainly be enough to eat, but not if everybody insists on eating meat 21 meals a week.
As for biofuels… I’d certainly hope our energy needs won’t be so severe as to continue using scarce food for inefficient bio-fuels.  As food gets more expensive, the cost-effectiveness of using it for bio-fuel should decrease, leading to people producing energy from other sources.  So if we are so desperate as to use expensive food for bio-fuels, then we are in a lot of trouble indeed.  I doubt this will happen though, as the cost of renewable forms of energy have become a lot cheaper to produce and continue on a downward trend.
(TL;DR) So let’s be clear – we don’t NEED to produce 3x more food.  We only need that if we want EVERYBODY to be eating cheap meat and to continue using inefficent biofuel sources.

October 3, 2013

Farmers

Filed under: Economics — zarazilla @ 2:51 pm
Tags: , ,

While unemployed I’m refreshing my sustainability knowledge by taking Coursera’s Sustainability Course. This week the focus is on water and agriculture.  I’ve also recently sent out my (5 year old!) thesis on reducing slash and burn agriculture in Indonesia to a potential employer as a writing sample.  These two combined have got me thinking of a conversation I had in a village in Sumatra (Indonesia) while conducting research for my thesis.  I think of this conversation often and would like to share it.

Surveys over for the day, my translator and I were chatting with the local farmers who were curious about life in the UK.  One of them asked me “Are farmers in the UK struggling like us?” I laughed at first, thinking it was a joke, until I realised they were all looking at me quite seriously and my translator pointed out that the farmer was serious.

“No”, I replied. “Farmers in the west are generally rich”.

The farmer looked pleased.  “I’m glad”, he said. “They are my brothers, and I am happy they are doing well”.

I looked at him in consternation.  He was so generous, and so genuinely comforted by the fact that his ‘brothers’ in the UK were doing well, I didn’t even know whether I could, or even should, explain that they were rich because of government subsidies, and that that the food they grew, cheaper because of government subsidies, competed with the food farmers in developing countries grew, both within their own countries and in developing countries, and how this meant that his well-off ‘brothers’ in the West were actually contributing to his and fellow farmers in developing countries’ poverty. How not only that, but the ones in the West were also part of campaigns to the public to ask them to buy produce only from their countries, therefore contributing even more to developing country farmers’ poverty.

Well, after his proclamation of happiness, I couldn’t spoil that for him. But I just wished, hoped, that the very same ‘brothers’ he were genuinely happy for at least spared a kind thought for him at least once in a while.

September 4, 2013

Efficiency

Filed under: Computers,Economics,Geekery,Hippiery — zarazilla @ 10:57 am

As an environmentalist, an economist, a computer scientist – I’m a bit obsessed with efficiency.  I just wanted to write a little bit about how I think about efficiency from different points of view.

Perhaps one of the things that divides a programmer from a computer scientist that programs is that a computer scientist will strive for efficiency.  They’re going to try to use the least processing power and the least amount of memory (you could say it uses as few resources as possible), because that makes for an efficient program, which means that it runs as quick as possible.

In the field of economics ‘efficiency’ takes on a slightly different meaning – an efficient society is one in which no one could be better off without making someone else worse off (this is called Pareto efficiency).  It could also mean that you get the greatest amount of benefit from a single unit of cost (you can’t get anymore output without any additional input).  If you think about it, that’s what a computer scientist does – they try to use the least amount of resources to do get the result they want.

I try to live my life efficiently – the greatest amount of well-being from the least amount of discomfort/time, and this sometimes overspills to friends and family – say I want that last slice of cake but I know I don’t want it as MUCH as my boyfriend does; but he is trying to be nice by letting me have it.  I’d prefer he has it because our total joy would be larger.  On the other hand, if I’m sure I’d enjoy it more, I’ll let him know how much I’d like it and, unless I’ve underestimated how much he wants it, I usually get it. :)

As an environmentalist, we must completely be mindful of efficiency.  In our lifestyles we try to be efficient to produce as little waste as possible and to make as little impact on the environment as possible.  In bigger considerations we want to be efficient in how we spend our energies and the budgets for environmental conservation.  An idea might sound good but actually cost a lot and produce very little benefit, while another idea could produce a lot more benefit with less cost.  A good example of this is climate change mitigation – it might sound like a good idea to place solar power panels on every available surface you can find, but actually the cost of producing the panels, in both energy and monetary terms could probably be better off going into building a better public transportation system which will remove cars off the road.  That’s just an example, by the way.  I’m sure there are more efficient ways to use energy and money.

