Burma Internet Shutdown; Mafia

The Blackouts Are Coming

The Burmese Junta, hardly known for its openness, inked a new chapter in the annals of repression during its crackdown of the Saffron Revolution: it shut down Internet access. All of it. Of course, information control in repressive regimes is nothing new, but this was a quantum leap forward—Burma is the first government to completely disable the Internet nationwide. And though it couldn't silence the smattering of journalists and diplomats who were able to send images via satellite, it handily quieted the monks.

The Burmese technique was disturbingly simple—all they had to do was shut down the country's two Internet service providers. When citizens started circulating digital photographs and videos of the September crackdown, the government ordered the ISPs (which it controls) to cut off every digital pathway into the country.

So, should we expect more such incidents globally? According to John Palfrey, a Harvard Law School professor of Internet security, "Small, closed societies with heavy state ownership or control of the ISPs could do this easily." Think of Cuba, Belarus or Bhutan.

But in larger countries, particularly those with market economies, a total blackout is unlikely. For starters, there are many more ISPs not under state control. Secondly, even in countries like Russia, where the government theoretically could strong-arm companies, there is an economic impetus to lay off—after all, the Kremlin doesn't want to cut off homegrown firms from the global economy. Ditto Beijing. But perhaps most fundamentally, anyone with satellite technology (be it a rooftop dish or a phone) could still transmit images, bypassing local ISPs and downloading to outside providers. At least one Burmese blogger in London received images during the crackdown in this way. Given the number of satellite dishes in places like Russia and China, it's unlikely there would be a repeat of the Burmese incident there any time soon.

Italian Jobs

The Italian mafia is an old hand at illegal toxic-waste dumping, drug smuggling and kidnapping, but prosecutors now say it's moved into sinister new lines of work providing services to foreign terrorists including Al Qaeda, and trafficking nuclear material. Francesco Basentini, head of anti-mafia police in Potenza, says his investigators have evidence that the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and Calabrian 'Ndrangheta have been dealing in radioactive nuclear waste, some imported from elsewhere in Europe and the United States. And, he says, they've also been dabbling in the "clandestine production of plutonium." While Basentini won't reveal the mob's customers for the nuclear materials, Nicola Gratteri, an anti-mafia prosecutor in Calabria, confirms that Italian mafiosi are increasingly working with foreign terrorists, and investigators have fingered the Naples Camorra mob as a conduit for fake documents and arms for Al Qaeda. Gratteri sees a perverse logic behind the mafia's cooperation with terrorists: to make Italy a valued part of their infrastructure rather a target of their attacks.

Stomach Turners

Since 1984, nominees for Britain's Turner Prize have been laughed at, lauded and lambasted. Former Culture minister Kim Howells dismissed the 2002 finalists as "cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit." And no wonder—past nominees have included a sawed-up cow floating in formaldehyde and an unmade bed strewn with condoms and dirty underwear. Expect more controversy when the 2007 prize contestants debut at the Tate's Liverpool branch later this month. Meanwhile, Tate Britain in London is hosting a retrospective of past years' high- and lowlights until Jan. 8.

Zen For Zillionaires

Rocks and water maybe the simplest of landscape features, but their simplicity is at the heart of what makes a Japanese garden the new must-have for wealthy non-Japanese. Oracle founder and Japanophile Larry Ellison started the trend by spending $120 million to create 25 acres of serenity in northern California, but others like South Africa's Oppenheimer family of diamond magnates have since built their own. The gardens are even turning up in Eastern Europe and the Caribbean. The gardens' philosophical roots go back some 1,400 years, but the hiring of renowned Japanese designers by foreigners shows how the design ethic of respect for nature has caught on with people who might have as easily opted for baroque excess. Moguls used to getting what they want when they want it should note that Japanese gardens require years to perfect. As one designer says of his work, "It will give a truly authentic atmosphere … in a few decades."

Giving It Away

By choosing to release their new album, "In Rainbows," without a record label, marketing campaign or even a price, British art-popsters Radiohead have tossed the music-biz rule book out the window. Although a CD containing bonus material and artwork goes on sale in December, "In Rainbows" is initially available only through a Web site (www.inrainbows.com). There, buyers can order a digital download and pay as much—or as little—as they choose. But though they can get the music free of charge, most fans are choosing to pay for it. Why? The genius lies in Radiohead's modern take on the honor system. Unlike users of anonymous peer-to-peer file-sharing systems, those hoping to get the songs without paying for them must go to the band's own Web site and identify themselves. In effect, Radiohead is daring its fans to tell them that the music is worthless, but that they'll take it anyway. If this gambit yields a pot of gold at the end of "Rainbows," look for other artists to follow suit.

Reality Check

"Awareness bracelets" have gotten too popular. Ever since the yellow one from Lance Armstrong's cancer charity took off in 2002, it has been copied by groups aiming to stop so many things—genocide in Sudan, domestic violence—that a descent into absurdity became inevitable. The latest sign: failing American subprime-mortgage lender Countrywide Financial has issued PROTECT OUR HOUSE bands to build morale among the employees it hasn't yet laid off.

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