Wednesday, October 31, 2007

What books have I read recently? Well, what books have I started?

Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

The Stillborn God, Mark Lilla

The Pleasure of My Company, Steve Martin

And the only one I've finished is:

There are similarities between Geve's memoir with the fictional Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz, mentioned earlier on this blog. Although Geve is German, and Kertesz Hungarian, they both arrived at concentration camps as adolescents, and stayed remarkably long, learning to survive and proving themselves very adaptable to their surroundings. Most of all, the tone of the two books, the attitude and approach to daily life is very matter-of-fact, without sentimentalism. However, Kertesz drifts into a type of mania for logic and rationality which brings him into a daze about what is going on around him, whereas Geve exhibits pragmatism and is precociously aware of his need for hope and forward-looking companionship. Both spend time in infirmaries, too, and are of course very lucky, given the odds.

Geve mentions several times his awareness, even then, of the internationalist attitude he had gained from his experiences, and he contrasts this with others who hadn't been detained with a diverse group like he had. And the euphoria he describes during the days immediately following the liberation of Buchenwald are palpable and joyous, and I don't remember this from Kertesz' book.
Along the lines of earlier posts, an article in NY Review of Books on Islam, including a new book by Hans Kueng, the German religologist. He notes, for instance, that while many major religions have been able to criticize their texts, including Catholocism at a late date, Islam has not yet been able to do so.

I also thought this quote was telling, from Kueng:

"religion is no longer, as it was in the Middle Ages and the Reformation, an institution set over the social system to guarantee its unity, but merely a factor, a sphere, a one part-system among several."

This is similar to the background I read in Lapidus' book on the Islamic World about the development of Shi'ism as the dominant religion in Iran. Lapidus shows that the country's rulers viewed its popularity as assuring stability and logevity for their rule, both of which were lacking in that region in the Middle Ages.

Friday, September 14, 2007

An interesting article about the Italian Red Brigades' newfound interest in the radical Moslem community. This reminded me of discussions in Power and the Idealists about Marxists from the Islamic world like Azar Nafisi who became disillusioned with the "revolutions" to which they originally pledged allegiance.

After reading Berman's book, it seems clear that these new Red Brigades are repeating the mistake that the Marxists in the 1970s made in the run up to the Iranian revolution. The Islamists along with Communist and Marxist parties overthrew the Shah. After that, the Islamists instituted a totalitarian state and wiped out anything left of their left-wing co-conspirators. Berman's main point is that these former Marxists turned away from the ideology to appreciate liberalism and freedoms above all else.

Like the radical Moslems at the helm of the Shah's overthrow, some of the Marxist groups of the 1960s in America also had reactionary ideas about society, they also had prescriptions for personal habits and behavior. This indicates that these are not at once contradictory ideas.

The new Red Brigades state that the Islamists may be the stronger of the violent radical organizations now, but that Marxist conceptions of the proletarian overcoming its oppressors would win out; these Islamists are just vectors towards this outcome. This reminds me of the twisted strategy of Charles Manson, who tried to foment a race war that once finished, he was convinced, would allow him and his group to take over the country.

Monday, September 03, 2007

A friend asked me yesterday why fighting terrorism was so important when so many people in the world died every day from so many other causes, like poverty and hunger. It's a good question, and deserved a better answer than I gave yesterday.

I think there are several ways to answer it. The Islamic terrorism that started surfacing in the 1990s is both internationalized and is focused on destruction rather than political goals. First, the high profile of anti-terrorist policy making in the world is largely a game of catch-up. Sure, in many countries there has been a long history of national terrorism; national terrorists often have political goals, and believe that terror would be the best way to achieve these goals. One can find a way to reason with such groups -- take Northern Ireland. But the internationalized approach of terrorists today and their ability to move around the world force us to think about ways that terrorists can be deprived of their recourse to "safe countries." There shouldn't be any safe countries for terrorists.

If one looks back on the statements released from Al-Qaida's leadership, one could say that, like many national-based terrorist groups, it does have a political goal - of creating a global ummah. This is a much more far-flung aim, than, say, autonomous rights for a particular territory within a nation-state. I don't take the creation of a global ummah as a real goal of Al-Qaida, but even if it is genuine, one imagines that the interim goal to achieve this is all out destruction and the propagation of fear in the Western world.

And it goes without saying that, if the goal is destruction rather than the achievement of a political goal, that this is a different kind of "war." (I know this is a contentious term; shall I call it a "struggle"?) However, conventional weapons won't work in this struggle. We need new approaches. As I said in the previous post, some have indicated that the advent of suicide missions in connection with this type of terrorism changed the rules of the game. But I think we know that suicide bombers have caused the Western world lots of trouble in the past. One could think of kamikaze pilots, and look to Chechen fighters, and as I indicated earlier, some of these communist rebels in the 1960s. It's true that there have not been any Israeli suicide bombers, and that even though during Israelis' struggle against British occupiers, their brand of terrorism didn't include suicides. However, as Paul Berman describes Debray's concept of suicide, it is far reaching in modern political movements:

"Maybe revolution and suicide had somehow drawn close to one another. The vast popularity of the cult of Che in so many places around the world took on a slightly creepy look, from this point of view. But Debray was thinking of many more people than Dr. Guevara. He thought about President Allende in Chile, who killed himself with an AK-47 in the course of General Pinochet's coup, in 1973, and about Allende's daughter, Beatriz, who killed herself three years later, in Cuba...Debray never bothered to glance across the Rhine at his own comrades in Germany - a characteristic omission, on the part of a Franch intellectual. But it's obvious what he would have seen, if only he had bothered to look. For what was the history of the German revolutionary movement in the 1970s, if not a history of people on the verge of suicide, and beyond the verge? - even if no one has ever been able to rule out the possibility of official murders. The prison suicides, if they were suicides of the Red Army Fraction's leaders, the death of one revolutionary comrade after another, the grisly panache, the riots that broke out in the aftermath of those prison deaths - these things did seem to celebrate a cult of human sacrifice." (222)

There are several points in this that don't match up. First of all, human sacrifice for what one perceives as the greater good has a long history, rooted namely in Christian if not older traditions, like hero worship in ancient Greece. This is nothing new. Heroes are always dead when they are glorified. They died in battle, so to speak; and in the modern world, battle can take on any number of forms. Furthermore, I think Berman, and perhaps Debray, mistake fighting for lost causes as an obsession with death. That is too great a mental leap. Failure to make good cost-benefit analyses, or caring more about your cause than your life is not really an obsession with death, just a case of extreme fanaticism.

So why do we pay attention to terrorism when fighting poverty and hunger could save many more lives? First, national security is one of the fundamental tasks of the nation-state; if the United States is threatened by terrorism rather than by widespread hunger, then combating terrorism should be one of the nation-state's main tasks. You might say the United States doesn't do enough to fight poverty or hunger around the world, and you are probably right. But it wouldn't make sense for our government to view American and non-American problems in the same light, even though in many ways failed states are a detriment to our own security.

Secondly, terrorism has a more widespread impact than its victims. Terrorism is designed to spread fear wider than its randomly selected targets. This fear can cause greater havoc than the terrorist violence itself. It is a challenge, then, for governments to forewarn and arm their citizens with awareness while assuaging their fears. This is difficult, because governments also need to gain citizens' support for new policies to stop terrorists. If citizens don't perceive the threat, or feel the fear so to speak, then they won't support new policies that may inconvenience them or change the way their society has functioned. So this is the government's conundrum in the face of terrorism.

