Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Friday, December 17, 2021

One down, one to go. Courtesy of Time Warner Book Group, the following is my brief review of David Harris’ “The Crisis : The President, the Prophet, and the Shah — 1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam”.

By way of background, not only did I run a teaser for this review yesterday, but last month, I also made note of an interesting tidbit about Ayatollah Khomeini’s name.

The present-day War on Terror inspires an impulse to examine the roots of Islamic animosity toward Washington and its Mideast policy. The natural starting point: The 1979-80 Iranian Hostage Crisis, a flashpoint event that crystalized public attitudes on both sides ever since.

But how useful is the Crisis as a case study to be applied to today’s dynamic? The parallels seem obvious, taking into consideration the broad outlines. But is what happened during those 444 days a quarter-century ago as apparent as it seemed to the public eye?

Harris’ “The Crisis” examines the extensive behind-the-scenes machinations that led to the hostage-taking, the negotiations to free the captives, and the drawn-out resolution. Every step of the way, the accounts and recollections provided by the likes of Hamilton Jordan, Abolhassan Bani Sadr and Robert Armao speak to just how complex the process was, and how much depended upon managing the situation instead of making futile attempts at guiding it.

Harris devotes a tremendous amount of background to how the political culture in Iran led to the Islamic Revolution. The hostage situation doesn’t occur until halfway through the book, underlining the importance of what led up to the Crisis.

Much of that prelude centered around the Shah of Iran, reviled in his country for running a repressive regime commonly assumed to be an American-backed client. The U.S. backing of the Shah, right up to the end, ensured an anti-American character to the Revolution; but the antecedents to the uprising illustrated ample opportunities for Washington to potentially forge ties with the post-Shah government (though not without collateral diplomatic damage). The Iranian fixation on the Shah wound up precipitating the hostage-taking, and his eventual fate, after a lengthy stint as an nomadic exile, accelerated an end to it.

Harris attempts to portray the Shah as an all-to0-human character, done in by his own shortcomings. At times, it’s overdone: The author continually strives for irony by referring to the Shah by his many honorifics (”King of Kings”, “Light of the Aryans”, and others) simultaneously, but despite the story of his continuing physical and political deterioration, the effect makes the Shah more of a mystical figure.

The Shah is only one of the three central characters in this book, the others being Jimmy Carter and Ayatollah Khomeini. Character studies on each mainly concentrated on their upbringings and rise to power, and were supposed to serve as context for their later behavior. While comprehensive, I’m not sure just how useful it was in interpreting the chief developments in the Crisis. In particular, the Ayatollah, potentially the most intriguing of the three, is the sketchiest study (doubtless due to the greater difficulty in getting an accurate account of his later years).

Somewhat surprisingly, very little focus is put upon the individual hostages themselves, or to their captors. A decent overview of the raid on the American Embassy in Tehran is provided, as well as how conditions were for a few specific hostages and specific hostage-takers. But in this book’s scope, they’re almost relegated to one of many sidebar stories, with the macro-political stories taking precedence. Personally, I preferred this approach, as I feel it got to the heart of the matter; but those expecting this book to deal more directly with the hostages could be disappointed.

What struck me most about Harris’ presentation of the facts was how The Muslim Students Following the Line of the Imam (the group responsible for the hostage standoff) managed to paralyze not one, but two governments. While the flummoxing of Washington was apparent to the world, the way the Students manipulated Iran’s Revolutionary government was more subtle. And yet it was this defiance of Tehran’s secular authorities that prevented an otherwise-attainable timely solution, and more than anything set the tone for the poisoned relations between the U.S. and Iran even today.

As an historical anatomy lesson, “The Crisis” is a very comprehensive work. Harris covered all the bases, from all sides, and paid due attention to how governments function in the face of seemingly unmanagable circumstances.

Where the book falls short is in the alleged attempt to link the Hostage Crisis to the beginnings of today’s militant Islam. It’s a weak attempt that’s given barely a couple of paragraphs’ worth of mention. I have a feeling that it was injected into the title simply to make the book seem less musty and more relevant to today’s events. In reality, the book stands well on its own as a history book, and Harris shouldn’t have to apologize for that.

“The Crisis” is a great recounting of a critical juncture in American history. The presentation has many aspects of a real-life political thriller, making it an engrossing read.

by Costa Tsiokos, Fri 12/17/2004 08:44:51 PM
Category: Book Review, History
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How long should a testing period last? If it’s an online service, it’s so indefinite that it’s become an enshrined state of being.

“You can just release your beta into the world and you don’t have to do any testing, because your users will do it for you,” said Jonathan Korman, the principal designer at Cooper, a consultancy that helps developers with usability issues.

“I think it’s indicative of this philosophy of the indefinitely rolling release schedule that happens with Web applications,” he said. “Because you don’t have to send out anything shrink-wrapped, you have the luxury of making little tweaks every day.”

So basically, it’s the ultimate in outsourcing: Instead of conventional product testing in a controlled environment, you release the unfinished wares to the users and rely on them to find the flaws.

In a way, it’s ideal. Exposing an application to real-world wear-and-tear will uncover more issues than any internal testing arena, and that should lead to a better final product.

The downside? The coming of a “final” product comes into question, because the bugs and tweaks never seem to stop coming. Meanwhile, despite the testing status, the user cycle accelerates on its own, turning a beta product into, for all intents and purposes, the established product. People get used to working with what’s there.

“If you have a beta, you expect it to not be perfect,” said Blake Scarbrough, a Web designer. “Once it’s launched, you expect it to be perfect.”

Companies may also keep their products in beta indefinitely because during that period, they are likely soliciting invaluable usability input from users — something they may no longer be able to do once they tell the world they have finished a product.

“If it’s already completed, you really don’t have that desire to give them feedback,” said Scarbrough.

I think this is nonsense. There is such a thing as Version 2.0 — nothing’s ever “completed”. What the use of public beta testing has impressed is that there’s some sort of insider cache to user feedback, and that’s simply not the case when that feedback is coming from thousands of people. In this sense, “beta” doesn’t mean what it used to.

Naturally, in order to get away with this, companies have to keep these betas free. That’s a natural fit with Web applications, where cost of delivery effectively is zero. That also avoids the assumed contract that comes with charging for something — as long as no money is exchanged, no guarantees are made.

In an effort to make this approach universal, Google Blogoscoped is encouraging blog owners to stick the “beta” tag onto their sites, thus making the concept chic. Indeed, it’s all a journey.

by Costa Tsiokos, Fri 12/17/2004 04:01:16 PM
Category: Business, Internet
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It’s been confirmed: Scotland is gorging itself on deep-fried Mars Bars.

You know what I bet would go great with these? That old Scot standby, haggis. A steady diet of those two delicacies should shrink your lifespan quicker than the Super Size Me regimen would.

It’s nutritionally negligible, but take note: The “Mars Bar” sold in Europe is known in the U.S. as Milky Way. Basically, the only difference between this and the American Mars Bar is the presence of almonds. And I hate almonds, deep-fried or not.

by Costa Tsiokos, Fri 12/17/2004 02:40:43 PM
Category: Food, Society
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I’m feeling a bit puckish this morning (not to mention sleepy). So here’s a silly quote; by all means, let it sink in before clicking through to the hyperlink:

“I am Death, Destroyer of Lawns.”

And, if you’re actually interested, the meta-context, and the ur-context.

by Costa Tsiokos, Fri 12/17/2004 09:57:46 AM
Category: Comedy, History, Movies
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