Friday, December 29, 2006

Excellent expose on Noka Chocolates (even the name sounds like bull*#$@) which I got via boingboing. And from the expose you really learn the difference between chocolate makers and chocolatiers, which I still hadn't learned from two years in chocolatier-filled Belgium. I've been praising Wittamer, Galler, etc., when the couverture-makers (Bonnat, Valrhona, etc.) determine the quality of the taste of the chocolate. (link - to Dallas Food article)

Here is a list of alternative brands of chocolate where you will get your money's worth:

Michel Cluizel
El Rey
Bonnat (where Noka actually gets its chocolate and marks up the price a few thousand times)
Then I was wondering where Marcolini, my favorite Belgian chocolate shop with the great packaging, gets its couverture....well, that is quickly answered. Marcolini makes his own couverture (from
"Pierre Marcolini is uncompromising when it comes to choosing the raw materials for his products. Every year, this indefatigable chocolate “gringo” travels the world (Latin America, Mexico, Madagascar, Trinity Island, etc.) in search of cacao beans, the fruit that he uses as his logo.
Not satisfied with bringing back the best beans in the world to his ateliers in Brussels, this alchemist then subtly blends the beans from the different regions and works with original aromas to create unequalled flavours: ganaches made with teas from around the world, Origin “Crus” chocolate bars, etc.The advantage of creating your own coating* is undeniable: real products, rigorously selected ingredients that enhance each of the specialities with their specific flavours to create chocolates that are always different, always original, sometimes audacious, and that put us in mind of the best “Grand Cru” wines.
* Pierre Marcolini manufactures his chocolate himself (coating) using cacao beans that he selects personally. He is among the last three craftsmen working this way in Europe.
The cacao beans selected during his travels arrive at the atelier and are rigorously checked by Pierre Marcolini himself, each “origin cacao bean” must be selected and processed in accordance with its quality.
The manufacturing process begins with roasting the beans to remove any residual humidity and to increase the aroma. The beans are then crushed and the mass that emerges is divided into miniscule particles, which are then ground. This is when the chocolate-making process begins: cacao, cacao butter, sugar and fresh vanilla from Tahiti. "

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Germany will take over the EU Presidency of the Council of Ministers on January 1, 2007, and there are high expectations for this half year. Germany has made plans to present a way forward towards a constitution in June 2007, despite the fact that a compromise seems difficult as some member states want to stick to the old version of the Constitution, while Finland and others have decried "picking apart" the draft in favor of moving forward with reforms like Qualified Majority Voting in the Council without the document. (Euractiv coverage)

This disagreement among member states reflects public opinion, which seems lost among the German government's confident assurances that it will be able to reach a compromise -- supposedly without focus groups and probably in a way that will bypass referenda in the future. (IHT from October 2006) "Convincing" people that the constitution is necessary is fraught with danger because it implies that the majority of votes in the French and Dutch referenda were somehow "wrong" because they did not vote the way Germany and other member states wanted.

Germany has also made the final status of Kosovo a high priority for its Presidency. The Serbian election on January 21 will foreshadow the consequences of whichever recommendation comes forward, and will probably indicate just how contentious an independent Kosovo will be for the region.

This will be a big year for Germany otherwise because it will hold the presidency of the G-8, and will be presiding over festivities celebrating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, one of the first steps towards building the European Union. (German Presidency website)

It's a freaking Agatha Christie mystery trying to figure out what was in those redacted *bleeps* by the CIA on the NYT article this past week. The censure was unwarranted, the authors say, because all the redacted items had already been presented in previous articles.

The authors insist that the U.S. missed an opportunity for a general rapprochement with Iran, especially when Iran assisted the U.S. against the Taliban in Afghanistan following 9/11. But the episodes to support this thesis are missing because of the redactions. However, one guess at one critical redacted paragraph goes like this:
"When Tehran sought a quid-pro-quo to strengthen its own security and offered to exchange captured Al-Qaeda leaders for a small group of senior commanders among the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) cadres in Iraq, the administration refused to consider any such exchange, even though the MEK has been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State. The United States backtracked on a promise to disarm MEK troops, and canceled scheduled meetings with Iran, accusing it of harboring al-Qaeda leaders implicated in suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia. "

MEK tries desperately to be seen as a legitimate organization, and it gives out sandwiches to poor assistants in the European Parliament in pursuit of this goal, but it continues to sit on "terrorist organization" lists in both Europe and the United States. However, their efforts may have had some influence here (?).. but the U.S. indecisiveness as noted in the previous paragraph was probably more influenced by the following realization, from a WaPo article in 2003, a fact which has been long forgotten and therefore probably redacted:

"Some Pentagon officials, impressed by the military discipline and equipment of the thousands of MEK troops, began to envision them as a potential military force for use against Tehran, much like the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. But the MEK is also listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department."

