Tuesday, July 31, 2007

John Burgess Comments

Crossroads Arabia is a rock-solid piece of blogging...on task, all the time, relentless in covering timely points regarding the Arab world in general and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in particular. I have learned more about politics and diplomacy in the Middle East by reading this blog and a handful of others than by studying magazine articles or newspaper columns. Burgess is a pro, a career employee of the state department.

His most recent remarks are worth reading in full. He brings clarity and reason to a debate cluttered with passion and extremes coming from all directions.

Saudi Arabia’s oil fields lie five-minutes’ flying time from Iran, not the 6,000 miles between Tehran and Washington, DC. Over 80% of Saudi Arabia’s income is earned by ship traffic that moves through the Strait of Hormuz. That bottleneck can be closed by sinking a few ships in it. Shutting off the flow of oil from the Gulf would certainly wreak havoc on the US economy. It would be far worse for the Saudis and other Gulf States. It is incumbent on the Saudi government to find some acceptable modus vivendi with Iran. The answer to that conundrum may not always please the US—it might not please the Saudis, either, for that matter. It must, however, solve the problem of living next door to an expansionist neighbor who has the largest ground army in the region and pretensions toward nuclear weapons.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Plea for help

This morning the following anonymous comment was left at one of my posts about Nour al-Khal.

I am a female transelater who worked 3 years with the coalition. I worked in and out of baghdad. i been threatened many times so i had to leave the country to save my family. Terrorists now sending threats to my little brother because of this and i been trying to get psylum to the states but i do not have hope that the US gov will really help.



Like her, I doubt that the US government will be very helpful in her plight. There is no reason to doubt that she worked as a translator for the coalition. I cannot imagine any Iraqi in his or her right mind would make up such a claim, especially someone whose English ability is as limited as this sad message indicates.

The number of displaced and endangered Iraqis is said to be in the two million range. The reasons they left are as varied as the number, but the reasons all began with a compelling belief that leaving their motherland was better than remaining.

This exodus has been brought about by the war in Iraq.

We who initiated that war bear responsibility for the results.

For those who have been killed it is too late. But it is not too late to help the survivors, particularly those fortunate enough to have found safety outside Iraq.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

SiCKO Health Care Card -- Get Yours Today!

Download the PDF of the card below and follow these simple guidelines:
1. Carry the card in your wallet with your insurance card.
2. If denied treatment, show your SiCKO card to your doctor/insurer.
3. Ask your insurer if they'd like to be in Michael Moore's next movie, DVD, or appear on MichaelMoore.com.
4. Tell them that, if denied, you will seek coverage from your local media.
E-mail your story to michael@michaelmoore.com.
You now have the opportunity to print and carry your very own "'SiCKO' Health Care Card." Playing the 'SiCKO' card has worked for a family in DeBary, Florida, whose daughter suffered profound hearing loss and was denied a cochlear implant. Her father sent a letter to Cigna asking, "has your CEO ever been in a film before?" Before he knew it, his daughter's denial was overturned. It also worked for a family in Flint, Michigan who was stuck with a $66,000 medical bill until they posted their healthcare horror story on YouTube. Click here to see what happened next.

India's Naxalites --- Insights on Extremism

India is the world's largest democracy.

That remarkable statement came to my attention as an undergraduate nearly forty years ago. With a major in history and political science as an allied field, I was able one quarter to study both politics and history of "South Asia," as the academics would have it, in two classes, one with a poly sci teacher, the other with a history teacher. (I tried to get away with submitting a single term paper for each but it didn't work. I had to craft two separate papers.) They call it "South Asia" to reflect the division of the former British Raj into two countries, India and Pakistan. Back to the line above...

One of today's perplexing questions is why and how the world has managed to incubate a large and growing population of extremists whose savage tactics spread like a virus through a global community on the road to modernity and enlightenment. Preening capitalists strut statistics showing that world poverty is on the decline as a world market stewards resources in a way that makes a rising tide lift every one's boat. Even Starbucks, announcing yet another retail increase, is doing its part in the greening of coffee sources and pushing industry to "fair" pricing for growers.

Extremism, however, is no mystery. Nor is it new. It endures for years through generations of neglect and isolation. In the same way that poverty and scarcity are part of the economic free market, the dispossessed and alienated are an unmentionable part of "democracy," the elbows and heels of the body politic.

Read this article in The Nation carefully and let the images of modern terrorism rest quietly in your mind. Maybe it's just me, but as I read all I could think of was the methods by which a small group of determined extremists successfully set the Al Qaeda franchise in motion. it's not really very different from Lenin's vanguard of the proletariat.

The Indian Maoists are referred to by friend and foe alike as Naxalites, after the village of Naxalbari in north Bengal, where their movement began in 1967. Through the 1970s and '80s, the Naxalites were episodically active in the Indian countryside. They were strongest in the states of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, where they organized low-caste sharecroppers and laborers to demand better terms from their upper-caste landlords. Naxalite activities were open, as when conducted through labor unions, or illegal, as when they assassinated a particularly recalcitrant landlord or made a daring seizure of arms from a police camp.

Until the 1990s the Naxalites were a marginal presence in Indian politics. But in that decade they began working more closely with the tribal communities of the Indian heartland. About 80 million Indians are officially recognized as "tribal"; of these, some 15 million live in the northeast, in regions untouched by Hindu influence. It is among the 65 million tribals of the heartland that the Maoists have found a most receptive audience.

Who, exactly, are the Indian tribals? There is a long-running dispute on this question. Some, like the great French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, merely saw them as "Hindus lost in the forest"; others, like the British ethnographer Verrier Elwin, insisted that they could not be so easily assimilated into the mainstream of the Indic civilization. While the arguments about their cultural distinctiveness (or lack thereof) continue, there is--or at any rate should be--a consensus on their economic and political status in independent India.

On the economic side, the tribals are the most deeply disadvantaged segment of Indian society. As few as 23 percent of them are literate; as many as 50 percent live under the poverty line. The state fails to provide them with adequate education, healthcare or sanitation; more actively, it works to dispossess them of their land and resources. For the tribals have the ill luck to live amid India's most verdant forests, alongside India's freest-flowing rivers and atop India's most valuable minerals. As these resources have gained in market value, the tribals have had to make way for commercial forestry, large and small dams, and mines. According to sociologist Walter Fernandes, 40 percent of those displaced by development projects are tribals, although they constitute less than 8 percent of the population. Put another way, a tribal is five times as likely as a nontribal to have his property seized by the state.

On the political side, the tribals are very poorly represented in the democratic process. In fact, compared with India's other subaltern groups, such as the Dalits (former Untouchables) and the Muslims, they are well nigh invisible. Dalits have their own, sometimes very successful, political parties; the Muslims have always constituted a crucial vote bank for the dominant Congress Party. In consequence, in every Indian Cabinet since independence, Dalits and Muslims have been assigned powerful portfolios such as Home, Education, External Affairs and Law. On the other hand, tribals are typically allotted inconsequential ministries such as Sports or Youth Affairs. Again, three Muslims and one Dalit have been chosen President of India, but no tribal. Three Muslims and one Dalit have served as Chief Justice of India, but no tribal.
This twin marginalization, economic and political, has opened a space for the Maoists to work in. Their most impressive gains have been in tribal districts, where they have shrewdly stoked discontent with the state to win people to their side. They have organized tribals to demand better wages from the forest department, killed or beaten up policemen alleged to have intimidated tribals and run law courts and irrigation schemes of their own.

More at the link to read and think about.

Like it or not, this is hearts and minds stuff. In the business world we say if you don't make someone happy you can be sure that someone else will...and that is how customer loyalty is lost forever.

Politics is the same as the retail food business, except that the product is political power instead of chicken or pizza. Check this out...

We got a sharp insight into the Maoist mind in an extended interview with a Maoist senior leader. He met our team, by arrangement, in a small wayside cafe along the road that runs from the state capital, Raipur, to Jagdalpur, once the seat of the Maharaja of Bastar. There he told us of his party's strategies for Bastar, and for the country as a whole.

