My bin Laden story

I have a framed picture in my house with several scraps of paper taped to a brochure from Turkmenistan. People wonder what it is, and I tell them this story.

In late 2000 (the date is key), I was living in Uzbekistan, teaching at a local university on a Fulbright, and beginning a research project on information technology adoption that would last for the next ten years. I wanted to visit some of the neighboring countries, so I emailed the US embassies in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan to see if they would host a visiting speaker for any events.

I ended up in Turkmenistan in December 2000, delivering a dizzying array of speeches and workshops over a brief few days. A workshop for students interested in studying abroad to find information online, a workshop for journalists on using Internet resources, a talk to the local Chamber of Commerce, etc. The culminating event was a talk to the computer science students at the local university on the topic of the Internet. At the time there were maybe two or three public places to gain internet access in the capital of Ashgabat. The one independent ISP had been shut down by the government (that’s another story), so the national ISP was the only legal connectivity option and it was notoriously slow and snooped.

In true Soviet fashion, a bunch of non computer science students were shuffled into the lecture hall to make sure the auditorium was full. I gave a talk about the Internet, searching strategies using boolean terms, places to get a free email account, basic html tags, how to make a website on Geocities (and why not to use the blink tag), etc.

At the end of the talk, we had an extended question and answer session for the students. They wrote down questions in Russian, Turkmen or English, and the slips of paper were passed forward. They asked things like “What is your email address?” or “Where can I make a website?” (Other than Geocities, I guess). And then there was the slip of paper written in pretty good but imperfect English that had two questions.

1. How can I protect myself from viruses on the Internet?

2. Are you afraid of bin Laden?

December 2000. I gave some suggestions for #1. And for #2, I read the question back and said, “no.”

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