Finally, I think terrorism is also viewed as a priority because governments do not want to be taken by surprise. They want to be in control of their nation's security. As they should be. Unlike in a conventional war, the battle can crop up anywhere. This control of the security situation means that many new policies need to be put in place.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

A few more comments on Power and the Idealists. There was a small final thought at the end of one of the chapters, holding a lot of meaning but without much explanation, about the connection between some communist rebel movements in the 60s and the Islamic jihad of today. Regis Debray, who had far-reaching access into the lives, ideologies and methods of the leaders of the Cuban revolution, saw that many of the modern leftist rebellions were a kind of suicide mission. His recognition of this began with getting to know Che Guevara, and to see that the way that Che went on his jungle missions were intentionally suicidal, that he knew he would lose but that fight nevertheless required his death. So what was really new about another rebel movement obsessed with death? - he saw jihadis as fitting squarely in the same modern paradigm, and not as new a phenomenon as many have said.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

After looking at this book sit on the shelf for a long time, I picked up Paul Berman's Power and the Idealists, which tries to map how certain '68ers like Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit became interventionists who could support going to Afghanistan and other wars. Berman starts out with the scandal surrounding Fischer's connections to RAF radicals in his student days, and to allegations of violent radicalism, but takes the book in other directions too. Most interesting was Berman's extended analysis of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, and his examination of how once strident Marxists like Nafisi viewed the Iranian revolution and how they came to value individual freedoms above all while living under Iran's totalitarianism. Even though these '68ers didn't live through WWII, Berman is convinced that it informs their views and that their activism has crystallized and matured into a resistance of totalitarianism. Of course I write this while I'm in the middle of the book, so perhaps things will change by the last page....

Sunday, August 05, 2007

I am rereading The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco; it's surprisingly easy to pick up and read from wherever you happen to open the book. I like how the author built into the book the fact that people thought differently during the Middle Ages, didn't use reason or at least it was only in its infancy. That's why you can pick it up anywhere, and also because "enlightened" Brother William's ideas don't just get closer to the reality of things but they also allow the main characters to solve the book's mystery.

Another major topic of the book is heresy, and the question of where heresy and officially sanctioned belief diverge. I was reminded of all this because my boss took a detour on a business trip to Albi, in France, because it's one of the stops on the Tour de France. A day after he mentioned it I realized that this was the site of the Albigensian Crusades, and not just a pit stop for that parade of doping die-hards. Through a wonderful course I took in college with Mark Pegg, and the time I've spent near Prades, in the Pyrenees, I am still interested in this time period and the locations bound up with it. That includes the abbey of Saint Michel de Cuxa, which is so connected to the Cloisters in Fort Tryon park in New York, and lies close to the valley running through that part of the Pyrenees, to Saint Martin du Canigou, which sits high atop rocks which are the precursors to the Canigou mountain. And there is the priory of Serrabonne, the hard to reach abbey to the south. All of them quite old, with structures even from the 12th century.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

I've been living near 9th street for about 5 months now, and still hadn't been to Vegetate until this past Thursday. Vegetate is a vegetarian restaurant sandwiched between two vacant buildings on 9th street, one of which is even "condemed" for unsanitary conditions (don't you wish the employees of the Board of Condemnation (doesn't that sound biblical?) could spell?). Does not bode well for the restaurant next door, does it?

In any case, the atmosphere inside the restaurant is calm and clean, and having a DJ as the owner meant that the music was good.

However, the food was disappointing. I heard from another person afterwards who had also been there that, like me, she had gotten a dish that looked like it was meant for an octagenarian. The chef seemed to throw in hot pepper pieces to counteract the fact that there was little taste in some dishes. And some things that sounded fancy were failures, like the macaroon (tasteless) and lavender-infused ice cream (not good, despite the fact that I love lavender scents).

Sunday, June 17, 2007

While watching birds kill each other on National Geographic Channel, I thought I'd take a moment to say something about a review of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's new book. Although short, I think the New Criterion author Douglas Murray picked a telling title for his review: "A passion for the future." That's the problem, isn't it? Hirsi Ali is a modern in a postmodern world. She believes in the progress that the West promises even when its intellectual leaders have long ago abandoned this outlook in favor of ...who knows? certain doom at the hand of global warming? I mean, we can all become cynics, but where will it get us, right?

Criticism and the battle of ideas (rather than of fists) is still important today; and I'm talking about what we want the world to look like in the future and which principles we think are important enough to apply to everyone, not just our countrymen. We can't always get involved in the discussion ourselves, but we can give people the tools, the room and the support to have this discussion themselves.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

I won't try and describe the whole trip I took recently in detail, but I will say how much we enjoyed Edam, north of Amsterdam. The town was quite important back in the 17th century as a place where whalers lived (I don't quite understand the geography of where exactly they were whaling, ...), and there are a lot of buildings left from that time. We went there on a recommendation for the restaurant (and hotel) "De Fortuna," which is a conservative, lovely restaurant with a patio next to the canal. It's wonderful for walking around, and I suppose it has a cheese market like Alkmaar, although we didn't see it.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Where are the PR people when you need them? I thought I heard a kid asking his friend on the Mall the other day if he had gotten the pretend hand grenade from the Public Service event that was about half military.

I made a comment to my friend about how such an object, if it existed, 1) was stupid from a public safety standpoint, and 2) was a glorification of dangerous weapons that kill people. Well, those grenades existed, if you can believe it. Where is the PR vetting for the order of 1000 squishy stress ball hand grenades?

Did we not learn anything from the effects of black toy water guns? how many people got shot when those were pointed at police or other people?

(via Boing Boing).

Saturday, May 12, 2007

I've started to take care of the garden at the back of my house. I've watched the roses bud and then bloom, but to my horror, the blooms exhibit black spots and signs of damage. It didn't take much looking to find both green and "wooly" white aphids covering the roses' new growth. As I wanted to work with what I had on hand (city hardware stores are usually a joke), I found some internet recipes for soap-oil-water mixtures for killing aphids. So far, my little mixture hasn't deterred the green buggers at all, but today I sprayed the bushes with a strong stream of water to remove the aphids, so maybe the end of the damage is near?

My grandfather used to be the editor of the newsletter of the St. Louis Rose Society, and he had an impresive collection of very healthy rose bushes, so I should have learned something from him. But I only remember stuffing envelopes, the stinky bloodroot (dried cows blood) he used to fertilize the plants, and my grandmother's attentive snipping of the rose hips. They had many many kinds of roses in their garden, including a bush of miniature "Andrea" roses. I really love the smell of roses, and even the aphids can't take that away. But I would love to see perfect ones growing in my garden this summer.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

I woke up at 6 this morning to run the Sallie Mae 10k, starting behind the Lincoln Memorial. My friend and I had said to each other that we would try to run together until one of us felt the need to go faster. I was shocked to see that our first mile took 10.3 minutes to complete, and we had been running for 19+ minutes when we got to the second mile marker. Then my friend broke away to run faster, and I figured I would be running more 10 minutes miles. At the third mile marker I was at 28 minutes, and I thought to myself how that was an acceptable time for 3.5 miles, not 3. At mile 5, however, I was at 45 minutes, so somehow I had gotten back to a 9 minute mile pace along the way. And I finished with 56.40, so my average pace was 9.08 minutes/mile.

But the time doesn't matter to me as much as the fact that I ran the whole race wtihout stopping to walk, not even once, even though I had never run that distance before, and I usually took walk breaks during 5 mile runs. The track was beautiful; we ran around Hains Point and had water to left or right side of us for the whole race. The temperature was in the 60s, so I never felt overheated, which I had worried about, because I don't have a sense of what the boundary is for overheating, i.e., when I need to stop and take a breather.