Working under the pseudonym "Sanjeev," this revolutionary was slim, clean-shaven and soberly dressed in dark trousers and a bush shirt of neutral colors. Now 35, he had been in the movement for two decades, dropping out of college in Hyderabad to join it. He works in Abujmarh, a part of Bastar so isolated that it remains unsurveyed (apparently the only part of India that holds this distinction), and where no official dares venture for fear of being killed.
Speaking in quiet, controlled tones, Sanjeev showed himself to be deeply committed as well as highly sophisticated. The Naxalite village committees, he said, worked to protect people's rights in jal, jangal and zameen--water, forest and land. At the same time, they made targeted attacks on state officials, especially the police. Raids on police stations were intended to stop police from harassing ordinary folk. They were also necessary to augment the weaponry of the guerrilla army. Through popular mobilization and the intimidation of state officials, the Maoists hoped to expand their authority over Dandakaranya. Once the region was made a "liberated zone," it would be used as a launch pad for the capture of state power in India as a whole.

Sanjeev's belief in the efficacy of armed struggle was complete. When asked about two landmine blasts that had killed many innocent people--in one case members of a marriage party--he said that these had been mistakes, with the guerrillas believing that the police had hired private vehicles to escape detection. The Maoists, he said, would issue an apology and compensate the victims' families. However, when asked about other, scarcely less brutal killings, he said they were "deliberate incidents."

We asked Sanjeev what he thought of the Maoists in neighboring Nepal, who had laid down their arms and joined other parties in the framing of a republican Constitution. He was emphatic that in India they did not countenance this option. Here, they remained committed to the destruction of the state by means of armed struggle.

Again, thanks to Abbas Raza at 3QD for the pointer, one of the people connecting the dots. The image is so plain I am amazed that more people can't seems to catch on. Even blogging about it leaves me feeling tired and helpless.

Referring back to that opening line, democracy (or representative government or whatever you want to call it) offers little or no natural protection against extremism or terrorism. The organized tyrannies of China, Venezuela and Iran are not where modern terrorists are active. James Baldwin said "The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose."

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Brian May, Queen lead guitar, earned PhD

Via 3QD this wonderful story of sucess on top of success.
This is a blogpost that puts itself together. All I have to do is provide the links...and a couple of great videos.
Imitation, it is said, is the greatest form of flattery.
Oddly, I heard and saw the imitation before the original. Sad commentary on my own development.

...and I have yet to play the video game. Go figure.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Monday, July 23, 2007

Schizophrenia, Autism Linked to Flu

From the West Australian.

Women who get respiratory infections such as influenza in the second trimester of pregnancy are up to seven times more likely to have a child with schizophrenia. There also is an increased risk of autism.

Professor Paul Patterson, a neuroscientist from the California Institute of Technology, said this risk was much greater than any known genetic influence.

He believes the virus is able to trigger a mental “switch” which permanently alters and inflames the foetus’ brain, setting the child up for mental illness.

From H5N1 Blog.
His comment...
This is discouraging, but it also meshes with a 2006 study done on persons who were in utero when their mothers contracted Spanish flu in 1918-19. Pregnant women were at serious risk in that pandemic. Many of those who survived lost their babies. Those babies who did survive grew up to be unusually prone to illness and did poorly in education and work.

More at the links.

CNN/YouTube Democrat Presidential Debate

I watched a little of the debate but got bored and went on to something else. It's embarrassing to see adult people pretending to be what they are not. Every word, every gesture is calculated to damage others as much as possible while winning points for whoever is speaking. The audience seemed to be sucking it up.

I'm writing this several hours later and I see from the stats that my Obama post is being hit by 61 of the last 100 visitors. Lots of curiosity still about that guy.

There were 39 questions. Here is a link to the videos.

CIA & the Family Jewels

We don't know what we don't know.

FOIA Blog points to an interesting story in the Sydney Morning Herald that tells a tale of stonewalling that makes the Berlin Wall look like a picket fence. Bureaucratic stonewalling, that is, measured more in decades than years...certainly not months or weeks.

The family jewels are a 700-page set of files detailing some of the most notorious operations carried out by the CIA in some of the darker parts of its history. They reveal, among other things, how the US spy agency offered a Mafia boss $US150,000 to kill Fidel Castro, how it placed illegal wiretaps and how it considered a plan to poison the Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba.

While the material is interesting, such CIA activities have been well-known for years. What's not known is why the agency suddenly released them when it has resisted disclosing them for so long.

Copies of the jewels were finally obtained by a US organisation called the National Security Archive, which describes itself as an independent non-governmental research institute at the George Washington University. It uses FoI to get hold of documents which it then publishes and holds in its library.

As part of its work, it submitted a request for the jewels in 1992 and had been waiting for them since.

That's slow going but have a look at the archive's website and you'll see some others are even worse. They make the slowest Australian FoI officers look efficient.

Interested readers can now go to the CIA reading room online and plow through these musty old files for themselves.
George Washington University's National Security Archives (not to be confused, I'm sure, with the National Security Agency) was the origin of the "request" that finally made its tiresome way through the bureaucracy.
That story can be found at their site.

Officials sometimes use the word "transparency." It's like dictators speaking of "kindness and mercy." Something is wrong with the picture.

Yesterday at work one of the employees brought one of the new i-phones. Amazing piece of technology. One of the fun pastimes was getting some one's address and finding a photo image of their street, sometimes the roof of their house or apartment building, shown right there on the screen. It took about half a minute to access the satellite image. And that's what the whole world can find and see if they know the right keys to push. We can be sure that government technology (and private as well, we can guess) is much better, but not available to you and me.

This morning I spoke with a man who knows someone in a government facility with access to satellite surveillance in real time. His friend says that when he's not busy he can watch him in real time as he walks about his property...down to the lake, across the yard, to the garden. He sees how he parks his vehicles and can watch as they drive away. And this guy's just messing around in the same way that a policeman on duty stops for a cup of coffee. Nothing sinister. Just everyday stuff. And he's only using garden-variety scopes. We can be sure the really good stuff is much better. The man I was talking with told his friend, "Give me a call next time and I'll wave at you as the satellite passes over."

Over the last several weeks I have noticed a low-level Google search interest in my Roving Bug post from last year. Not a week passes without half a dozen hits to that post. Someone is curious and thinking about it. I hope it's the right people. That's an even more devious piece of technology than satellite surveillance and with a lot more capability for violating privacy. Where I am and where I go is my business, but I cannot expect to conceal my physical existence. But what I say to someone in confidence can be expected to remain private. At least if a confidence is broken I know where to go to find the leak. But eavesdropping makes privacy non-existent.

When I contemplate the breathtaking hubris of today's leaders I am sure that our destiny is in the Lord's hands. No single individual or group of people can possibly know enough to make smart enough decisions about how this technology should be used. Most imagine that they do. And that is the scariest part of all. Lord, hear our prayer.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Drug War Ad

H/T Radley Balko
I have nothing to add.
I've been complaining about this red herring from the jump.

Josh Landis on Syrian Universities

Landis writes a glowing description of a new private university in Syria.

When President Bashar al-Assad first came to power in 2000 at the age of 34, he announced to his countrymen that he would modernize Syria and open it up to the world. In 2003, Kalamoon University laid its first stone. The next year, it opened its doors to freshmen, and this year, it will graduate its first class of roughly 60 students out of a total of 3,000 enrolled. Eight private universities have sprung up in the last four years. Only this month, another ten universities were licensed by
presidential decree, a mix of private and public institutions. Despite the emerging importance of private schooling, higher education in Syria is dominated by five established state universities, situated in Syria’s largest cities. 250,000 of the 380,000 students enrolled in higher education in Syria attend the state universities; an additional 100,000 are enrolled in what is called “open education” that is dominated by virtual universities, offering courses on the internet. A mere 6,000 students are enrolled in the private universities, but that statistic is a year old and outdated. Today’s number is probably closer to 8,000 or 9,000.

Combing through these numbers, it is clear that the school being described is atypical. Kalamoon University is not only private, but new. We can hope and imagine it is the poster child for the future of Syrian higher education, but at the moment a few thousand students out of some quarter million or more nation-wide is a small number. But Syria's young dictator only came to power less than a decade ago. There is no shortage of critics of Syria and it's leader, but Professor Landis is not among them.