Lastly, my favourite comic offering on efficiency: SMBC addresses the best use of Superman.

*For those of you who are not familiar with the field of economics, we measure benefit not by monetary terms  but by well-being.  It’s just that for the most part it’s actually kind of difficult to measure well-being, so we use monetary terms as a proxy.  Of course a lot of things are missed by looking at just hard currency, and these things are called ‘externalities’.  Environmental economists attempt to measure these externalities through a number of different methods.

August 30, 2013

Why are smartphones so expensive? (and why they’re about to get a lot cheaper)

About 3 years ago I finally gave up carrying a Nokia-brick equivalent around and acquired my first smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S1.  3 years later and it’s pretty much asking me to put it out of its misery.

So I’ve been looking around and considering my options.  The new Samsung Galaxy (the S4) 16GB will set me back about £500 from a reputable store (and there are many fakes going around, so you want that reputable store),  and lets just set that as the benchmark as I’m sure the iPhone 5 is more expensive and I think the HTC One is too.  That’s a lot of money for a jobless person, but luckily I have much cheaper options.

For instance, picking up a 7 inch tablet instead, such as (to stick to Samsung for a fair price comparison) the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 16gb which ALSO MAKES PHONE CALLS and retails for £310.

In other words, the  Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 is a 7 inch smartphone which is 65% the cost of it’s 5 inch counterpart.  Which one might consider a bit strange, seeing as it has 2 inches more display, albeit probably slightly crappier specs than the phone, including a non super-amoled screen and crappier cameras.

But then again we might imagine that miniaturization costs more, hence why the 5 inch phone is more expensive than the 7 inch tablet.  But then… if that’s so how come the Samsung Note II costs more than the normal sized phones?

So not knowing much about the cost of parts and miniaturization and random technologies here’s my take on what’s going on here.

  • The cost of the highest end smartphones have always been high (some say the costs of them are coming down but the S4 costs today what my S1 cost 3 years ago).  Similarly, when the first tablets came out, they were also very costly.
  • Then in the middle of 2012 Google came along and crushed the market* with the very affordable Nexus 7 at £160 for an 8gb and £199 for the 16gb.  To put this in context the iPad 2, which had already been succeeded by the iPad 3 was still retailing for £329 without 3G (these are prices I pulled off an email discussion with my sisters talking about which tablet to get my Dad for his birthday)!  This instantly made tablets a lot more affordable while installing an ‘anchor’ price on 7 inch tablets.  Competitors had to stick to the general area of this price or customers would just not give their product a second glance.
  • So now we have very expensive smartphones** and very cheap tablets.  While before there was some overlap between the markets, they were pretty much separate markets, so it was okay.  But now tablets have the ability to make phonecalls… which I foresee many customers whose phones have come to the end of their lifespan (such as myself) switching to the 7 (or 8, thank you Samsung) inch tablets (and a bluetooth headset) instead of getting a much more expensive smartphone.

This means that the smartphone market will start experiencing a high customer dropout which means that demand will fall which means… in about a year or two our smartphone prices will drop to tablet prices or even lower.

That’s my guess anyway.  And why I’m going to be trying to prolong the lifespan of my already tortured S1.

*How did Google make such a low cost tablet? Well I’m guessing there was some economy of scale/using lower specs but mostly they just sold it pretty much at cost.  Now why they did that is another topic for discussion… but I’m willing to bet it has something to do with taking tablet market share from Apple. This guy’s theory sounds good, anyway.

**So following on from the above asterisk, yes, smartphones are probably so expensive because you, or enough people, are willing to pay them that much, and therefore manufacturers are probably making pretty large profits off of them.

———

Oh are you still reading?  I also want to say something real quick about customer differentiation! That’s what companies do when they’re trying to get the most money out of each customer.  As you know, everybody has different preferences and also different willingness to pay for things.  So say someone with a lot of money is willing to pay a lot for the highest end product because it looks good and probably functions pretty well.  Someone with less money is probably going to spend a lot more time researching their options and weighing up what they get versus what they pay.

So I’m thinking the technology companies have done something like this.