And what's more, I didn't have my iPod.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

My team participated in Servathon today, and we chose the Kenilworth Aquatic National Park in Anacostia as the site of our labor. The team leader and I chose the site because neither of us had been anywhere near it; neither of us had even been to Anacostia before. Anacostia was so much more suburban-looking than I imagined. There were homes on quite large pieces of land, some with beautiful porches, some broken down. And in the middle of all this is the Kenilworth Aquatic Park, a vast series of ponds and marsh filled with lily pads and reeds (and some garbage, which we picked up). My team came very close to falling into the "gravy" as we called it (because of the film of oil floating on top), but we managed to pick up some of the trash within reach and to see a snake along the way.


I am making dinner for a couple this coming week, and I am tempted to replicate this beautiful salad I had in Paris a couple years ago, which was made with prawns, grapefruit and cilantro. I don't want to devein anything, though. Do I need to? This salad was so simple and was served on a few pieces of greens at a Thai restaurant in Chinatown near Place d'Italie.

The other option is to make some kebabs with chicken and vegetables marinated in something with lemon. And to have some nice couscous, hummus, and olives on the side.


Not to mention the 10k I am running tomorrow!!! To bring or not to bring the iPod, that is the question. The friend with whom I am running the race told me it's against runners' culture to bring an iPod. Which I guess I understand. But those who adhere to the "runners' culture" can get through a 10k without straining themselves, and without such devices; whereas I wonder whether I will make it without pounding beats piercing my eardrums.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The vacation Pawel and I took in the summer of 2005 was mostly about getting away from tourists. When we encountered too many Dutch campers on the shores of Lago di Garda, we fled northwards, to Belluno. I mostly wanted to go to Belluno because it was the setting for a book I had read earlier in the vacation by Donna Leon, A Noble Radiance. The town of Belluno sits high above the road, and there is an elevator to get from a big parking lot up to the town. The area surrounding the town has lots of steep mountains, hills, and ravines. After suffering bouts of fear of heights on the craggy mountain tops in the heart of the Dolomiti, we drove eastwards, towards Slovenia. On our way there, we stopped in Udine (Pawel was hungry, pizza was procured), and it was a pleasant town with few tourists. Further along the road, we made an extended pit stop in Cividale del Friuli, a town reaching back to Roman times. Along with the nearby Aquileia (site of a Roman city, and unforgettable mosaics from the 4th century), it played an important part in Italian history in the Middle Ages. This town was one of our favorites; we felt like we were discovering it for ourselves - once in a while we'd see a furtive tourist with guidebook in hand, but it was rare. We liked that.

The see of Aquileia was founded by St. Mark, who had been sent by St. Peter to go to Alexandria. From 535 to 536, the Bishop of Aquileia along with some others broke off from the Pope in Rome. After Italy was overrun by Lombards, and many of the smaller entities that had been subservient to Aquileia (whose leaders had now fled to Grado, an island off the coast of Trieste) adhered to the Pope, the Lombards set up a new patriarchate at Aquileia; so there were now two Aquileian patriarchs. The Popes went on to recognize those in Grado (rather than those actually in Aquileia). The city flourished in the years around 1000, but by the 14th century an earthquake and other problems left it deserted.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

My friend Erika noted yesterday that she and I are becoming regular Czech film buffs. Yesterday we went to go see Beauty in Trouble, a film by Jan Hrebejk, who also directed Horem Padem. Beauty in Trouble was being shown as part of the DC film festival, and the best part was having the director present to discuss the film after the screening. Prior to this, we had seen a bunch of films as part of the Lions of Czech Cinema series, which is sponsored by the Czech embassy. We saw Smradi (Brats), and Wild Bees.

Out of all of these, I liked Beauty in Trouble the best, and mostly because of the character of Risa, the parasitic "uncle" who can't tell a lie in the film. He is a thoroughly pathetic character, yet he also gets the best comical lines in the script.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

To continue the earlier post on Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book "The Caged Virgin".....

Hirsi Ali points to several unethical acts of the prophet Mohammed, as recorded in the Koran, which one would not do well to emulate today. For instance, he took a nine year old as his wife, and he led aggressive military campaigns against neighboring countries.

Is it true that these particular behaviors are not questioned in Islam, as they would not belond to Mohammed's example to be followed by believers? Is Hirsi Ali right? I am trying to think of any of Jesus' acts as recorded in the Gospels that we would not want to imitate in today's world.

In any case, there is a difference between claiming that the religion is the root of the problems that Hirsi Ali points to, or whether the religion, as Ali's friend Irshad Manji says, is "weighed down with the pressures of Arabian cultural imperialism, which dictate that women must give up their individuality in honor of the family and become communal property."

Hirsi Ali asks Manji, "Why are liberal, secular Westerners so afraid of taking a stance against the abuses of Islam?" First, as Hirsi Ali herself noted earlier in the book, liberal Westerners would trace the cause of abusive actions back to problems of the indivual committing them, and not to the religion he or she belongs to. Second, I appreciate the author's encouragement to Westerners to confront people who are denying their family members the benefits of an open, equal society, but whatever reform the author wants to occur would have to come from within. There is too much colonial and other baggage in the relations between the West and the developing world to make this a legitimate topic of discussion between the two, if it were needed, which I'm still not convinced of after reading her book.

As has been said before, her accusations against Islam put her in the company of some very biggoted people. Her goal, she says, is to promote change; the fallout from that is irrelevant to her.
The silent films with live piano accompaniment at Brussels' Film Museum were one of the best entertainment deals in town (only 2 Euros).
Those times I went with my film buff friend Zofia came back to me as I watched another silent film accompanied by elaborate instrumentation at the National Gallery today. As part of the DC Filmfest, the museum put on Hungarian-American Paul Fejos' 1928 film "Lonesome," to an amazing score composed and played by the Alloy Orchestra. The funniest part of the film were the three brief sound dialogues, which were cringe-inducingly stupid.

I also saw the exhibits at the museum before the film started, including the Eugene Boudin (pictured to the right) and the two Jasper Johns exhibits - early work and prints. The Boudin exhibit was good; I liked that his work showed all classes hanging out on the beach. To me it seems funny that women in billowing dresses hung out in the sand, but I guess that's what they did in those days and in those outfits. The Johns prints exhibit was more to my taste, having done some printmaking in my day. Sometimes he printed on handmade paper, which reminded me that I want to learn how to do that.

Friday, April 20, 2007

This is very funny. Follow the instructions (At Googlemaps, click on "Get directions" before typing in "New York" and "London").

29 days.
I am in the middle of reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali's The Caged Virgin.
For the past few years, I've read many articles about Hirsi Ali, and have known her views, but I had never read any lengthy works by her. For instance, she was featured as the obsessive fascination of Ian Buruma in his recent book, Murder in Amsterdam (previous post).
It's a shame to always be writing on this blog when I'm halfway, rather than all the way through these books. Don't I want to give the author a chance?
Hirsi Ali's ideas about having a public debate of ideas in the Netherlands with the country's Muslim minorities about integration, about terrorism, about radicalization, about laws that relate to them, sound very familiar. I've heard it echoed by others, and I think it is wise.
Ayaan is adamant about blaming Islam for many of the ills that plague Muslim countries in the world and Muslim immigrants in the West. There hasn't been an Enlightenment in the Islamic world as there has been in the West, she argues. There is no culture of questioning authority and religion ("Let us have a Voltaire," she proclaims). And the patriarchalism of Islam's rules and its tribal legacy dictates that Muslims and their nations will lag behind the West. She backs this up with, at one point, lengthy passages from the Koran. She diagnoses Muslim women who defend the veil as sufferers of a kind of "Stockholm syndrome," that they persist in defending their captors.
I'm still not convinced that "Islam" couldn't be replaced by "Moroccan," "Algerian," or "rural Turkish" culture, and she readily admits that immigrants to the Netherlands are coming from the least developed areas of these countries. And what of the rest of Turkey, which is Islamic yet somehow manages to almost never be categorized with the rest of the Islamic world and its failing development? (Last week's Economist article about the persistence of honor killings of female relatives who dishonor families in rural areas of Turkey).
She seems to contradict herself by, on the one hand seeing Islam as the root of the problem, while at at least one point so far, also describing it as a tool of the powerful ruling classes to manipulate citizens in Islamic countries. If Islam can be used as an instrument, then it can bend to the will of those who want to use it as such. Can't its rules be interpreted in liberal vs. conservative ways just like Jewish or Christian texts? Why does the literal interpretation have such a powerful hold on the Islamic world?
She blames Islam for the lagging development in Muslim countries, whereas there are lots of non-Muslim countries that also have these problems. I don't think she takes into account the way that economic structures in some parts of the Islamic world perpetuate some problems, like reliance on one commodity, funneling funds into government coffers while the economic need to invest in the population is absent.
It is a psychological tactic that Hirsi Ali dismisses the colonial legacy as a factor in problems in the Islamic world. Whether or not this concept increases the sense of victimhood in former colonies, it deserves more consideration in her worldview. Hirsi Ali, however, is not writing as a historian but as a polemicist. And she's pretty good at it.
Like I said, I'm still reading.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