I have been following Landis for some time. His writing is understandable by a layman and upbeat. His positions are clear and well-argued. And his critics respect him enough to assail him regularly. By my thinking those are all positive qualities.

I was struck by the revolutionary implications of the new universities as I answered the students’ questions and gave what helpful pointers I could. The contrast between the education at Syria’s public and private universities is stark. The new universities, have handsome campuses, small classes, and accessible teachers; most importantly, they are designed to teach critical thinking.

As one of the first Fulbright students to Syria, I attended the University of Damascus in 1981-1982, where I hardly ever witnessed a student consult with a professor. As a rule, students at the state universities have no contact with their professors. Many classes have 300 to 500 students enrolled in them. The students cannot all fit into the lecture halls; many are forced to stand outside the classroom doors in the hope of hearing lectures, others don’t attend classes at all, coming to the university only at exam time. The exams are largely based on memorizing. Students are used to regurgitating the textbook used in the class or the professor’s lectures, which can readily be bought in the form of Xeroxed pamphlets at the end of the semester.

The Syrian higher education system is in tatters. At independence, Damascus University had a reputation as an excellent university and an elite institution. The city’s illustrious families had nurtured its growth since its founding in 1908, populated it with their children, and taught in it. By the 1950s, it enrolled some 5,000 students. Twenty-five years later it had expanded fourteen times. When I arrived in 1981, the student body was above 70,000. The Baath Party decrees of the 1960s, guaranteeing every student who passed the national baccalaureate exam a spot at university, had flattened the universities. Even if well intentioned, the socialist laws resulted in such rapid expansion that quality could not be maintained and facilities burst at the seams. Today, teachers’ salaries at the state universities hover around $200 a month. Professors have neither the possibility nor incentive to engage any but their very best students. Drop out rates are high. Only 2,100 students are sent abroad on scholarships a year and the state has allocated a trifling annual budget of $3.8 million for academic research.

By contrast, Kalamoon pays its professors about $1,440 for a three-hour, 16 week course. If a professor teaches three courses a semester for two semesters, the pay works out to roughly $700 a month over twelve months. If he teaches five courses, as some do, he will earn over $1,200 a month or five times as much as a professor at a public institution. Needless to say, private universities have hired away many of their best professors from the public sector. The competition between private universities is also fierce. When I took a tour of the Arab European University, another excellent private university that teaches in English and which is situated half an hour south of Damascus, I was surprised to find myself in a group of three other foreign academics. I soon discovered that they taught at other private institutions. AEU was enticing them to come start new departments it plans to open in the fall.

Check out the comments thread as well.

I was interested to read references to wasta, a term new to me. It refers to a cultural remnant of tribal origins that pervades Arab society. Consequently most of the Middle East is shot through with this practice which seems to be a serious but real barrier to what we like to think of as "meritocracy."

"Wasta" may mean either mediation or intercession. It denotes the person who mediates/intercedes as well as the act of mediation/intercession.

Intermediary wasta endeavors to resolve inter-personal or inter-group conflict. A jaha (wajaha', mediation group of notable emissaries sent by the perpetrator's family to the victim's family) acts to inhibit revenge being taken following an incident involving personal injury. The jaha seeks a truce between the parties, with the hope of an eventual agreement to resolve the conflict.

Wasta as mediation has a long and honorable history. In a tribal setting, wasta mediation binds families and communities for peace and well-being in a hostile environment. This face of wasta benefits society as a whole, as well as the parties involved.

Intercessory wasta involves a protagonist intervening on behalf of a client to obtain an advantage for the client - a job, a government document, a tax reduction, admission to a prestigious university. Many individuals, supported by their wasta backers, may be seeking the same benefit. When the seekers for a benefit are many and the opportunities are few, only aspirants with the strongest wastas are successful. Succeeding or failing depends on the power of the wastas more than on the merits of the seekers.

This is the start of a lengthy article explaining wasta from Arab Studies Quarterly, Summer, 1994.

I can't help wondering how much of this material is known by highly-placed people in the administration. Rather, how much it is understood and appreciated. Landis candidly acknowledges the reality and importance of wasta in his reply to a comment.

My impression from talking to various teachers is that the system is not based on wasta. As private universities, which teach all, or almost all, classes in English, they cannot afford to hire professors that are unqualified or that are relatives of important people who have few qualifications.

There seems to be a distinct shortage of qualified candidates available - a good protection against wasta. Few Syrians speak English fluently and foreign-trained faculty are paid below a European scale, which makes it difficult to recruit them. Most of the European faculty I met were young and just starting their carriers. Some had been learning Arabic here and began teaching on a lark or in order to remain in the region for a year or two. Retaining them will be difficult.

I was told that AEU could not find Syrian candidates to teach business administration and turned to Lebanon. The Lebanese professors demanded much higher salaries than the university typically paid and negotiated them successfully.
I think the whole process of hiring is a work in progress and subject to constant change and adaptation as the universities expand. The reputation of any university is largely dependent on the quality of its faculty. These universities are very competitive as they struggle to build reputations in Syria. Those that fail to recruit respected faculty will pay a high price for their failure.

Nur comments "Cool."
If she likes what he said, that's a good sign in my book. She's one of the most reliably informed sources of primary information on my blogroll.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Fred Clark on The God Gap

Great sound-bite material that: The God Gap. Easy to say, easy to remember, easy to argue about. It refers to the ostensible gulf separating Democrats from Republicans regarding what happens when faith is pressed through a political filter. It's something like decaf coffee. Java without the rush.

The implication of this clever phrase is that a contest is in progress for which party will carry the flag of faith. The winner of the contest will be rewarded by enough votes to win the upcoming election. So we now hear, among other meaningless equivocations that float from stump speeches, a cloud of rhetoric suggesting that candidates of all stripes are all running for sainthood along with political office.

Having tossed out those little caveats, I now recommend the reader to Fred Clark's excellent comments inspired by a Time Magazine cameo of the same title by Amy Sullivan, The Origins of the God Gap.

Both of these writers make excellent points. Amy Sullivan has been an articulate voice of the Religious Left (What?! There really is something of the sort??) for some time. In a prescient article two years ago in Washington Monthly she looked ahead at Mitt Romney's challenges as a Mormon running for national political office.

It's likely that Romney's primary opponents and prominent religious leaders will publicly take the high road, remaining mum on the issue of his Mormonism. But, says Marshall Wittman, former political director of the Christian Coalition and later an aide to McCain, "so much in the primaries takes place under the radar. It's never publicly said, but it takes place in emails and word of mouth." The push-poll script writes itself: "Would you be more or less likely to vote for Mitt Romney if you knew he was a Mormon, and that Mormons believe in polygamy?"
Conservatives are beginning to worry about Romney's viability with evangelicals, even if they're not saying so publicly just yet. One LDS politician has been quietly making the rounds to Washington wise men to get their sense of what evangelical opposition would mean for Romney in the primaries. Meanwhile, Robert Novak, who is as closely connected to conservative sources as anyone in the nation's capitol, wrote in June that Romney's Mormonism is "his one great liability as a presidential candidate."

The tragedy--or, depending on your point of view, the irony--is that Mitt Romney may just be the most appealing candidate Republicans can field in 2008, the one most likely to win the White House by shoring up social conservatives and rallying business interests without frightening swing voters. Yet the modern GOP's reliance on evangelical voters and its elevation of personal religiosity--strategies which have served the party so well in recent years--may doom the chances of this most promising candidate. Or, to put it in evangelical terms, it might be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for Mitt Romney to win the Republican nomination.

Here we are two years later hearing the man spin threads of religious rhetoric as fragile and beautifully crafted as blown glass.

The Time article simplifies the contest for Christian votes. More specifically, it poses a challenge for Democrats. How can Democrats attract the attention of disillusioned Republican supporters whose expectations of the Republican party have been either ignored or outright betrayed by the candidates they helped elect?

