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.