  1.  Rich customer/customer who cares a lot about their tech/Customer who wants to look hip with the latest high-end tech – High-end smartphone AND high-end tablet (costs lot, big margins)
  2. Poorer customer who just wants a smartphone or tablet – low-cost smartphone OR low cost tablet (pretty cheap, small margins)
  3. Savvy customer who’s chosen what’s best for their (bigger) budget – High-end smartphone
  4. Savvy poorer customer who’s chosen what’s best for their (smaller) budget – Low-end phone tablet

August 21, 2013

Today’s 6 point plan for personal growth

Filed under: Geekery,Hippiery,Personal — zarazilla @ 11:02 am

Hello blog!  I have been absent, yes.  I’ve also been busy.  But I’ve now been ‘on holiday’ for coming up to 2 months so I better get started on being productive again.  I’m not sure how long/regularly I’ll be blogging for but I just wanted to write a public post on what I’m going to be concentrating on for the next few weeks for personal growth, seeing as I finally have the time to do things to update myself that I’ve been anxious about not having the time to do before.

So, I aim to do the following (presented in no particular order):

  1. Finish reading ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre, which should give me a quick review on critical thinking and introduce me to some interesting tricks that at least those in the medical industry play to manipulate research as well as how people see research results.
  2. Read the main sequences on LessWrong (available here in compiled, printable, easy to read formats). This should also help me update/upgrade my critical thinking/logical reasoning skills as well as introduce some new concepts I might be able to use in my professional life*.
  3. (speaking of professional life) update myself on the latest international going-ons in environmental economics/policy I might have missed in the past few months while I was attempting to learn Mandarin.
  4. Update myself on current environmental policy and use of environmental economics in Malaysia, Indonesia and China, areas I’m particularly interested in working in.
  5. As part of 3 and 4, start writing blog posts again, possibly for Mesym (if they deign to publish me). Possibly even think about giving one or two talks.
  6. Yes, in point 3 I mentioned learning Mandarin – I may no longer be in China on a full-time course but I hope to not only remember but continue to learn Mandarin. This will involve reviewing and learning even more Hanzi, probably with the use of Memrise, which had been very effective for me in learning my first 800 Hanzi before arriving in Beijing.

There. That seems like a lot to do, but I do have a mighty amount of free time on my hands. I should probably mention I’m also searching for work, but hopefully  points 3-5 should help with this.

* If you are interested in Rationalism but not quite ready to jump head first into it and are open to Harry Potter fanfiction, you might find Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR) a fun and interesting read. Even if you’re not interested in rationalism but are just open to Harry Potter fanfiction I think you may find HPMOR a fun and well-written read, although it is not quite finished.  There are currently 97 chapters up and the author mentions there’s only one more main story arc to go though, so if you read particularly slow you might only have to wait a short time before it is finished?

April 30, 2012

Prioritising

Filed under: Personal — zarazilla @ 11:21 pm

My inbox has been a bit of a mess lately.  In fact, it’s been a lot of a mess.  I get so much e-mail everyday that I hardly glance at most of them – I simply scan through to see if there’s any e-mail from someone I actually know in real life and leave everything else to collect.

And once it started collecting… well it was easy to let it keep collecting and not attempt to sort it out.

I got up to 1,300 e-mails which is easy to ignore when you’re using Gmail’s Priority Inbox – and even there I had about 45 unread “priority” e-mails.

I decided to tackle my inbox today as a ‘productive’ action – I’ve had to stay in sick today and I’d been feeling listless from not being able to do anything productive – when I try to concentrate earlier today I tired myself out in about half an hour and had to take a nap! But cleaning out the inbox doesn’t take too much concentration…

…one thing I did decide to do to cut down on the mess however was to start unsubscribing from lists. This was pretty easy for the corporate ones – Amazon, EBuyer, Sainsbury’s, PopCap and Opodo all went (well, as soon as I could find their ‘unsubscribe’ link – some of which were much harder than the others to find). It was a bit harder to get rid of Groupon – but to be honest I never read those either. But then I got to the Charity/Good Causes ones: Oxfam, AllOut, Avaaz, Compassion in World Farming, Care International, Libel Reform, Hope not Hate… to be honest I hardly read any of them but at the same time I would feel guilty unsubscribing from any of them. Then intention is always to read every single one but the reality is my eyes look at the sheer amount of unread e-mails and glaze over.

So I came to the conclusion that I will have to prioritise – I’ve decided to toss the ones I probably joined for a single campaign and then never read again and keep the ones that I actually care about on a day-to-day basis. But even that was difficult. Is it worth keeping BOTH Oxfam and Care International? I don’t really care about Libel Reform on a day to day basis but if I stop to think about it, it’s a really important issue that could set precedents internationally and will help the democratic process… and etc etc etc with all the other good causes!