It's hard to believe now, but it was the Democratic Party that first responded to these disillusionments in a way that appealed to religious voters. When Jimmy Carter said, "I'll never lie to you," that promise—in the wake of Richard Nixon's resignation—was potent. Carter recognized that voters now wanted to know more about a candidate than simply his position on energy policy or taxes; they cared about the moral fiber of their President as well. And they increasingly saw religious faith as a proxy, an efficient way to get a sense of a candidate's character.

When Bill Clinton came along, he defied the stubborn conventional wisdom that had formed about the two parties' relationship to religion. A Southern Baptist who could literally quote chapter and verse, Clinton freely talked to publications like Christianity Today, made religious freedom a key focus of his domestic agenda and insisted his staff work with conservative evangelical leaders in addition to progressive religious allies.
Today, Democrats find themselves in an unusual situation, with a surfeit of faith-friendly front runners. If they want to court and keep new religious voters, however, this time the conversion will have to be party-wide.

Fred Clark's take on the question is somewhat different.

If Sullivan wants to advise Democrats on how to reach out to that particular voting bloc, she'd be better off focusing on economics than on "faith-friendliness." The divide-and-conquer southern strategy has worked long and hard to convince working-class white voters that they are in a zero-sum competition with non-white working-class voters (aided, unfortunately, by the predisposition of its target audience). Convincing them otherwise will likely involve even longer and harder work, but it is necessary work.

My agenda is somewhat different than Sullivan's, so I tend to look at this less in terms of the strategic challenge it presents to Democratic candidates and more as a theological challenge for the church in America. Racism is a sin. That sin is woven into the fabric of American Christianity in general and American evangelicalism in particular. Canny politicians have been able to exploit that sin, but it is not primarily a political problem, and the responsibility for fixing it does not fall to any secular political party.

Clark has no dog in this fight. His mission, and the thrust if his blog, is to keep Christian noses to the theological grindstone. His seemingly endless microscopic look at the Left Behind series is a study in keeping on task. And several essays regarding the disconnect between faith and practice make uncomfortable but essential reading for any serious Christian.

The articles linked here are a mother lode of weekend reading. The comments thread at Slactivist has some of the usual carping, but the patient reader can find good points being made.

The Wisdom of Doubt, Part VII at The Mahablog has a comprehensive analysis of the subject, using Fred Clark's post as a starting point. The comments thread there is pretty long and I haven't had time to study it, but at a glance it seems relatively on track.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Dr. Bob Replies to a Critic

I wanted to start this post by quoting someone famous. I knew the line I wanted to use, but I didn't know who said it. G.B. Shaw? Ben Franklin? Mencken? So I did a search and alas...it's just an old saw. We've all heard it and no one knows who said it first so if I modify it to suit my purpose, it will be okay: There's a tragic element in a battle of wits between two men, one of whom is unarmed.

Someone called "Mark" made the mistake of questioning the authenticity of Dr. Bob's personal salvation moment. With more patience than me he replies to this critic.

There is a medical professional on the TV show CSI, the pathologist whose reports nail down the official forensic evidence that can be found in the remains of victims. This post reminds me of such a report.

The critic quoted Dr. Bob and commented thus:

“I have instead been transformed by a personal encounter and relationship with a Being far vaster than our paltry imagination and feeble intellects can begin to grasp.”

There’s no evidence for this encounter at all.

There is much more, but the doctor's reply is simply elegant. He says, in part:
This is an an extraordinary statement, yet not a terribly surprising one. Mark knows nothing of my genetics; nothing of the blessings and banes of my family of origin; nothing of my life experiences in childhood or adulthood. He knows nothing of my thoughts, my experiences, my successes or failures, nor the irrefutable, transformative effect of the power of spiritual relationship in my life. Yet he, presumably a secular scientist steeped in evidence-based knowledge, blithely dismisses all such experiences and evidence, and without even a hint of irony, assures me that there is “no evidence for this encounter at all.”

After you read this delightful post, you might take a look at an old link that Mark's unfortunate comments brought to mind, the Ultimate Stupidity Page.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Kassiane Sibley needs help

I just read a moving post by Amanda Baggs about Kassiane Sibley.
My handful of regular readers already know of my interest in Amanda and her transformative approach to autism advocacy. The story is too elaborate to summarize here. The interested reader will have to drill into the links to know what I am talking about.

Kassiane is another blogger, autistic and a powerful advocacy voice.
She is also epileptic, dependent on important prescription medications and now, due to some social catastrophy in her life, facing the loss of medical care due to losing her insurance.

I just learned a new term: status epilepticus, which means having seizures back to back without regaining consciousness.

Read Amanda's post.

Look at Kassiane's tumbling video.

Check out her blog.

►►►And if you do nothing else, go the the Fordham University link and spend about twenty minutes listening to this young woman speak. You will find her name toward the bottom of the program.

At times like this I wish I had a multitude of regular readers with deep pockets instead of hundreds of hits from indifferent strangers looking for something else. Just this morning I checked the stats and compared entry pages and exit pages. As far as I can tell only about one or two percent of readers even bother to check out the home page before clicking off to another site.

It sucks having the wrong traffic when you need quick attention to a desparate situation. Perhaps the right person reading this will make the difference. I hope so.

I don't want to piss anybody off complaining about health care in America, but Kassiane looks to me like a poster child for a health care system from hell.

Amid chaos, the president sees "cause for optimism" in Iraq

The quote is from a caption at msnbc. I didn't watch the video but the words are likely there.

Incoming Huffington Posts to my email are directed to the spam filter, but I sometimes scan the headlines before clearing the folder. Today this caught my eye...

According to Bush's scorecard, progress on eight of the 18 benchmarks set by Congress in May has been "satisfactory," on another eight it has been "unsatisfactory," and two are too close to call.

And this, according to the president, "is a cause for optimism."

That's like a doctor telling you that while your child has shiny hair he also has a brain tumor -- and you coming away thinking the doctor's report is "a mixed bag." That's insane. Trust me, if your kid has a brain tumor, the fact that he has nice hair or is a good speller or has made progress towards playing well with others is not going to even things out and leave you feeling upbeat and optimistic.


Right on target, I'm afraid.

And I'm also not optimistic that anything will change much until the election is nearly over, mostly to a suspicion that Democrats have already decided that ending the war in Iraq is not going to be a Republican feather in their Red caps. Interestingly enough, enough Republicans are going along with the idea that their need to be reelected is overcoming their presumed need to do the right thing.

This is a fascinating political conundrum: By distancing themselves from their own party and president, some Republican lawmakers are protracting the war by pandering to their constituencies lest they be turned out of office next time round.

How does this work?

It works because President Bush is so predictable. No matter what they say or do, he will find a way to stonewall, prolong, and continue the Iraq adventure, using every power at his disposal up to and including presidential vetoes and executive privilege (whatever that is...).

Bush holds the aces in this game, namely that any attempt to cut off money to the war can be construed to be a cowardly betrayal of our military and by implication an effort to make us "lose." If I have heard the phrase "cut and run" once I have heard it a thousand times. Wonderful use of words to spin an idea. I recognize the rhetorical device from the good old days when I was preparing to be labeled "coward" because I was a CO. (In the case of conscientious objectors it can't stick since we were mathematically as apt to be handed a combat assignment as any other group. Nevertheless the attempt was sometimes made.)

Meantime, the clock is ticking and we can expect things to calm down toward the middle of 2009, not before, when a newly elected Democrat (or Republican...see how this works...they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by postponing the end of the war) does what is needed to make the killing come to an end.

Notice I didn't say "bring everyone home."

That isn't going to happen. It's not going to happen because that's just not how things are done. US troops remain in Europe, Korea, and other places where we have been at war in the past and they will remain in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as well for years to come. The only change will be that the Status of Forces Agreements in those distant places will be redefined, their missions will be re-written and they will not likely be as apt to be returned to their families in caskets.

If I had to guess, I would say that our grandchildren will be paying taxes to support US military forces all over the world just as we have been doing since the Second World War. America has become and will continue to be for the foreseeable future an empire. We think in imperial terms. We spend our money and make our investments in imperial terms. And when the subject of immigration is raised enough people think in imperial terms to prevent the subject from coming to any kind of realistic resolution.

