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.