On the prominent Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant's website, the headline about "190 confirmed dead in Baghdad attacks" (Zeker 190 doden bij aanslagen Bagdad ) is more prominent than "Cho sent in materials to NBC" (Cho stuurde materiaal aan tv-station NBC).
Juxtaposed against the background of 171 people dying in Iraq today in terrorist attacks, we're learning more about the Virginia Tech shooter. At least some mental health professionals noted that he was a danger to himself, but as has been reported earlier, he wasn't volunteering for therapy.

Poet Nikki Giovanni calls him just plain "mean," although I don't understand how a professor can think that one person is "mean," without thinking that the "mean" had to come from somewhere -- e.g., mental illness, abuse, trauma. It doesn't just come out of nowhere. Would a skillful author describe one of her characters as "just mean," without explaining why that person was mean or evil? Wouldn't that make her a pretty bad author, to revert to the old good vs. evil trope?

Yes, he's hard to understand. The snippets from the video he sent to NBC are vague: they blame "you" for what he did. Who? Everyone? If he was trying to send a message to people, he did a really bad job.

This student seemed to have slipped through the cracks, because he really should have been committed, if only for his own sake. But what will this mean for the other maladjusted kids out there? Are they going to be thrown at therapists right and left all over campuses, when some of them may actually be acting within the normal range of human behavior, just quieter, more reserved, less expressive?

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Virginia Tech Shooting

An Asian-American Virginia Tech student was responsible for killing 33 people today on the school's campus, including himself. If only there had been a more alarmist reaction to the two initial deaths committed at 7:15 a.m. and deemed domestic in nature, considering that authorities did not know whether the killer was still on the loose on campus.

See the emails below. Who was the gunman the authorities had in custody? Did the police make a mistake? And why did they write an email at 9:26 if the first shootings took place at 7:15?

Here are the emails the university administration sent to students: (from CNN)

Time sent: 09:26:24
Subject: Shooting on campus

A shooting incident occurred at West Ambler Johnston earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating.
The university community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case. Contact Virginia Tech Police at 231-6411

Stay attuned to the We will post as soon as we have more information.

Time sent: 9:50 a.m.
Subject: Please stay put

A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows

Time sent: 10:16:40
Subject: All Classes Canceled; Stay where you are

Virginia Tech has canceled all classes. Those on campus are asked to remain where they are, lock their doors and stay away from windows. Persons off campus are asked not to come to campus.

Time sent: 10:52:45
Subject: Second Shooting Reported; Police have one gunman in custody

In addition to an earlier shooting today in West Ambler Johnston, there has been a multiple shooting with multiple victims in Norris Hall.
Police and EMS are on the scene.
Police have one shooter in custody and as part of routine police procedure, they continue to search for a second shooter.
All people in university buildings are required to stay inside until further notice.
All entrances to campus are closed.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

There was an article in the NYTimes about how Leslie Feist is going to be the next big thing, by the looks of her upcoming album. This Canadian singer has been one of my favorites for the past few months, just on the basis of a remix album of her songs called Open Season.

From iTunes, I saw that two of the new singles are now available: "1234" and "My Moon My Man." Both sound very poppy, which the NYTimes thinks will drive her increasing popularity. I wasn't so taken with the 30-second sampling, and prefer stripped-down, acoustic songs like "Gatekeeper" from her album "Let It Die" and the version of "Inside and Out" from the Open Season album.

Feist's voice and her songs' interesting melodies drive these songs; I hope these will come through in her new album.
Yesterday, Eindoven (Netherlands) got a big new statue of Frits Philips, former president of the Philips electronics empire, in the town center.

Frits was the fourth chairman of the company, and directed it during WWII. He saved the lives of hundreds of Jews by convincing the Nazis he needed them for manufacturing, and he was given a Yad Vashem award in 1996 in recognition of his efforts on their behalf. (wikipedia)

Frits Philips was also responsible for the Evoluon, the UFO-looking building visited by every school group in the Netherlands, until it became a conference center.

(Picture from Eindhovens Dagblad)

Saturday, April 14, 2007

How do we differentiate between the Iraqis we can trust from the ones we cannot? That is the basic question behind the New Yorker article (dated March 26) by George Packer. The article chronicles the experiences of several Iraqis who have risked their lives to work with the Americans, only to be denied the protection they needed or the insurance that if things got really bad for them and their families, that they would be cared for. But by acknowledging the need for refugee status, the U.S. is admitting defeat. And their distrust of all Iraqis because of the tenuous security situation in Iraq means that there is great reluctance to grant Iraqis any breaks on the security measures, even if it means they wait in long lines, rendered easy targets to bombers.

The author seems to imply that the Americans should be able to make the distinction between Iraqis we can trust and those we cannot. He tells the story of loyal Iraqis who have spent time in the United States, and those who have made great sacrifices, in order to serve the Americans in Iraq, all the while getting little in return. These guys should have been given a break, Packer implies.

This scenario is a lot like the recent use of "zero tolerance" rules in schools to create secure environments, which usually mean that administrators are relieved of the burden of making judgments about what should and should not be permitted. Categorically, there was no discretion for giving some Iraqis the protection they needed, without throwing "confusing" nuance into the way the rules are followed.
Just to harp on the geographical disparities in reporting on events, I found the latest disaster on the RSOE EDIS that occurred in Africa, a boat going from Somalia to Yemen capsized, killing 62 people and involving 96:

"A smugglers' boat carrying Somali migrants capsized off Yemen's coast and at least 62 were feared dead, officials and local media said Saturday. Survivors told authorities that the human traffickers forced them into the sea after seeing the Yemeni coast guard. It was not immediately clear when the boat, which was believed to be carrying 96 Somalis, capsized. About 32 Somalis were rescued, a security official in the coastal Abyan province said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. Another local official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said survivors were taken to the Kharaz refugee camp in the city of Aden, 200 miles south of the capital San'a. The local Al Ayman newspaper, quoting unnamed witnesses, reported that 16 bodies had washed ashore since Friday night and more could be seen floating in the sea. ) "

So sad.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Frans Timmermans, Dutch EU Minister (PvdA), calls for a leaner Treaty (not wanting to call it a Constitution anymore), in order to heed the calls of his countrymen during the 2005 failed referendum. (EU Politix)

“The Dutch people were very clear on what they did not want, that is, an all-bracing constitutional treaty. That is why we will not want to present such a document to them again," said Timmermans, a member of the European convention which drafted the constitution.