The other major item redacted from the article is mention of meetings between the U.S. and Iran in Geneva in 2003 discussing rapprochement between the two countries, which eventually broke down because both sides accused the other of harboring/failing to disarm terrorists (Al Qaeda for Iran, and MEK for the U.S.). There are other citations relating to the redactions at Raw Story.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

In case you hadn't heard already, the title of book 7 in J.K. Rowlings' Harry Potter series is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Mugglenet has the full lowdown and overanalysis. I had a wonderful discussion with my old high school friend Val about how we love Harry Potter, and are no longer ashamed about it. I have come to understand that the people who knock Harry Potter haven't checked out J.K. Rowlings inventiveness at creating all the intricacies of an entire world, without it being cheesy. Recently I watched one of the Lord of the Rings movies, and I couldn't believe how ridiculous the dialogues were; pseudo-archaic language is never cool.
I apologize for not writing anything for many days. Pawel, my boyfriend, came on Tuesday from the Netherlands, and since then we have been wearing out our shoes walking across Manhattan and Brooklyn. We've even been able to catch some of my friends even though they have been super busy with work, something I know nothing about.

I am getting closer to going to Albania, however there are pleas from some parties in the country to postpone the election until after January 20, 2007, until the election laws can be properly reformed and with the agreement of the political forces in the country.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The verdict on the five Bulgarian nurses is guilty, and they have been sentenced to death. A very sad day for justice; it's also a sad day for diplomacy, as the pressure on Libya to release the nurses was intense. They can appeal though. And the medical evidence (in an article in Nature) shows that the children were infected with HIV before the nurses started working at the hospital, and an HIV expert agrees that HIV was in the hospital before they got there, then the Supreme Court had better take this information into consideration. Unfortunately, Libya isn't very receptive to pressure from the outside, although Libya has asked for compensation from Bulgaria, to no effect.
I am very excited, I have been tentatively assigned to the US contribution to the OSCE's election observation mission to the local elections in Albania on January 21.

These elections are especially interesting because the legislature has failed to agree on improvements in the election laws, and as a result, several left-wing parties have boycotted the vote.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

And speak of the devil, Abu Mazen calls for elections which Hamas has threatened to boycott. The pictures in the NYT slideshow accompanying the article are shocking.
I am about 2/3 of the way through Jimmy Carter's Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. This book has become controversial in the United States, and one can chalk this up to it being one of the few books that catalogs some of the human rights abuses that Israel has perpetrated against Palestinians. But one can also see where Carter invites criticism. (WaPo article on controversy)

The first controversy is the use of the word "apartheid" in the title. Surely, the title assigns the brunt of the blame to Israel, and it is an un-nuanced label for the relationship between the two countries that evokes more outrage than contribute real understanding of the situation. The word "apartheid" is a loaded word, not an exacting definition, and it should have been avoided. However, the human rights abuses and the isolation of communities by the wall and the border policies are very real.

A little while ago I was telling a friend about the fact that for years Israel has diverted water from the Jordan river to Israel, bypassing Palestine, in addition to closing wells in the Palestinian territories, and that Israelis use many more times as much water as Palestinians, etc.; she informed me that these events are rarely if ever discussed in the U.S. This book puts them out there in black and white; and, as if I need to say it again, criticizing the policies of the Israeli state does not make me or anyone else an anti-semite. Just like criticizing the policies of the U.S. administration does not make you anti-American.

However, I can see where critics could find their fodder. First of all, like my old boss Madame Mastenbroek, Mr. Carter has met with Hamas, most notably prior to the 1996 elections in the PT. This is difficult to reconcile, because, if you see Hamas first and foremost as a terrorist group, then meeting with terrorists is akin to negotiating with terrorists, and all along, meeting with the group gives them legitimacy. On the other hand, if you see Hamas as a political force which has broad support among the Palestinian populous, then meetings encouraging them to participate in the democratic process (as Carter was doing) might give them the impetus to leave violent methods altogether in favor of political solutions to conflict. It is a difficult choice to make; America's support of democratic elections in 2005 and then subsequent de facto rejection of the results (because they favored Hamas) makes the U.S. look very bad. What's the answer, push or pull? Madame Mastenbroek and Carter believe in "pull".