Which brings me to another interesting observation about partisan politics.

By eviscerating and finally destroying the president's immigration initiatives (one area with which I think he was/is on the right track) enough Republicans, along with the loyal opposition, have postponed yet another political plum until the next election cycle when Latino voters will no longer be the sleeping giant that they have been for the last decade or so. The arithmetic is there. And now the political will seems also to be there to do something more about illegal immigrants than build a damn fence. Call it amnesty. Call it anything you want, but the elephant in the room will not vanish just because you build enough protection to prevent any more elephants from entering.

From where I look I see Democrats biding their time, happy to throw spitwads at the administration for another year and a half. Any wins in Congress will be interpreted as presidential accomplishments, not the bi-partisan compromises envisioned by high-minded observers.

I want it to be otherwise, but those are my unpleasant opinions. Now go read what Arianna says.

Richard Johnson -- Canadian artist in Afghanistan

It's been a while since I linked to a milblog, not by any deliberate omission on my part but simply because we have so little in the way of common interests. But I appreciate good work where ever I find it and Richard Johnson's sketches are top-notch. His blog, Postings from Afghanistan, a Kandahar Journal, which appears online in Canads's National Post, is three months old. That is where he posts sketches, both written and drawn, describing his experience as a reporter/artist assigned to Canadian forces in Afghanistan.

This morning, drilling into an old post I took another look at Argghhh!!! blog (the name of which defies description). The blogmaster linked to The Torch, a group blog where member Damian Brooks pointed to Richard Johnson's work. The Torch, incidentally has excellent reference maps of Afghanistan in the sidebar for anyone wanting to know the details of ethnic/tribal or military distributions there, as well as an atlas-type geographic map. Very detailed when enlarged.

Readers are urged to look at Richard Johnson's work and words. His up-close and personal descriptions show the human side of war that usually gets circulated only among warriors.

Another day another perfect blue sky - bleeding to beige/red as it meets the land. I did a little laundry, some archiving, some emailing, some shaving and then started thinking about some of the photos I have waiting for me from which I hope to create some of the bigger art pieces. I looked unenthusiastically through them for a few hours and then sketched Francis Silvaggio in his Olympic standard slouch behind me at his desk.

In the afternoon I heard back from Lieutenant (Navy) John Nethercott (one of the PAFOs I had emailed) that he had received clearance to allow me into the base hospital. It was only a short walk away.

There I met Aziz.

Aziz is six-years-old.

A month ago, on the day I arrived into Kandahar, Aziz was shot twice through the abdomen by coalition forces during a skirmish with the Taliban. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and was caught in the crossfire. His life was saved by the same machinery of war that almost took it.

Aziz has had a tempestuous month since then. He has had multiple surgeries and complications from those surgeries that have taken him close to death a number of times. He has become very frail, his muscles have atrophied and his eyes have sunk deep into his head. Still he manages to smile and give a thumbs up to the nurses.

Aziz is the only child in a ward full of men. They are all fairly seriously injured. Some are Afghan National policemen with concussions and broke bones, caused by IEDs. Some are Afghan National Army soldiers with shrapnel scars and abdominal bullet wounds. One is a Taliban soldier who slept while a Canadian soldier sat at the bottom of his bed.

I am introduced to his Aziz's father Hajibaba and an interpreter explains to him what it is that I wanted to do. Hajibaba looked numbly at me, but agreed to let me draw his son. From the nurses I learned that his father has not left his side in a month. Someone also explained what I am doing to Aziz.

I spent a little time just standing out of the way and watching him. The nurses and doctors came and went with the rhythm of the ward. Aziz smiled and looked brave and gave a thumbs up for the men, but grimaced and reached for the hands of the women who attended him. One of the nurses, Jo-Anne Hnatiuk a Navy lieutenant from Fernie, B.C. told me she thought he needed his mother. She also told me that he had recently "turned a corner" and that this was one of his better days.

I stood at the foot of his bed and drew him while he looked at his father. I had to stop and move a number of times as his morphine infuser continually tripped an alarm and someone rushed to reset it. Periodically he grimaced in obvious discomfort. He is a favourite for many of the medical staff, as a steady stream of on- and off-duty soldiers of all nationalities came by to say hi during their shift change. One woman had made him an origame bird mobile (His favourite was the crow with the orange beak). I continued to draw as the foot traffic ebbed and flowed.

I would like to capture one of his sketches for this post, but I think they are not available to be reproduced without permission. At least the usual "properties" says "Unavailable" when I looked for the link. But that's not important. What is important is that readers go and look at this man's work and appreciate it for what it is: wartime journalism at its best.

As I was putting together this post I heard a theme playing in the background of my mind: Why do you, a card-carrying conscientious objector and openly critical opponent of this and all wars, feel the need to point to a milblog and war journalism?
Part of the answer lies in little observations I made along the link journey.
The milblog community -- and yes, it is a community, rather closed off and isolated from outside influences and quite defensive about criticisms -- is more than a collection of soldiers and their supporters. It is an extension of war itself. Suggestions that war is in any way not the best way to resolve conflict are quickly conflated into an unpatriotic, possibly subversive effort to undermine the troops and argue for defeat. The word propaganda is invoked in a flash, even though the discussion may very well be restricted to an internal forum not likely to be of any influence to undecided recipients of the discussion.
Also, I didn't have to look far to come across a not-so-oblique macho reference to sex in one of the links. Pin-up girls have been part of morale-building resources for all wars, and this picture, along with the mildly salacious (and completely normal) comments it draws from appreciative readers, illustrates the point. One of the links in my aggregator is to a blog from one such contemporary princess that I think is cute as she can be...but there is no denying that the connection between girls and guns has a visceral stimulating impact on those who lay their very lives on the line in uniform.
My purpose in linking here is simple. I hope that by showing the human elements of both sides of what has become the most divisive political conflict of our time I can build bridges of understanding between them. Otherwise I am contributing to the rhetoric that continues to divide the country.
One afterthought: In the same way that the Republicans have handed the immigration issue over to Democrats, my instinct is that Democrats are trying to delay the end of the Iraq war in order for a Democrat president to be credited for having ended it. If that makes me a cynic, so be it. No one has said such openly, but I can easily believe that at the upper reaches of political party strategy planning such a scheme has been openly discussed, perhaps even acted upon. That would be a great scent for some clever political reporter-sleuth to sniff.

Friday, July 13, 2007

New Recipe Discovery: Steamed Cardboard Buns

Update July 20
Enjoy the post that follows, but with a few grains of salt. Sorry, I couldn't resist.
Report is out now that the story is a hoax according to the the NY Times.

Beijing Television apologized to the public during an evening news broadcast Wednesday and said the reporter, identified by the official Xinhua News Agency as Zi Beijia, was detained by police. A copy of the broadcast was obtained by AP Television News on Thursday.

''He used deceptive means to get the footage on the air,'' said news anchor Wang Ye, without giving specifics. ''The Beijing Public Security Bureau has taken the criminal suspect, Zi, into custody and he will be severely dealt with according to law.''

Zi's footage appeared to show a makeshift kitchen where fluffy buns were stuffed with 60 percent cardboard that had been softened in a bath of caustic soda and 40 percent fatty pork.

Beijing Television said an investigation revealed that in mid-June, Zi brought meat, flour, cardboard and other ingredients to a downtown Beijing neighborhood and had four migrant workers make the buns for him while he filmed the process. It said Zi ''gave them the idea'' of mincing softened cardboard and adding it to the buns.

The newscaster said the station was ''profoundly sorry'' for the fake report and its ''vile impact on society.'' The station vowed to prevent inaccurate news coverage in the future.

Police said Zi told editors he wanted to investigate the quality of pork buns, and spent two weeks visiting stands but could not find anything to report, Xinhua said. He filmed the fake report after coming under pressure to produce a story, the agency said.

H/T Blake Hounshell for mentioning it. Otherwise I might have missed it.
He sees an interesting parallel between how Chinese authorities caught this story and how US authorities claim to be "catching" terrorists.