Yet he had a hand in writing it. Will he do a better job this time around, along with his fellow ministers?
Emergency and Disaster Information Services (EDIS): This Hungarian-developed hazards tracker is pretty cool, even though their icons are wacky, unintuitive and unexplained. Supposedly, you can see crises as they happen around the world and get real time updates.

Here's just the U.S. map.

And the rest of the World, which shows the larger crises. The RSOE EDIS integrates Googlemaps to show you close-up where the event is occurring. But the next thing we need is real time satellite pictures! That won't happen for a while, but we can wish, can't we? We civilians, that is.
Biggest problem with this Hungarian disaster mapper? According to its current maps, there are no disasters in Iraq. But a bus accident with 0 injuries in Florida gets its own little icon for "vehicle accident." The same thing happens in the Western media in general; I heard from a reliable journalistic source one time that there have to be 50 deaths for a tragedy from Africa to be reported in the Western news.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The tool on the USATF (USA Track & Field) website using Googlemaps is great for planning and sharing running and biking routes by allowing you to get distance and topographical information as you plan your route.

In trying to increase my running distance 2 weeks ago, I took this run from my house to the Tidal Basin, around it and back.

This past weekend, on that cloudy Sunday, I took the bus up to Carter Barron theater, got onto the trail in Rock Creek going north up to the first car barrier (near rest area 10), turned around and ran back to Woodley (here's the route). I just mapped it on the ATF tool, and it's 8 miles. I won't pretend that I ran the whole thing, but I ran a bunch of it. Now I just need to figure out how fast I'm running my miles, and try to set some goals.
By the way, they call it America's Running Routes, but you just have to zoom out and move manually to the rest of the world to plan routes abroad.

This weekend was the beginning of cherry blossom season in Washington, and my friends from Philadelphia came just in time to see the peak of the blossoms. Although it wasn't completely sunny, we managed to get through a bunch of the monuments without getting rained on: Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington monument, WWII, and Vietnam, without mentioning seeing both sides of the White House.

And the clouds portended Georgetown's loss later on that day.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Two Italian MEPs implicated in fraud as authorities conduct 30 early morning corruption raids in several countries. The investigation was led by a Belgian prosecutor who began inquiries three years ago. It is said to involve building contracts (!), possibly relating to EU officials who had gone around normal procurement procedures for EU buildings and services in the national capitals in exchange for kick-backs. 150 officers participated in the bust, which was also at Berlaymont and at the offices of the MEPs. Other raids occurred in Luxembourg, Belgium, France and Italy. Three arrests were made; OLAF was involved as well as Italian and French authorities.

EU Observer reports:

"The office of a European Parliament assistant was also searched, with parliament officials however declining to comment on the reason for the apparent involvement of the assistant."

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Boy in the Danish Faeroe Islands finds watch washed up on shore that was buried at the North Pole three years ago, and which traveled 1800 miles. (via Boing Boing)

It still works.
Black Book, or Zwartboek in Dutch, is coming out in New York and LA on April 4, and opens in DC on April 20. I meant to see it in NL but I didn't have time. The film is a fictionalized account of a Nazi target during WWII who changes her identity, in the process courting a Nazi officer, among other activities that I will only find out once I see the film.

It's the biggest budget Dutch film ever made, and its premiere (many months ago) was graced by Prince Willem Alexander and Princess Maxima.
If I recall correctly, this latest film from Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven didn't receive totally stellar reviews.
As I ran past the trees around the Tidal Basin on Saturday, they were covered in buds, but by Wednesday this week they had started to bloom. Walking home and talking to Pawel about his mortgage issues today, I passed under several tree limbs heavy with cherry and other blossoms.

Although it's gotten cooler today, it was still possible to sit outside yesterday evening at L'Enfant in Adams Morgan, where we got a glimpse of the presidential (or vice-presidential) motorcade and the havoc it was causing. Sure, we knew it was the night of the Correspondents' Dinner at the nearby Hilton, but what we didn't know was what Karl Rove was doing while we unknowingly quaffed our half-priced wine. This is what he was doing.

Not that I pay much attention to Rove, but I noticed he was thinner than he used to be. It's not gastric bypass, he says, but some powders and vegetables, and surprisingly, not exercise, about which Condi and George W. are so fanatic.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Chinese word for "crisis" is not composed of the symbols for "danger" and "opportunity"!

(Wikipedia) (via Language Log)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Wilton High School in CT has decided to cancel a play about the Iraq war based on quotes from soldiers serving in the war. Although the idea was originally approved by the administration, and then edited for balancing the play's message, it was still deemed too controversial and/or insensitive to be performed. (Full text of the play here).

I read the play, and I think it's quite balanced. But balanced means that it includes statements praising going to war and fighting for the country, and other statements against the war. There really is no middle ground to gravitate to in this particular situation. Unfortunately, the statements in support of the war are full of patriotism but are missing any specifics about why it's justified to be at war. This contrasts with the play's statements criticizing the war, which are based on the soldiers' daily experiences with the reality of the war. But there's nothing you can really do about that....

"A school administrator who is a Vietnam veteran also raised questions about the wisdom of letting students explore such sensitive issues, Mr. Canty said."

This reminds me of the eventually successful efforts to give the right to vote to those who are also old enough to fight. If one is old enough to fight, as these students soon will be if they don't already have siblings fighting, they should be able to talk about and struggle with these sensitive issues. And I should add that the school doesn't need to "let" the students explore these issues; they already deal with them every time they watch or read about the war on the television and in the newspapers.

Other comments.

(Side note: Students of the school point to numerous examples of infringements of freedom of speech at the school, the play's cancellation being the latest of many, they say. But the requirement that yearbook quotes have a published source is probably in reaction to the yearbook scandal that occurred a few towns away, at Greenwich High School, a little more than a decade ago. When the seemingly insignfiicant letters under the pictures of a number of GHS seniors were put side by side, they spelled out "kill all n----s.")
This week Slavoj Zizek (I don't have access to those accents) has an opinion published in the NYTimes on torture called "Knight of the Living Dead." He argues that we have entered dangerous territory if we are willing to talk about torture; we have thus normalized it, and have removed the horror that should be induced by the occasional extreme situations when torture may be necessary to save lives.

Zizek assumes that the extreme situations mentioned above are occasional. But the way that the United States approaches the threat of terrorism is as a continuous, ongoing problem that has brought the world into a collective "extreme situation," where new rules are required. Zizek writes:

"Yes, most of us can imagine a singular situation in which we might resort to torture — to save a loved one from immediate, unspeakable harm perhaps. I can. In such a case, however, it is crucial that I do not elevate this desperate choice into a universal principle. In the unavoidable brutal urgency of the moment, I should simply do it. But it cannot become an acceptable standard; I must retain the proper sense of the horror of what I did. And when torture becomes just another in the list of counterterrorism techniques, all sense of horror is lost. "

Zizek's singular situation has become the norm for those who are fighting terrorism; and how do you use techniques that should be the exception in typical situations? This is a lot like being on terminal red alert; how do you make everyday an emergency situation - the exception becomes the rule.

Do we have to do bad things in order to effect change for the greater good? Certainly there are situations like this, when one heinous act can save many innocent lives. The widely promulgated explanation of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that they saved many lives that would have been taken had the war been allowed to continue. But I don't see much moral anguish in arguing this point; the truth is final, inarguable, and Japan is our friend, further buttressing the wisdom of the bombings. America does not struggle over the decision to bomb Japan.

Would we struggle over the use of torture? The cost-benefit analyses on these actions are tough, they are never cut and dry, and urgency prevents lengthy study of their consequences before the actions are taken.