Furthermore, Carter doesn't seem to denounce terrorism enough. He gives Hanan Ashrawi the last word in Chapter 11, as he offers several other statements in the book without comment or critique when they need it. She says:

"So far, they have succeeeded in holding the peace process hostage to this mentality on the one hand. And on the other hand they have provoked tremendous violence by acts of incitement like shelling, bombing, house demolition, uprooting trees, destroying crops, assassinating political leaders, placing all Palestinians under closured in a state of total immobility -- a prison. And then they wonder why some Palestinians are acting violently! And then they want to have the right to exercise violence against the captive population. They they like to make non-violence on the part of the Palestinians a precondition for the Palestinians to qualify for talks, let alone for statehood."

This statement screams for a comment, one that affirms that making apologies for violence (or condoning those apologies, as Carter seems to do here) can never be a constructive part of a peace process.

Another bothersome aspect of the book is the lack of criticism of the way Arafat and his cabinet administered the Palestinian Territories before his death. There was rampant corruption, and money was not spent where it should have been; this should have been noted in the section decrying Israeli confiscation of donated funds to the PLO. And it goes without saying that the links between the PLO and terrorism should be denounced in the book, and yet it is strangely absent.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Tim Johnson's recent brain hemorrhage and brain surgery have a way of testing us. Democrats are of course worried that if Tim Johnson is not able to continue to serve as senior Senator from South Dakota, that a Republican would be his replacement, upsetting the thin majority that the Democrats have in the Senate. But the focus should of course be on this guy's health, not the political games on Capitol Hill. (CNN)
Amazing, Circumcision Halves H.I.V. Risk, U.S. Agency Finds (NYT). Cicumcision cuts the risk of infection during heterosexual sex by half.

The science behind it is this:

"Uncircumcised men are thought to be more susceptible because the underside of the foreskin is rich in Langerhans cells, sentinel cells of the immune system, which attach easily to the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. The foreskin also often suffers small tears during intercourse."

While exciting news, it might also give circumcised men false confidence about their immunity to infection. Acknowledging the psychological impact of such information is a key part of creating strategies to fight the disease.

Furthermore, circumcision is a danger unto itself in unsanitary conditions:

"Every year, some South African teenagers die from infections, and the use of one blade on many young men may help spread AIDS. "

This connection was hard to make in the past because cultural norms confounded making real comparisons between circumcised and uncircumcised groups in Africa:

"Researchers have long noted that parts of Africa where circumcision is common — particularly the Muslim countries of West Africa — have much lower AIDS rates, while those in southern Africa, where circumcision is rare, have the highest.

But drawing conclusions was always confounded by other regional factors, like strict Shariah law in some Muslim areas, rape and genocide in East Africa, polygamy, rites that require widows to have sex with a relative, patronage of prostitutes by miners, and men’s insistence on dangerous “dry sex” — with the woman’s vaginal walls robbed of secretions with desiccating herbs.

Outside Muslim regions, circumcision is spotty. In South Africa, for example, the Xhosa people circumcise teenage boys, while Zulus do not. AIDS is common in both tribes."

This information will mean that adult circumcisions may be offered to large groups in Africa in the coming years. I am reminded of the main character in Absurdistan, Misha, who is forced by his father to have an adult circumcision and is traumatized by the procedure (in a funny way though). Hopefully, African men will be able to deal with it a little better than a melancholic soul searcher in the grand Russian tradition like Misha.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Having listened to a talk by former Ambassador Donald Steinberg yesterday evening, I realize that Darfur needs much more attention than it is getting. Amb. Steinberg said that Kofi Annan has characterized his service as secretary general as primarily revolving around the problems of the Middle East and Darfur. Ban Ki Moon also expects that Palestine and Darfur will be the biggest issues of his tenure.

What we've learned from Rwanda is to call a genocide a genocide. This the U.S. has done; which makes it all the more insidious that no real action has been taken despite this characterization of the situation in southern Sudan.
And as Ambassador Steinberg explained yesterday, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) makes action that much more possible.

The following excerpts from the 2005 World Summit document which included R2P show how radical this idea is, and how it spurs the international community to action when states fail to protect their citizens from genocide:

"Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means."