...this incident reminds me of—bear with me here—the FBI's efforts to nab al Qaeda operatives in the United States. Undercover FBI agents have run several sting operations wherein they target people whom informants have identified as having extremist tendencies and recruit them into fake al Qaeda cells.

He makes a good point.

There is are important distinctions between real terrortists and terrorist wannabes, but the main distinction is brains and talent. As anyone discussing lottery winnings knows, there is a great divide between people who are rich and those who are dreaming of being rich. Same is true of wannabe singers, sports figures or (dare I say it) freshman politicians. Check out any of the many popular exhibitions of non-talent shows.

Lots of potential big crimes never come to pass, not because authorities put a stop to them, but because the perpetrators were their own worst enemies. TV and movies notwithstanding, most criminals are not noted for good judgement.

I remember a local case of an attempted robbery of a cafeteria manager. The guy was armed and made the manager give him the money. The plan was alse to steal the manager's car to make the get-away. The manager gave him the keys and everything went according to plan...until the poor guy realized too late that he didn't know how to drive a car with a standard shift transmission. He fled in panic, leaving the money behind, and was soon caught.

This is not to say that AQ wannabes are harmless, but catching bad guys is not always as impressive as authorities would have us believe. Plans and results are miles apart. Ask any entrepreneur. Whatever happened to the "clear and present danger" metric?


"Waste not, want not" says the old proverb.
Yesterday's story from China illustrates the point.

The video is more informative than the audio, but CNN picked up the AP story so we can read it in English.

BEIJING, China (AP) -- Chopped cardboard, softened with an industrial chemical and flavored with fatty pork and powdered seasoning, is a main ingredient in batches of steamed buns sold in one Beijing neighborhood, state television said.

Steamed buns sold in Beijing contain 60 percent cardboard, a report on China Central Television said.

The report, aired late Wednesday on China Central Television, highlights the country's problems with food safety despite government efforts to improve the situation.

Countless small, often illegally run operations exist across China and make money cutting corners by using inexpensive ingredients or unsavory substitutes. They are almost impossible to regulate.

State TV's undercover investigation features the shirtless, shorts-clad maker of the buns, called baozi, explaining the contents of the product sold in Beijing's sprawling Chaoyang district.

Baozi are a common snack in China, with an outer skin made from wheat or rice flour and a filling of sliced pork. Cooked by steaming in immense bamboo baskets, they are similar to but usually much bigger than the dumplings found on dim sum menus familiar to many Americans.

The hidden camera follows the man, whose face is not shown, into a ramshackle building where steamers are filled with the fluffy white buns, traditionally stuffed with minced pork.

The surroundings are filthy, with water puddles and piles of old furniture and cardboard on the ground.

"What's in the recipe?" the reporter asks. "Six to four," the man says.

"You mean 60 percent cardboard? What is the other 40 percent?" asks the reporter.

"Fatty meat," the man replies.

The bun maker and his assistants then give a demonstration on how the product is made.
Squares of cardboard picked from the ground are first soaked to a pulp in a plastic basin of caustic soda -- a chemical base commonly used in manufacturing paper and soap -- then chopped into tiny morsels with a cleaver. Fatty pork and powdered seasoning are stirred in.
Soon, steaming servings of the buns appear on the screen. The reporter takes a bite.

"This baozi filling is kind of tough. Not much taste," he says. "Can other people taste the difference?"

"Most people can't. It fools the average person," the maker says. "I don't eat them myself."

The police eventually showed up and shut down the operation.


Thirty-five years in the food business makes me more responsive than most bloggers to obscure stories like this. That old saying about not wanting to know how sausage is made has more than a grain of truth. No one eating a hot dog wants to know what goes into the formula.


Everyone knows that thrifty cooks don't toss out anything that can be fed to the family. Stews, soups and casseroles are perfect examples. Stuffed peppers, shepherd's pie, and cornbread dressing have become respectable dishes that often use fresh products because there are not enough left-overs.


But this story takes recycling to a whole new level.

And it reminds me of one of my favorite "war stories..."


I am proud to report that my cafeteria was not far from the local county health department office and occasionally hosted the boss and some of his cadre of sanitarians for lunch. Most of the public never knew, but it made me especially proud that the inspectors who put grades on the place felt good enough to bring me their business.


It was once my honor to host a visiting Russian counterpart who was part of a Russia/USA exchange program, a guest of the head of the health department. He wanted to show her a typical American operation for comparison. She didn't speak English but her comments and questions indicated that she was very sharp. Looking into a closet where we kept bulk supplies of dish room soap and other cleaning supplies, she spied a stack of canned soft drinks left over from a holiday party. (Fountain drinks were served on the line, but we sometimes used canned sodas for employee parties. Saved washing glasses and using the fountain after hours.) She wanted to know if it was approved to store chemicals and food in the same place.


I proudly showed her the expensive water-softening system that took minerals out of all our hot water to minimize buildups in hot water pipes, steamers and other equipment. To me the boiler room was a state of the art wonder, but she simply glanced in, nodded and kept walking. I figured she didn't have to worry about anything expensive since profitability was not an issue under a Socialist system. If you need something, you submit a requisition and if what you need is available, you get it. Otherwise you do without.


This story about cardboard buns rang a bell with me. When the Russian food inspector saw cubes of shortening in our bakery in cardboard boxes with blue food-grade plastic liners I could tell from her expression that she didn't like that one bit. Russian cardboard is apparently more unsanitary than dirt, and more dangerous because of the chemicals used in its manufacture. When we kept moving I had the feeling that she was still not comfortable with the idea.


In conversation we found an important difference between her mission and that of her US counterparts. In America we presume that products received from approved sources are safe. In Russia this was not so (and since this was several years ago, before the fall of the Soviet Union, it's sure to be worse today). Anything coming into the building was presumed to be unsafe and it was her mission to inspect and/or test everything to insure safety. I cannot imagine working in such an environment.


Like any good Southern cafeteria we offered an impressive display of products. Twenty-plus salads, ten or more entrees, fourteen vegetables, seven of eight breads, and fifteen or twenty desserts. It was a poignant moment when we paused in the middle of the kitchen and she looked around at all the equipment -- stoves, refrigerators, slicer, grinder, scales, mixers and stainless steel sinks. She said "I feel like I am at home...except we do not have this much food."

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Greenwald's Tragic Legacy -- book review

T Rex at Firedoglake reviews Glenn Greenwald's latest.
Tragic Legacy is apparently a polemical takedown of the president aimed more at feeding the jackals than promoting sympathy for their prey. As readers here know I am no fan of the president. In fact I derive the same guilty pleasure that T Rex describes from reading material such as this.

Sometimes when I’m in the car and a song that I absolutely hate comes on the radio, I’ll turn it up. Why? So I can hate it in detail. I get that same feeling reading Glenn Greenwald’s merciless take-down of President Bush and his coterie of sycophants and demagogues in Tragic Legacy, Greenwald’s latest book, which chronicles how an overly simplistic, black and white, Good vs. Evil mentality has destroyed the Bush Presidency and by extension, inflicted heavy damage on the Republican party, the United States, and the world.

Having admitted that, I have to add that when I find myself trotting off in that direction I exercise the same discipline on my mind as when tempted by popular mindless entertainments (reality TV and card games come to mind), forwarded emails, lottery prizes or pornography. In this case the review is all I want or need. But what a delicious review it is!

It is not a kind portrait. To many of us, President Bush’s decisions over the last six years seem to emanate from no fixed set of values. We have wondered from time to time if he is losing his mind, hitting the bottle, or is merely adrift, making sweeping policy decisions on the spur of the moment, based on the sketchiest of details and an imperfect understanding of the issues at hand.

Greenwald provides us with an illuminating view of a President completely unencumbered by nuanced thought. His whole notion of history and America’s role in the world seems to have been cribbed entirely from 1950’s cowboy movies and “Sgt. Rock” comics. In George Bush’s world, his friends, admirers, and supporters are all on the side of “Good”, whereas anyone who disagrees or opposes him is on the side of “Evil”.