I am against torture in any situation, because I am convinced that it doesn't elicit good intelligence. As I understand it, American soldiers are taught how to give up information if they are captured, but in a specific way that seeks to placate the captors without endangering U.S. forces. The captive gives up kernels of information that are insignificant but sound valuable, information that can be corroborated but cannot cause harm to U.S. assets if the enemy knows them. Why would our enemy act any differently? And the cell-like structures of Al Qaeda preclude our finding caches of information in the minds of any one captive.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Economist this week gives its "radical answers" to the simplification and "more say in decision making" that Europeans are demanding:

a. scrapping the Economic and Social Committee (ECOSOC)
b. scrapping the Committee of the Regions (CoR)
c. replacing the European Parliament with a European Senate made up of national European parliaments

(A) and (b) I can understand. But the question with option (c) is whether Europeans think that European issues are important enough to warrant having a representative work on them full time. National parliamentarians are pressed for time; and there already are collections of national parliamentarians in the Council of Europe (PACE) and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, where the effects of decisions are relatively minor to the daily lives of Europeans and major decisions are made by the member states anyway. The same cannot be said of EU policies with European Parliament co-decision making power, that have far-reaching implications for manufacturing guidelines, management of national economies and environmental regulations (and many other issues) that apply to the daily lives of EU residents. I'm not saying the EP is perfect (ummm....far from it), but the magnatude of the issues seems to demand some kind of full-time devotion of a democratically-elected representative of the people, whoever that may be.
Op-Ed in the New York Times by novelist Luisa Valenzuela (NYT). Valenzuela describes what Chavez means to her and to others in Argentina, where he staged a well-attended protest of Bush's visit to South America this past week. She describes the psychological effects of the economic crisis on Argentinians of a few years ago, and how that has bound the lower and middle classes together, to be open to each other, but also to be open to the rest of the continent -- acknowledging the common problems they face. Chavez' regionalist approach thus finds open ears in post-crisis Argentina. His aid - funded by Venezuela's abundant oil - is well-received there, too.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Should it be Arkansas' or Arkansas's? That is the question. (AP) (NPR)

The final possessive "s" is seen as necessary because of the current pronunciation of the state's name, and will be debated in the Arkansas state legislature.

"After Arkansas became a state, confusion remained on its spelling and its pronunciation, as many maps from the time spelled it without its final "s." A resolution by the Legislature in 1881 formalized its current spelling and pronunciation, making its final "s" silent."

I found this story originally on Language Log, the blog of UPenn phonetician, who has lots of cool items.

Monday, March 12, 2007

What happens when you read The Professor and the Madman simultaneously with Eats, Shoots & Leaves?

You start really wondering about whether St. Elizabeths, the mental hospital located in our nation's capital, is spelled with or without an apostrophe. This may seem a minor point, but the historical characters creating the Oxford English Dictionary around which "The Professor.." revolves would have cared about such a question, as surely Lynne Truss, the author of "Eats, Shoots...", does.

One of the two major characters of "The Professor..." knew the facility well. Dr. Minor, who contributed a great deal to the OED, stayed at St. Elizabeths during his final years, after spending 38 years at Broadmoor asylum in England.

Wikipedia spells it without an apostrophe. But Simon Winchester, the author of "The Professor...", uses the apostrophe in every instance. The D.C. Chief Technology Officer instructs webmasters to leave the apostrophe out.

From 1858 to 1910, the official name of the hospital was the Government Hospital for the Insane. Informally, however, it was called St. Elizabeths. Dorothea Dix, the mental health reformer who played a major role in establishing St. Elizabeths, spelled it without the apostrophe. But the name "St. Elizabeths" or "St. Elizabeth's" was informal, so it's probable that lots of people called it either/or during the period of 1858 to 1910. But when Dr. Minor, the contributor to the OED and subject of Winchester's book, stayed there, it was called "St. Elizabeths," unquestionably without an apostrophe because Congress had so named it in 1910. (How Public Organizations Work, "Archetypes in Organization," Judith Lombard, page 150)

In addition to Dr. Minor, John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate President Reagan stayed there, as did Ezra Pound following his "insane" support of the Mussolini regime during WWII. The hospital is named for St. Elizabeth of Hungary.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Venezuelan Ambassador Herrera to the United States spoke at American University tonight. Literature from the embassy littered the table at the event, and undergrads filled the seats. Herrera started right in getting to the controversial issues, pushing the government's contention that they had stopped a "media coup" from occurring, because the "media was taking the place of weak political parties." But when asked about what his response was to shutting down Radio Caracas TV and its meaning from freedom of the press in Venezuela, he said that in fact they were canceling nothing; -- the TV stations concession was expiring, that's all. Then he mentioned the large number of channels available. How many of them display self-censorship for fear of the same fate?

His biggest problem was in defending the recent vote in the legislature to give Chavez decree power in many respects. He says, the representatives were not really to be trusted, and that their "constitution goes beyond the classical liberal democracy," as if we were supposed to understand what that meant. I think it meant that the Venezuelans trust the people, the beneficiaries of the Chavez social agenda, but the representatives they could do without. He also hinted that the opposition had, at times, a "destabilizing agenda" which called for more restrictive measures.

On Iran, Herrera said that Venezuela "had to allow countries to develop themselves," and that if Iran has nuclear power then they should keep it, but not use it for weapons.

But at the same time, Venezuela has been offering subsidized gas to Katrina victims and the U.S.-Venezuelan trade relationship is robust. Venezuelan citizens are benefiting from the Bolsa Familia social program. These things are largely unsung in the media in the United States.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Washington Post article on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
On Thursday at Georgetown University, Valery Giscard d'Estaing called for a "Partnership of Values" in the Transatlantic Relationship. I honestly think we have that already -- what we don't have all the time is a partnership of the practice of those values. No one has a problem agreeing that we all support human rights, freedom of speech,'s about HOW we do it that causes disagreements. Empty platitudes sound good but unfortunately do nothing.

Giscard d'Estaing also reiterated his reasoning behind his stance against referenda for ratifying the European Constitution. While his argumentation is sound -- referenda are glorified plebecites on the political mood of the day -- it does little to solve the public relations dilemma of bringing a document -- old or cherry-picked -- to the French and Dutch parliaments while bypassing direct public input. The image this creates is that European elites didn't like what "the people" had to say, and so they will know to go around them in the future. Good luck, Margot Walstrom.

The ex-president also explained that it would be more difficult for Segolene Royal (rather than Sarkozy) to push the Constitution forward, because of the divisions in her own party. The rumor of the Sarkozy-Merkel pact to bring back the Constitution remains.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

On Wednesday night I went to see Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speak at SAIS. She is a former minister of Nigeria, and she was speaking on fighting corruption in Nigeria, which she was largely in charge of during her tenure as minister of foreign relations. I was glad to hear her push UNCAC, and to state that it was not just developing countries that exhibited corruption, although the audience was ignorant of the convention, and so I think it fell on deaf ears. She related that corruption was most endemic in Nigeria in public procurement and in the oil sector, and she dealt with both in her reforms there, including publish-what-you-pay schemes and cost schedules and certification for contracts with the government. Interestingly, she called lobbying a form of corruption, and decried the high cost of political campaigns in United States, which she said tarnished the image of American democracy. Upon asking her whether parliamentarians had come to her aid in passing and implementing her reforms, she said that it was difficult to find allies among them. The parliamentarians, she said, felt threatened by the reforms she was putting in place. Pretty sad.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

I thought that getting a laptop with a Windows Vista operating system would be a good idea. Wouldn't I be ahead of the changeovers that would be happening in the next few years? Even if Vista is not really a leap forward from XP, aren't I being smart?