" The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."
(The rest of the excerpt at the Responsibility to Protect - Engaging Civil Society project)

Save Darfur Coalition

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Speaking of diplomats in New York, why won't they pay the bills? (NYT)
"Two doors away, the United Nations Mission of the Republic of Niger has ignored every water bill it has received since 1998 for its elegant town house, accumulating a debt of nearly $120,000, including penalties. It ignored repeated calls for comment. Eight other foreign missions on the Upper East Side are also in debt, and collectively owe the city about $230,000. "

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Holocaust conference in Tehran, Iran, is creating controversy. Of course it is appalling that a state would actually sponsor an event supporting the idea that the Holocaust never happened. Unfortunately, the organizers have a point when they say that people are not able to talk about this issue, because denying the Holocaust is a crime in several countries in Europe. Withholding citizens' freedom of speech gives Iran an upper hand in this case, and that is a shame; Iran does not deserve it. (WaPo)
Here is a good video from the New York Times about the correlation between levels of corruption and the nationality of diplomats having the most unpaid parking tickets in New York, and which has coincided with threats from the State Department to withhold aid from violating countries. However, the fact that Israel has paid all its tickets doesn't seem to jive with the impression that Israel's politicians (not diplomats) are quite corrupt; that doesn't mean that the country doesn't have the money to pay the tickets they receive.
Yesterday in Amman, Jordan began the Conference of States Parties for the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC). This meeting and the series of meetings to follow it will set out means and goals for fulfilling the requirements of the convention, and will set up sanctions rules and establish how monitoring will be achieved. (UN) (the event)

Today's meetings will allow attendees to discuss the way forward for implementing the convention, and in the coming days asset recovery, technical assistance, and setting up a second States Parties meeting will also be discussed.
Transparency International's recommendations for the conference include calling for civil society involvement in the convention's monitoring mechanism, and that asset recovery and monitoring processes be transparent to allow for full accountability. GOPAC is also holding a side event to inform attending parliamentarians to the conference about key issues on the table.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Check out these two maps, the first of population density in the United States, and the second of the residence of U.S. fatalities in Iraq. No geographical locations seem to be taking any disproportionate share of the fatalities in the war; it is being felt all over.

Friday, December 08, 2006

What is the most effective way of tackling corruption in the government of any given country?

Why, stage a military coup, of course!!!

That is how Fiji's current leader, Jona Baravilala Senilagakali, describes the reason why he led the recent military coup in that country. (Al Jazeera)

Two book reviews for Xmas/Channukah/Kwanzaa /belated Diwali
First, Carl Hiaasen's Nature Girl, a silly interwoven plot that magically becomes untangled at the end. Not really all that great.
Second, Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart. This is a better book than the first, which is entirely gratuitous. Absurdistan presents to us the character of "Snack Daddy," who is actually Misha Vainberg, who is really searching for something, but of course he's not really sure what it is. He is an engrossing character, things happen to him that are entirely normal in the Russian mafia- and oil-rich former Soviet republic world that he lives in. But they're not normal for us, and we like him are trying to get our heads around it while we try to see him down a path towards happiness. I'm not finished with this book, but it is humorous and interesting.....fancy that. I especially liked that the author places a parody of himself into the plot of the book, a character whom Misha utterly despises.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Anyone who is still talking about how we got into Iraq is totally irrelevant right now. (that means you, Al Gore).
The body of James Kim was just found. He is not alive. I am sad. He never knew that his family was saved. Hopefully they might be able to figure out what happened with him. Did he fall? Hypothermia?

It makes me sad.

However, he was only .5 miles from the Rogue River, in the Big Windy Creek drainage area. That river is filled with rapids, and you have to imagine that the rapids could be heard from quite far away, right? I wonder if he fell, couldn't walk anymore, and thus was stuck out there, even though he meant to go back to the car much sooner.

Here's a satellite image of NF23, the part where they got stuck.
Little Windy Creek, which feeds into Big Windy Creek

oh. The Kims were warned about Bear Camp Road. From CNET. CNET video.

"The Kims were warned that the Bear Camp Road was dangerous this time of year when they stopped into the Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce about 20 miles south of Portland, Ore., on November 25 around 1:30 p.m. PST, said Logan Crozier, a visitor center representative at the office.
The Kims had used Mapquest to map out a route but wanted a scenic route to the coast, Crozier said Tuesday. The visitor center representative who was working that day gave the Kims a map printed off an unidentified Internet site, he said. "She warned them that by the time they got down there (southern Oregon), it would more than likely be dark, and she cautioned them not to take the route," he added. "

And strangely, James Kim left the road he was walking on to walk inside a gorge, where the Big Windy Creek flows. Could he have gone down there because he thought it was warmer there?