This binary view of the world permeates everything that the President says and does, and he is constantly surrounded by a troupe of Neoconservative toadies who know that they can convince him to sign on with even the most outrageous and ridiculous policy initiatives by presenting the issue to him drawn in huge bubble pictures that would be comprehensible to a child, and as long as they are sure to couch the question in terms of a struggle between Good and Evil.

Nowhere is the danger of this kind of reductive thinking more apparent than with regards to US policy toward Iran, which takes up the second, and longest, part of Tragic Legacy. In this section, Greenwald lays out in chilling detail how White House policy seems to be headed inexorably toward a war with Iran. No matter how foolhardy this course of action may be, the “Decider” has included the nation of Iran in his armies of “Evil” and seems bound and determined to strike at any time, regardless of the consequences. As has been documented by numerous sources, Bush has come unmoored from the considerations of the real world (i.e., public opinion, the Pentagon, and sticks-in-the-mud like the Iraq Study Group) and decided that only “History” can be the proper judge of his legacy.

Check the link if your appetite is not yet satisfied.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Internet Dim Sum

Blogging is hard work for me. I read much and post little, mostly because I don't like to post anything without first understanding what I am writing about. Too often I come across bait-and-switch soundbites that are long on cute and short on content. I love cute, but content is really what's important. Having said that, this morning I will skim, link and move on...something of a dim sum approach to surfing the net.

Tabula Gaza is a new source of reading for me. Journalism works blindfolded there within and without. Any crack in the darkness is worth studying. This latest post may or may not be intended as political metaphor but it works as one.

Young Anabaptist Radicals is still short of a year old but I have been watching them grow and learn almost from the start. Their latest post publishes a statement of purpose for this dedicated and enlightened group of young Christians as they find their way into the wilderness we call the Internet.

Coming Anarchy links to an informative video from Slate that reviews the latest in fashion statements for the properly attired global terrorist. Quite an interesting approach to one of history's most toxic trends, don't you think?

Nur al-Cubicle is keeping an eye on Turkey while the rest of the world hand-wringings about reality tee-vee, celebrity justice and the antics of the US presidential race. Her translations of foreign news sources are essential reading for anyone who cares to stay informed about the image of America abroad. The Ugly American may be a forgotten book but the concept is more alive and well today than when it was written.

So if you think I'm off to the edge of the lunatic fringe you ain't seen nothing yet. I'm old enough to know extremism when I see it and smart enough to learn about it before I start shooting off my mouth. I made it through the Sixties without becoming a Communist but I knew what they were all about. I made it through the military without being ordered to kill anyone, but I knew very well why I was there. I have learned in life that reading about enemies is a non-violent but powerful approach to resolving conflict. To that end I do read and try to understand the thinking of people with whom I never expect to find common ground. That's why my blogroll is so eclectic.

A case in point is today's post at "friday-lunch-club" which I began tracking a few weeks back. Thierry Meyssan is a name I have heard by know little about. He appears to be in the conspiracy-theorist camp, but his influence (like many conspiracy theorists...listen to your local right-wing radio talk show host, whoever he happens to be) is widespread. His report on the byzantine complexity of Lebanese power struggles adds little to my understanding of the issues there but I come away from the translation with yet another layer added to the already complicated thicket of tensions that Lebanon represents.

Not all the posts from this blog are that abstruse. But all are decidedly worth reading. The blogroll is a Who's Who of sources from the thinking Left...Well, mostly.

...Well the tempus has fugited and I have to leave for work. Another two or three hours shot. And I had to slow down to blog, so I didn't get to read anything like I would have without linking and commenting. Hope the reader had a good trip. You can be sure it took longer to put together than to read.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

David Ritcheson (1989-2007)

This story is so ugly I don't want to summarize it.

There are those who don't think that "hate crime" is a real phenomenon. I have heard mean-spirited talk show hosts, trying to be clever, sarcastically call such crimes "thought crimes" with the intent of linking hate-crime laws with an Orwellian image of government intrusion on freedom. The word "hate" is up for discussion, you know.


Read the link for yourself then think about it.

Next, go to this post by David Niewert. This writer has for years been doing the heavy lifting for those of us fighting hate crimes and other forms of discrimination.
Again, I don't want to summarize. Anything I snip would be insufficient to drive home the message. A glass of ocean water is nothing like the ocean.

When Pigs Fly -- New Trojan "Evolve" Commercial (Updated)

This story was posted June 21 when the Times first mentioned it. Thanks to Google searches hardly a day has passed since then when it hasn't been visited by at least five or six readers. I haven't paid it much attention since the comments thread is becoming long on cute and short on content, but this morning something made me perk up.

One of the comments the other day asked about the music. Since then I have also puzzled over it. The tune is catchy and vaguely familiar but I can't quite put my finger on where I might have heard it before. It seems to have a twelve-bar blues form (suitably, I might add, considering the little story being depicted...) and the acoustic guitar gives it just the right touch.

So I did my own search and found that someone else also had the same question. "Yahoo Answers" apparently posted the question ("What is the song on the new trojan commercial where girls are with pigs.? The girls are with pigs in a bar and when a guy goes and buys a condom he transforms into a real man.") but didn't get any reply.

Here is the fun part: I had to find the question by selecting the Google Cache! If you go now to the Yahoo link you discover:

This question has been deleted

Sorry, we had to remove that question.
The question had no answer and expired
The question violated
community guidelines

Excuse me!

The question is in violation of community guidelines?
And what, pray tell, is the guideline that has been violated?
"What is the song?" hardly strikes me as salacious or suggestive. I think the lawyers at Yahoo are running from something else. There is no way to know what the monster in the closet might be, but it sure ain't pigs in the parlor. I think the creative minds that put this commercial together are almost repeating the accidental success of the "New Coke" promotion.

This doesn't look like a first amendment problem to me. It looks more like political correctness running amok .

I report, you decide.


The Fat Lady Sings and the New York Times point to double standards on the part of CBS and Fox, both of which decline to air a new Trojan condoms ad. I don't watch much commercial television so it's of no consequence to me, but I do enjoy watching good commercials.
This one's a doozy.

Here's the link to trojanevolve.com.

And here's the You Tube copy for your viewing entertainment.

Thanks to this link left in a comment we have the story of how the music came about.

Who would have thought that the music we recently wrote and produced for the Kaplan Thaler Group and their client, Trojan Condoms, would be heard in reports featured on The O’Reilly Factor, The Colbert Report and VH1’s Best Week Ever? Or that the spot, featuring pig puppets, would wind up with FOX and CBS refusing to air it?

It all started with a call from Blast Music Management CEO Aaron Jacoves, who brought us the spot to demo. The assignment was right up our alley: produce a great piece of music that worked well with the spot, but didn’t sound like “a commercial.” If anything, it needed to have the feel of an older recording with a healthy dose of personality.

With the agency needing quick turn around on the demo, we pulled an instrumental piece written and recorded a few years ago by Rivers Rutherford, who at the time was a staff writer/producer for iV. Since then, Rivers has amassed a string of #1 hits and was named ASCAP Songwriter of the Year in 2006. Steve Keller, iV music group CEO and Creative Director, built on the foundation of the old track, adding a new melody and penning the lyrics. With the clock ticking, Steve jumped in the booth and sang the vocal, never intending for his performance to be anything more than a demo. Daniel Noga finished mixing the spot, adding a little sound design to create the illusion of something old and classic.

The rest is history.

Congratulations, guys. Looks like you scored better than the star of the commercial!

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Swinging toward the Left

I see that cyber-buddy M. Simon takes issue with my assertion that the political center if gravity is moving left. My Digby post featured a blogger whose identity was unknown prior to receiving an award from Take Back America, a collection of politically active bloggers and activists working more or less together under the "Progressive" banner.

Before going on, the reader should check the links above to understand what I am about to say.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I take issue with these two paragraphs.


Her mistake is in thinking that Democrats got elected to implement Progressive (socialist) policy. They did not. They got elected because of Republican corruption.

The "progressive" argument is "rob from the rich and give to the poor". Which is how I understand it. Robbery was never a popular American value. Hard work is way more popular. By a great margin. In any case "rob from the rich..." has its selling points.