In the midst of moving, I had not tried out my webcam on the new laptop. When I finally tested it the other day, it refused to work. Thinking it was broken, I called the manufacturor (DYNEX). After half an hour of troubleshooting with the rep, he determined that my camera was broken. He was also fully aware that I had Windows Vista.
Next step, I found my credit card statement showing that I had indeed purchased the camera within the time limit for the warranty. Best Buy didn't want to do the exchange, but I got on the phone with the manufacturer and after another half an hour, I had a new camera. When doing the exchange, I asked the store employee if the camera really worked with Vista. "I don't know," he said.
When I came home the camera didn't work - in the same manner that my first camera hadn't worked. So when I called the manufacturer asking if their cameras worked with Windows Vista, the answer was "no." I feel like an idiot, because I should have known that having Vista this early would cause all sorts of problems, and I should have spotted the problem yesterday morning, not yesterday evening after hours of telephone conversations and a trip to Best Buy.

Dynex won't tell me approximate dates for the release of the driver (one week? six months?), there is no telephone number to call to find out, and there is not even an email address to write to. All I got is an address to write to in Minnesota. BestBuy also can't tell me when the driver will be available, and they also can't identify even one webcam that works with Vista.

I feel like I'm having deja vu, and that this is what happens when me and hardware come together.

But seeing as how Creative is not releasing its Vista drivers until the end of 2007, so I am selling this Dynex camera.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Geert Wilders' party the PVV has begun protests against recently named ministers/staatssecretarissen Nebahat Albayrak and Aboutaleb's second passports. Albayrak has a Turkish passport, and Aboutaleb has a Moroccan. Albayrak could give up her Turkish citizenship, but Aboutaleb cannot, according to Moroccan law.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Being someone who lived and worked in New York City during September 11, 2001, thereafter I took quite seriously any bags without owners I happened to see. The European Parliament's security being notoriously lax (why should assistants or MEPs have to put their bags through the metal detector!? - what an outrage!), when I saw a large unattended bag inside the building I paused. I went up to my office to talk to my colleagues; should I notify guards, I asked them? They scoffed at my concern -- how could they be the targets of terrorism? Didn't everyone know that it was someone else who would be at risk? Suffice it to say, I returned downstairs, found a guard and showed him the bag. His response was to look at me with bewilderment. Why was I telling him about this bag?, he wondered. Finally it dawned on him that this bag was a security risk. "Yes, that is a problem, isn't it," he chuckled to me and hopefully went to go and get reinforcements. I didn't stick around to find out.

This report describes the new efforts at securing the European Parliament buildings, complete with revealing pictures of MEPS.

  • New Dutch cabinet under Jan Peter Balkenende sworn in by Queen Beatrix. The youth of some of the members is amazing: CDA Camiel Eurlings is minister at 34 years old, and PvdA Sharon Dijksma is a staatssecretaris at 36. Nebahat Albayrak, PvdA, (above) looks younger than her 39 years.

  • Bomb threat on Zaventem airport in Brussels, and it was briefly evacuated. Makes me think of the bomb threat questionnaire next to our desk so that we can write down everything a phoned in bomb threatener is saying.

  • Wimbledon finally decides to pay women the same award amounts as men.

Monday, February 19, 2007

There was an interesting review in the New York Times Book Review yesterday about a book entitled Overblown, by John Mueller. The book argues that the threat of terrorism has been overstated, and that likewise the response has been more about making money than about protecting Americans from real threats. Anatol Lieven is critical of his arguments, and thinks Mueller overlooks some burgeoning threats, like Europe's radicalized Muslims. But there is a chicken-egg aspect to his argument, as Lieven notes that Mueller admits that the lack of terrorist cells in the United States may be due to increased attention to the people we let into the country. I can see in the first chapter of the book that he compares the number of people dying from terrorism to people dying from more mundane - but nevertheless deadly -- activities. The problem is that without intervention from a variety of sources, the number of dead from terrorism would go up, whereas an awareness campaign probably won't do much to decrease the number of fatal hairdyers dropped into the bathtub every year. Furthermore, it is highly psychologized battle, unlike our battle with Katrina or other natural disasters; what we do to combat terrorists has direct effects on how, when, and where they attack.

You can read the first chapter of the book.
I haven't read this book (I'd like to!), but I can say right now that in order to overstate a problem you have to understand its real nature. And that in and of itself is an enormous task for governments all over the world -- to fully understand the level of threat coming from secretive organizations, cells, groups of people or individuals who would like to take those institutions off guard. It sounds cliched, but "better safe than sorry" is what we will hear an awful lot when we are talking about measures to protect people against new and misunderstood threats.
I'm almost finished with the book Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky, the unfinished collection of two novellas that were written contemporaneously with the historical events that formed the background for their action. (NYT review)

With so many books, I find myself skipping over descriptions of people and places because they are boring or cliched, but Nemirovsky's descriptions are very original and economical. The author uses her omniscent narration to good effect; arrogant characters also have their well-intentioned sides, while at the same time Nemirovsky enjoys poking fun at the hypocrisy of members of the middle and upper classes trying to cope with the disruptions of war. In the second half of the book, the calm atmosphere of the occupied French village reminds me of the order and rationality of Imre Kertesz' Fatelessness, the characters who win our admiration are not the heroic, principled ones, but those who focus their decisions and choices around the present day, around current circumstances. It's more principled to refuse to speak to the Germans in their midst, but it's the French women who relent and exchange pleasantries with the soldiers who are the happiest and most successful at continuing their lives instead of putting them on hold. In Fatelessness, there is no heroism, just getting through the day and rationalizing the world as it confronts you; that's how one survives.

The very subject of the book is less about survival than Fatelessness; the point is that the lives of the book's characters are seldom threatened. That brings a subtlety and a nuance to the choices they make that is usually absent from books about World War II. Somehow, this lack of contrast makes the book seem realistic, even though the Holocaust was all too real for those who suffered from it -- including the author of this book, who died at Auschwitz before completing the three subsequent novellas she had foreseen. This book, coupled with books like Fatelessness, contribute to a more complete picture of what Europe and Europeans experienced during World War II.
Just looking at the idea for another centerpiece exhibition in Rond Point Schuman in Brussels, which usually entice innocent pedestrians to attempt crossing this traffic nightmare and risk death or serious injury in the process. However, I think the idea is kind of cool; the noises from the circle will be translated into light colors and patterns. The installation will convert annoying sounds like honking, yelling drivers, and blaring police sirens into pleasant light pulses. I suppose the translators slaving away nearby would appreciate this metaphor for their work.

On the other hand, I empathize with its critics.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

I don't like winter anymore. While the boyfriend was enjoying brisk mornings on the slopes of Mont Romeu, and the sunny days of the Pyrenees where he drank the Trouillas wine to his heart's content, I suffered under falling ice in Washington, DC. And so I was happy 1) that our friend Gilles agreed with me about the Trouillas' Gouverneur Cotes de Roussillon, and 2) that he toasted to me on my absence.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

This past week, an agreement was hammered out between three Dutch parties to govern the country: PvdA, CDA and ChristenUnie are in the coalition. One of the more interesting psychological differences between the US, winner take all system, and the parliamentary, coalition system in countries in the Netherlands is that that victory feeling is largely absent from the Dutch system. A poll of PvdAers shows how the excitement is decidedly muted; Balkenende remains as prime minister, and the future will be full of compromise.
After watching Dick in a Box recently, I thought I would try to find that Chronic(what?)cles of Narnia video which is so wonderful. Nowhere to be found. Seriously. What is the story? the NBC video doesn't work and it's not on YouTube.

Would people know about that video if it weren't for the internet? I don't know many people who actually watch SNL on television anymore. The really good clips make it to the internet, and then, after they have sucked the internet dry, they take off again, leaving us with rednecks ranting about conspiracy theories into their home cameras, random Turkish shows about Kurdish terrorists and japanimation that amounts to sexual harassment. It makes me sad. Those videos create buzz for shows; especially since they are not show length. I wish they wouldn't systematically take them away.