The area was carved out a long time ago by geological forces (Bureau of Land Management description):

"Most of these rocks are part of the Rogue Formation. They are a result of lava flows and rocks formed by ancient volcanoes which were active about 140 million years ago. High temperatures and pressure have altered and folded these rocks into a nearly vertical position. Signs of this folding can be seen on the steep canyon walls which have been carved by the powerful forces of the Rogue River over a period of nearly a million years."

Big Windy Creek area is also a place where gold used to be mined. You can see aerial maps of the area here (USGS). Probably this area was more populated in the late 1800s than it is today.
CNN had some further evidence of the mis-spending and fraud that occurred in the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Foreign students got federal aid, people got housing compensation payments twice (even though they only lost one house), and FEMA reported found items that are still lost. What a mess.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

I'm concerned for James Kim, the still un-found father who was stranded in a remote Oregon spot for nine days, and whose wife and two daughters were found on Sunday. (CNET). It just reminds me of times when I've been in a car in a remote place, and you take a strange turn, and you're lost, and it's winter time, and there are no signs or towns, and you think---what could happen? I'm not saying that we should all freak out, but I think we have to have respect for the danger that the wilderness can cause. We all think we are safe with our cell phones; but in such a remote spot, not even those were working. (Hell, my sprint phone doesn't even work at the mall.) They did however give an indication to rescue workers about where the family was.

I'm remembering one time when I flew to Carcassonne (France) and we were going to drive the back way to Prades. The smart way would have been to drive east to the coast, south to Perpignan and then west down the correct valley. Because we were crossing a ridge, we had to go very high up in order to get to the next valley, and up there, on a road hardly anyone ever drove on, there was snow drifting about because of the wind that had few obstacles to keep it from whipping around. We got out and played in the snow (because at lower altitudes there was hardly any). And I'm not going to even talk about the incident of our failed trip to Andorra, and the fun (!) detour we took with the Alfa Romeo, making a dent in it (by braking too fast on a thin coat of snow on the road) which we desperately tried to hide from family members for the rest of vacation to avoid the inevitable ridicule.

The website for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest is surprisingly silent on the Kims and not very alarmist about the road in question, where the car got stuck. It just says:
"12/2006: Forest Road 23 - (Bear Camp Road) is not advisable for winter travel. The Bear Camp Road may be blocked by snow drifts. "

But of course, the family was traveling on the road in November, so maybe that info hadn't been posted yet.

Siskiyou National Forest is also the site of intense bickering over logging permits for areas that have undergone fire, because there is now evidence that logging after a fire hinders the regrowth of trees. (Seattle Times) Oregonians have been opposed to the logging because it might detract from the stunning beauty of this rugged and isolated landscape, especially as the park has up until now had so few roads built through it.
Fiji goes through yet another military coup. Here is the interview with the prime minister (now under house arrest) over the phone with a New Zealand news organization. The president has dissolved the parliament . But the prime minister has a strangely passive attitude to the whole ordeal:

"I will be staying at my residence. What will happen to me I don't know. There is rumour that they are going to take me and leave me on one of the islands close to the capital - actually the island where [a former coup leader] is locked up. So I might end up there but there's nothing much I can do. "
Which is sad, because the guy was elected democratically, and now he has to be detained without trial by an undemocratic leadership that won over the country through brute force. Even though coups have been a part of political history for as long as anyone can remember, their detriment to democratic values should be more appreciated, and they should be more forcefully condemned. Why should elections and rule of law matter if the guy with the bigger stick will always win?
The Earnshaw/Burson Marsteller case escalates, as a formal complaint is issued against Earnshaw the parliamentary expert who was supposed to act impartially on his report on pharmaceutical issues while working the three other days of the week as a consultant for big pharmaceutical companies. (FT)

Even though I see the conflict of interest, Earnshaw is right when he says: "No one is 'independent': people work for businesses, NGOs, governments, political parties, etc. That is why it is important to be transparent...about credentials and experience. . . ultimately, politicians decide, not experts."

And this kind of conflict of interest leads people to think that employing academics are the answer, because somehow they are above it all. This is completely untrue; in the advocacy world of Brussels I have met academics who are more biased and divorced from reality than the organizations they are affiliated with.