One of the oldest rhetorical flourishes in the book is framing a discussion with categorical themes that streamline and aim it in a direction certain to crash and burn to illustrate the framer's point. This happens twice in the above quote. The first time conflates Progressive with Socialist with a parenthetical tag. The second reduces a breathtakingly vast political landscape to a glib medieval proverb that everyone recognizes as the Robin Hood fantasy.

Taken together these two devices have the effect of pushing everything political through an economic filter. After filtration, all that is left is a discussion between those on the Left who want to steal and redistribute money (and by association power, influence and moral authority) from their adversaries on the Right.

Tempting as it is to argue how very misleading that red herring is, I want to point out simply that there is more at stake than the distribution of wealth, although the large and swelling gulf between rich and poor indicates part of a larger challenge. (I heard a guy the other day trying to put a clever spin on that disparity by saying delicately that "the rich are getting richer faster than the poor are getting rich," which made me want to choke on my drink.)

The time is coming when social, political, cultural and, yes, economic issues will no longer begin with spokespersons from the Left advancing an idea only to have it destroyed or co-opted by an assault from the Right showing how flawed and doomed to failure that initiative will be. There are too many elephants in the room that can no longer be ignored. Too many naked people running around at whom no one has pointed and said "Look! He ain't wearing no clothes!!"

Just this morning I have come across in my morning reading examples to make the point.

The president's commutation of Scooter Libby's sentence triggered a predictable surge of indignation from his opponents which in turn was met by the always useful defence of finger-pointing at the shortcomings of Bill Clinton. Boy, that'll shut them up. Everybody knows about that guy's moral turpitude, to say nothing of his eleventh hour pardon of a criminal connected with vast campaign contributions.

Well guess what. Trackbacks didn't stop there. With a bit of reading it is clear that there is plenty of corruption (let's call it for what it is...this is different from calling Progressives Socialists) to go around. The other President Bush's pardon of Caspar Weinberger and Reagan's pardon of George Steinbrenner haven't been forgotten. Sugarland wrote it up and Cernig noticed.

The incident triggered one of Greg Djerejian's most eloquent rants which concluded with...

... It is about an Administration that has repeatedly violated its trust with the American people, whether because of its utter lack of competence, its abuses of power, or its epidemic violation of our best traditions. It is an Administration that has sullied our national repute and standing with abandon. I am deeply pained and embarrassed to have ever supported them.

This is not about money.

Correction. I should have said this is not about stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. This is about money in the form of (ahem...) power and control, if I may use the terms.

It has nothing to do with Socialism and everything to do with Capitalism in its most disagreeable form. And the people advancing the idea that something stinks are not standing on the Right.

I wanted to bring up the issue of health care but I have run out of time and have to go to work.

The typical discussion I have heard for the last decade or so starts with the presumption that health care in America is the best on the planet and Americans should be pleased that we don't have to wait months for needed surgery as they do in other places with "socialized medicine." Example after tiresome example of the shortcomings of health care abroad is tallied along with individual cases of how we routinely fly in some critical and tragic case from the Third World to be beneficiary of our largess...think Extreme Makeover for the politically correct.

I'm sorry, but that argument is about to be blown to bits by a popular awareness of numerous ways that health care in America must be improved, starting with new and better approaches to insuring people who need insurance rather than allowing insurance companies to deselect populations who most need their products. Life insurance is a do or die crap shoot. But health insurance is a different matter altogether. One is optional. The other is not. But that is a discussion for another day.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Eight Random Items about Hoots

I've been tagged by Execupundit to reveal eight random "things" about myself. This is not one of my favorite exercises, but it's good therapy for breaking out of the shell that blogging can form around someone.

1. As a college freshman I was given placement tests that landed me in an honors English class focused more on critical writing than the basics. A grad assistant conducted the course which was presented on closed circuit television lectures by Mike Shaara, writer in residence at the time. (His son Jeff was later to achieve greater publishing success than he, but his teaching was excellent.) This item alone could take pages of writing, but one fact inspires me to start this list: I don't recall if this rule was from Shaara or the graduate assistant but it is this...


Never use the word "thing." Ever. No matter what you are writing there is always a better word. If you use the word "thing" in a paper, you will not pass this course.

Sorry, but I was bruised for life by this rule. He made such a point of it that I had to begin this list by avoiding that forbidden word. (This is rather like my silly complaint about that the popular TV program called America's Got Talent, instead of the gramatically correct America Has Talent.)

2. I use too many words. (Surprise!) The last time I got tagged was two years ago and I cranked out so many words that I haven't been tagged since. I don't know if it is due to too many details in my writing or too much bullshit. I like to think it is the former, but one never knows...
I am reminded of a friend who was told by an examiner during the defense of a thesis "Roy. your problem is that you are almost never specific. And whenever you are specific, you are almost always wrong."

3. Part of my problem with words is that I am prone to changing my mind about things. (It's great to be an adult, no longer bound by petty rules of the childhood.) There are very few issues about which I am inflexible. Those are issues of morality. But if there is not a moral question at stake, I am mostly laid back. This doesn't mean I won't be sarcastic or critical. There are people and events so breathtakingly stupid that they deserve any treatment they receive. But when it comes to baseline questions of morality, I am content to be marginalized as a minority of one, if necessary, standing firmly on unpopular ground.

4. I may be one of the few people left who attended a one-room public school.

5. I served in the Army Medical Service Corps as a Conscientious Objector. I have been writing about the inevitability of a military draft from the beginning of this blog. I have no need to evangelize anyone. Most young men are better prepared and equipped to be warriors than objectors. But those few who need to know what their options are are not being told and will not be until it is too late.


I have to stop here and go to work. The other three items will have to wait, if I get around to them. I may decide that these five are enough.

Okay, it's the next day and I didn't think of anything more about myself that might be interesting. Instead I'll record my most recent three grandchild stories for future reference.
One of the rewards of working in a retirement community is the sympathy one receives as the tolls of time and gravity take pieces of flesh little by little. Hearing loss, confusion, mobility challenges and short-term memory issues...all these progressive annoyances of age are better received by a population past eighty. They know. They can relate.
So telling grandchildren stories is more fun than complaining about the weather or politics. As with the march of time, they know. They relate. I get to practice. Here are the latest three...
6. The computer generation.
Mother came out of the shower and Nathan was climbing down from the chair at the computer. Nathan at this point is less than thirty months old. He turned two a couple of months before. He apparently had accessed the Internet and found his favorite toddler website. He can't use the keyboard yet, but he knows how to work the mouse to drag around images that look and act like puzzle parts. Getting bored, he found the CD that came with a recently-acquired toy.
He explained to Mother, "I put the CD in but I can't get it to work."
He's just past two years old. Is that scary or what?
7. The introspective generation.
Thanks to the media children learn about emotions and language in greater detail than ever before. A couple of weeks ago one of Nathan's aunts was playing a game of Show me "sad"...Show me "happy"...Show me "silly"...show me "confused"...and so forth, as he responded with appropriate facial and body language. This is a great way to learn about vocabulary and behavior. But it is also a setup for this...
Mother noticed Nathan frowning, clenching his fists and looking at the floor, so she said, "What's the matter, son?"
To which he replied, "I have issues!"
If this is what almost three is like, I'm not sure I will be ready for the teens.
8. Coping with life.
After the Independence Day parade they came home with candy, balloons and fun stories. They had a great time. Nathan went out on the deck with a balloon and in a moment we heard a terrible scream and crying like he had been injured. Running to check, we saw him looking into the sky crying helplessly as a helium balloon floated up, up and away into the sky. Knowing that even adults couldn't recover it he was torn to pieces having lost his balloon. No amount of hugging and reassurance could help him feel better.
He soon recovered and came back in the house. And Dad had another balloon in the car. This time the balloon was tied securely to his wrist so it wouldn't get lost. He went back toward the deck with his new balloon, feeling better, but when he came to the door he remembered the first balloon and started crying again, recalling and reliving the recent tragedy with all the pain that had wounded his little spirit.
This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that parents and grandparents watch with painful empathy as life leaves scar tissue on the next generation. It's all part of growing up. And only later do we learn how much worse it might have been.