Then I realised this is actually the problem with how I live my life. I realised recently that I’m very good at filling up my free time – with online courses, a resolution to be fluent in a new language in 18 months, a new programming project. I want all of these things, of course – to be able to access new opportunities with a new language, to understand more aspects of this world by learning game theory and model thinking, to be a multi-millionaire with the next viral mobile phone app. And I want more, some very specific mores, but I haven’t yet found the free-time to plug up yet.

But all of this destruction of my free time is stressing me out. I hate feeling unproductive but I also hate the feeling of things hanging over my head. I also hate feeling that I’m not getting as much as I would like to out of the online courses because I’m rushing through them and feeling like I “don’t have time” for things. It’s a sad revelation for me, but maybe it’s time to start prioritising. I may be able to get to do all of these things I want to do in the time that I want to do them, but I don’t want to just do them for the sake of doing them. It’ll be wonderful to have that sense of accomplishment at the end, but I don’t want to be stressed out for the next couple of years in order to achieve that.

Luckily, both my online courses end this week. I’m of course behind on both of them, but once I’m done with them I should probably avoid the compulsion to put something else in that free time gap and start examining my priorities.

If you’ve read down to here, I’m sorry if this blog post didn’t really tie together so nicely – did I mention I’m sick? But it would be nice if you could give some general thoughts or answer some questions. Like, how do you prioritise your charities in terms of time/mone/e-mail subscriptions? How do you prioritise the things you want to achieve in your life?

December 9, 2011

New Years Resolution list

Filed under: Personal — zarazilla @ 12:15 am

I’ve been very conservative with my new years resolution lists in the past.  I always say I will give up smoking and drinking (hint, I have never done either!) and in some years I’ve actually put down a couple of sensible ones like correcting my posture and getting organised.

But this year, maybe because of the long, crawling struggle I’ve had with studying whilst working and losing all free time to do anything else, I was thinking it’d be nice to go a little crazy on the new years resolutions and have maybe less a resolution list and more a wish list. There are a few things I’d like to do that would take up a lot of time, and I recognise that it will take a long time to complete all of these things – probably more than a year. But it’d be cool if it didn’t, and if I did complete everything I want to do by 2013 (but then where would be the fun in that?)

So without further ado, here is my wish list for 2012:

1) Write a novel

2) Complete both computer game ideas I have in my head

3) Learn a new language. Possibly mandarin.

4) Move forward in my work and make significant headway towards my long-term goals (okay this one I absolutely have to do in 2012 – resolution!)

5) Party more! Or at least meet new people or hang out with people I don’t spend much time with, experience new things, be more aware and more exposed to the fun that is waiting for me! (Yes I am having a late 20s crisis – I have just realised I will run out of 20s soon!)

So I’m going to be working on 4 and 5 absolutely, with 1, 2, and 3 as options. I would like to do all 5 at the same time, but something tells me this is probably not possible!

June 22, 2011

Protecting the internet’s freedom of information

Filed under: Computers,Geekery,Politics — zarazilla @ 8:37 pm
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A while back I was sitting on the tube, and a woman sat down next to me who was perusing a Daily Mail app on her phone. It was only then that it occured to me that none of my friends or colleagues actually read the Daily Mail (apart from to make fun of it). It was then that I realised just how much I live in my own little bubble, where my friends agree with me on most of my political views. I mean sure I have an ex-classmate on facebook who is a member of the Tea Party and a friend who has recently come out on the Austrian side of economics, but he still believes in many of the same things I do and she and I agree on…

Okay. There is not much politically that the Tea Party member and I agree on, including abortion, immigration and climate change. We do, however, agree on at least one thing – the freedom of the internet.

And that is what I am writing about here because, unfortunately, her views and posts on all these things are slowly getting erased from my facebook News feed. I say ‘unfortunately’ unsarcastically (if that is a word) because I believe in looking at all sides of the debate for informed opinions and her posts have kept me informed on the Tea Party arguments. I may not click on 99% of them, but I like having them amongst pictures of babies and cousins’ vanity pictures and vague status updates about the night before to peruse.

Of course if you’re on Facebook you know that they have a very select filtering process. I have 476 ‘friends’ (it’s a TCK thing) and there is no way I am seeing facebook updates from, say, 90% of them. So when I’m not clicking on the posts on guns and why Obama is an asshole, Facebook decides her posts are not worth my time and starts filtering them out of my news feed.