Wikipedia explains how it was pulled, rereleased on the internet, and pulled again.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Unlike the rendition cases of Maher Arar and Khaled El Masri, the case of Zammar is more difficult. Maher Arar and Khaled El Masri were the victims of mistaken identity, whereas Zammar was very much a terrorist. There are few who would dare protest the torture he is undergone, which has been confirmed by Maher Arar, who was aware of his presence in a prison he stayed at in Syria. But MEP Cem Ozdemir is one person who has stood up and decried Zammar's torture.

It goes back to the old dilemma; if torturing someone meant that he would give you information that would save thousands of people from a terrorist attack, isn't it worth it? This assumes that torture elicits truth rather than fear. Or that it elicits something other than what U.S. servicemen are trained to offer up: tidbits that are confirmable and no big chunks of information so that they can stall their captors. Or that those who are being tortured have not been brainwashed to no longer care about death or death threats.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

More news on whether or not the U.S. foreign service has enough qualified volunteers to man Iraq's diplomatic posts. (NYT) The NYT reports that there are not enough older and mid-level people who want to go to Iraq in the foreign service, but that there are a bunch at the junior level who are offering their services. However, as we have heard from the yahoogroups and others, it is not advisable to go to Iraq on an early tour, because a junior level officer is not learning the basic skills that will serve them in the long run as they go through various embassies. Worst of all, Condi Rice has asked the arms of the military to fill in for those posts left empty by those missing mid- and upper-level diplomats in Iraq; military types are irate.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

These are the people we let fly millions-worth of equipment in space.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

So I watched the finale of Top Chef yesterday. I think that no one could have predicted that Marcel would be in the final two; he almost got kicked off numerous times for unsuccessful dishes. But Marcel is not as bad as all the other contestants make him out to be. He lacks social skills, sure, and he has a strange insecurity about him that the other contestants sniffed out and fed upon like playground bullies, but in the end Marcel doesn't mean anyone any real harm--he was always baffled that the other contestants despised him and sabotaged his dishes. I can't say the same for other contestants who made it their mission to slander Marcel every chance they got (Betty). In reverse, Betty's hatred of Marcel led her to fawn over other contestants like Ilan--it was sickening and immature. And Marcel changed a lot during the show. He gained more confidence, he became more open to the other contestants, and I think his cooking improved (or at least the judges liked his food better toward the final episodes).

Yesterday's NYT article about the show likened the cast assembly to a microcosm of a high school; the constant ganging up on Marcel proved that this was only too true.
Paul Wolfowitz has holes in his socks! He's just a regular guy like you and me! (AP)
Was it right that two guys who placed LED signs around Boston as part of a guerilla marketing scheme for a television show have been arrested?

And why were these guys targeted if this was a plan that went all the way to Turner Broadcasting Corporation and was created by a PR firm?

I don't blame Boston for its reaction to these devices, which were obviously part of a coordinated plan to send a message. Unfortunately, Boston thought the message was something more menacing than "watch our show."

The biggest problem is that there was no communication among the various component companies of Turner Broadcasting. News outlets at Turner continued to carry the story of "suspicious devices" around Boston despite the fact that their colleagues had in fact coordinated the stunt. I imagine that the people who placed these devices allowed the panic to continue for a while before explaining the stunt to authorities because of the chance for more publicity (which has definitely panned out). I don't think there's anything wrong with placing weird devices around, but maybe next time they should inform the police and their fellow news outlets.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

I was disappointed by the Washington Post's coverage of the recent nightclub shooting in Northwest Washington ("Hundreds Mourn Slain Teenager," January 27, 2007). Even on the same day as publishing a superb letter to the editor pointing out that we must go after the availability of guns if we really want to curb the fatalities from violent crime in this city ("Target Guns First"), the Post publishes another article that ignores gun control as the central issue in this case. Instead, the article ("Hundreds Mourn Slain Teenager") iterates calls for new regulation to "keep children safe," which indicates that the age of the victim is somehow the central issue here. On the contrary, the death of an adult in this case would be just as tragic, and it is the proliferation of guns that should be the focus of all efforts to prevent this kind of event in the future. Furthermore, discussions about whether music or alcohol had anything to do with the death of Taleshia Ford are untenable arguments; in fact, the person at the center of the shooting was deservedly kicked out of the club for smoking marijuana. Without the presence of the gun in the commission of this violent crime, Ms. Ford would probably still be with us.
After a U.S.-EU agreement last year, DHS can no longer automatically pull information on passengers making transatlantic trips, and it now has to ask the airlines for this information. Then, the other intelligence agencies who use the information need to get the info from DHS, rather than being fed the information through an automated system.

Now the issue on the EP agenda is the role of the Belgian organization SWIFT, which has given banking and other financial information about Europeans to the U.S. federal government. Are SWIFT's contributions to the U.S. Automated Targeting System (ATS) a breach of Europeans' privacy?

This is what will be discussed at the EP's miniplenary today. Sophie In't Veld (Dutch D66 member of EP) complains on BBC radio that the data could easily be used for purposes other than anti-terrorism (infectious diseases is on the list, for instance), and wants assurances that the data really is secure. Canada provides adequate legal protection for mistakes in its new PNR agreement with the EU, she says; so far, there are no such protections for Europeans in the U.S. Sophie says that the U.S. has stronger privacy laws than the EU, thus the EP's requests are actually of a limited nature in comparison.

Timothy Kirkhope (UK, Conservative) has said that the EP's position of trying to limit the amount of information shared with the U.S. risks obstructing U.S. access to important pieces of information that could prevent and fight terrorism.
I must now plug Budova Holland, a great renovation company in Eindhoven, Netherlands, whose website is just fabulous (well, I'm biased cause I made it). You can see pictures of the work that the company has done; pictures of carpentry and construction, tilesetting, bathrooms, stonework, and projects abroad (mostly in France) are all available and are updated with new pictures often.

This website was made on a mac with the ".mac" system. The system is made for people who want to have a nice-looking website that is easy to update and that can integrate media from the rest of your computer without "importation" or manual uploading. If you look at enough websites, you'll see that this website is simply a mac template. Updating the site is very easy -- there is no file transfer protocol (ftp) program needed because the subscription to .mac allows you to update changes on the website directly through the website editor software. This software also connects easily with iTunes and iPhoto so that you can drag your pictures or music directly onto the templates.

Of course, this software would never be used to make a high-end, unique website, but it serves the purpose for a small business owner who wants to have a good-looking and easy-to-update website.

This doesn't mean I am a mac fanatic, however. Having a mac, one can run into difficulties. Last summer, my boyfriend and I were in Poland, about an hour outside Warsaw. All attempts to connect his brand new Macbook Pro were futile; neither dial-up nor receiving internet through our cell phones worked, despite long conversations with Orange communications reps in the nearest town. And no other short term internet options were available, so we were forced to live without internet (horrors!) for a while. I am sure that with a non-mac computer, we would have been able to connect just fine.
13 CIA agents have been targeted in German warrants in connection with the rendition of German citizen Khaled el Masri from Macedonia on to Afghanistan and then back to Albania once it was realized that he was not the Khaled el Masri they were looking for (NYT).

Plane records have established connections between the Americans who stayed in a hotel in Mallorca and the rendition of el Masri. The names of these 13 people are probably fake, and this warrant will probably function as a political commentary about extraordinary rendition rather than as a tool to place these Americans on trial.

Angela Merkel has told the press that Condoleezza Rice apologized to her about the mistaken rendition of el Masri, as he was not the terrorist suspect the U.S. was looking for. Rice has denied making any apology about the case.