This, however, is not merely a Facebook phenomenon. My main search engine, Google, has been busily filtering things specifically for me too. Pushing things it thinks would be more interesting to me up the search results.

This, to me, is a huge threat to the internet that promised so much in the past decade with the ability to give the average layperson (in a relatively developed country) free information and opposing viewpoints in order to make informed decisions – on purchses and politics (and probably other things but I can’t think of them right now!). The provision of comparison sites have made markets in music, flights and insurance (to name a few) much more competitive, the provision of information from global sources has been a lifeline to many in propaganda-pushing countries.  No wonder one of the first things Egypt’s beseiged government did during the Egyptian demonstrations was cut off the internet. It’s also why I think internet astroturfing is such a huge threat.

But this ‘filter bubble’ is a threat too – because unless we are actively looking for information or views outside of what we are normally exposed to, or are happy with, we won’t get it. How many people will say they actively look for it? This is a danger because many opinions on subjects we are not very informed about are formed through what we, probably unconsciously, pick up from the people and information that surrounds us.

I listened to a great talk on this subject by Eli Pariser, who recently released the book ‘The Filter Bubble: What the internet is hiding from you‘. One thing I found particularly interesting is the danger of the Facebook ‘like’ button – and the use of the word ‘like’!

You can download the podcast from the LSE website.

If you are interested, Pariser has also given 10 tips on how to get as unfiltered an internet experience as possible.

March 9, 2011

Could’ve, should’ve…

Filed under: Uncategorized — zarazilla @ 7:08 pm

Yesterday I got pick-pocketed. The worse thing was I wasn’t completely oblivious, and after, when I had confirmed that something had actually happened, I didn’t do anything while the perpetrator stood perhaps 5 metres away from me, on the bus I just got off, for about 30 seconds.  Eventually the doors closed and the bus drove off, taking the thief and my mp3 player with it.  I felt, and still feel, distinctly unempowered.

I’m not sure I could tell you what I was thinking while I stood there gawping, feeling up my pockets, checking to see I hadn’t just misplaced it, and knowing I hadn’t.  I know, while it was within 5 metres of me, that I had already started rationalising to myself.  At least it wasn’t my wallet, my phone.  My music is backed up on my computer, I can just put it on my phone. I made a couple of movements towards the bus, but never got back on, never said anything, just continued to stand there, gawping.  I guess I was partly in denial, partly in shock.

Later I got home and tweeted about it and got a couple of responses back from friends who had had something similar happened to them.  It was somehow comforting to know that I wasn’t the only person whose mind short-circuited during a time when it should have started kicking into gear.  It was also disturbing that it’s happened to my friends, but in another way almost nice to know that it’s happened so few times that we don’t have any experiences to refer to to tell us how to act.

Since the incident happened about 18 hours ago my mind has belatedly started going back to the incident and thinking about what I should’ve done.  I should’ve gone up to him and just asked him for my mp3 player back.  I should’ve told the bus driver.  I should’ve moved my bag out of the way when I thought something was happening.

Edit (11/03/11) : After filing my police report I asked the policewoman what I could’ve done.  She said that I could’ve called 999, if there were police around and available they could’ve sent a car after the bus and arrested the perpetrator then and there.  This wasn’t something I seriously considered because I thought perhaps the crime was “too trivial” for 999.  It wasn’t, and it could’ve helped the police as they are trying to crack down on pickpockets. If a crime is happening or has just happened and you know the police can catch the criminal(s), call 999.

The thoughts are tormenting, yes.  These are all things I could’ve, should’ve done, and I didn’t.  People say it’s useless to think of what you should’ve done during an incident after it’s over, but actually,  I think my mind is taking this incident that has so obviously upset me and its going over it and picking out all the possible spots where I could’ve acted to change the situation, so that I will be prepared and know what to do for next time.  Or to prevent a next time.  In other words, lacking real circumstances, my mind is rehearsing.

Back at university I trained in karate and one of the main things you learn in karate is kata – that’s the series of movements you see karate students do.  It may look like we’re just showing off, but the fundamental thing about practising kata was that you were practising these series of movements over and over again so that they were ingrained in your muscle memory.  That block punch-turn combination may look useless if you’re fighting one person, but in a real life situation when you’ve got that drilled in you it could save your life. Without thinking you’ll block your attacker’s initial advance, punch to momentarily stun them, and throw them while you’re turning.

Of course, you should always take the opportunity to run the hell out of there when you can, but sometimes when you’re trapped that isn’t possible.

So I guess, in a way, my mind is performing its mental kata right now – taking in the situation and practising over and over what I should do in another situation.

But we don’t have to wait for these things to happen and to affect us so profoundly before our mind starts practising actions for these situations.  I once tried to set up a women’s self-defence class at my university – unfortunately it never happened because the university didn’t have the budget for it – but speaking to Ger O’Dea, who I hoped would lead the class, I learnt a few things that I think would be really useful.  Unfortunately I never practised it for being pickpocketed – I was focused on more violent attacks – but hopefully having done this exercise for violent attacks, during a violent attack (which of course I hope will never happen) my mind won’t desert me like it did last night.

If you have half an hour and a pen and paper right now, do this right now. If not, think about it and do it when you have time. It may save your life.

To start with, think about your most frequent route.  For me, it’d be travelling to and from work.  Now think about all the places where you are vulnerable on this route.  Walking through quiet neighbourhoods.   Waiting at quiet bus stops.  Walking past dark parks.  I hope, by the way, that you NEVER take short cuts through quiet ways by yourself when there is a lovely main road you can use.

Now think of the things that could happen to you when you are in these places.  Perhaps while waiting at your quiet bus stop a bunch of rowdy drunk men could spot you and think you’re an easy target to harrass.  Perhaps while you’re walking past a dark alleyway someone could jump out, grab you, and drag you in, and try to rape you at knifepoint.  Perhaps, while you’re walking through a quiet neighbourhood, some guy in a van will pull over, get out, and ask you how much for a night.  No, these are not pleasant things to think about.

Now the first thing to do, for all these incidents, is to think whether there is some way you can avoid them, or the places where they could happen.  You could walk to the next bus stop which is on a main road. You could cross the road to avoid walking past the dark alleyway.

Some of these things can’t be avoided though.  What do you do when that guy in a van pulls over and gets out and asks you for a good time tonight?  Can you scream “FIRE!” and run to the door of the nearest house? (Always scream “Fire” – it gets people’s attention)  Could you carry a rape alarm around with you and have it in your hand while you’re walking through this neighbourhood?  Could you catch this guy off guard, kick him in the stomach, punch him in the nose, then run like hell to a main road?  Write down several things you could do in each of the situations you have listed, and be realistic about your capabilities.  Make sure you factor in other possible situations – what if that guy has a friend?  Maybe you can say “Sure, come to my place, I like it this way and I have these toys…” and lead them to the house of the biggest strongest man you know.  Always make sure you have an escape plan.

Now, while you’re on a roll, or later when you have time, work on your other frequent routes.

Is it too much?  Maybe.  But wouldn’t you prefer to rehearse before incidents happen rather than after?

One of the things you should hopefully find after you do this exercise is that in a funny way it frees you from anxiety.  My best friend lives in LA and is always on red alert.  When I visited her a few years back we got lost late at night and I asked a stranger for directions and she freaked out.  He turned out to be a very nice guy, but she is always living with the “What if”.  I don’t know how it is to live your life questioning the motives of every stranger – to fear everybody who looks at you the wrong way or passes too close to you.  I’m not saying that after you do this exercise you should no longer be cautious – far from it – but that having these plans available you should hopefully be released from that anxiety of “anything can happen” and actually start listening to your instinctual feelings – so that your real fear signals – the ones you should really listen to – are not buried and confused with your anxiety.

If you’re interested in reading more about instinct and fear and how they could help you out in situations rather than that constant buzz of anxiety, a good book to read is the very aptly named “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker.  I just bought two copies – one to replace the last one which I lent out and never got back, and one for my best friend.  I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who is always feeling that anxiety that my friend has and it’s pretty cheap – about a fiver including delivery on Amazon.

I will readily admit that I wrote this post partly to help clear my mind of last night’s incident, to write down my thoughts on the “mental kata” I’ve been doing, but  I also thought it important that the people – particularly the women – I know do the exercise I have just mentioned.  I do think and have always thought that self-defence is unfortunately very important in the times we live in, and I think it is 99% mental and should only be physical when everything else has failed.

Special thanks to Ger O’Dea who originally spoke to me about this exercise and who responded with great enthusiasm when I asked him to proofread the first draft of this post, despite us having been out of touch for years! Ger now runs the Dynamis gym in Edinburgh where he teaches self-defence.

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