Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Saturday, January 29, 2005
You Get All Dressed Up And Then Two Gaijin Steal Your Booth

We spent a large amount of time today wishing we had more money, more space, and fewer quibbles about spending oodles of cash on ridiculous things. Really, it was the high exchange rate that saved my suitcase from being stuffed with impulse buys like Goth-chick-meets-Geisha-girl-in-a-hitched-up=poodle-skirt-dress, green-lensed sunglasses shaped like hearts, or a skull ring. (Skulls are very in with youn Tokyo fashionistas, it seems. But Japanese people don't seem to be very big on earrings, so I couldn't find the pair of skull earrings I've been looking for for a while now. Arrrr!) We were in Harajuku, which is like a garment district on acid. Perhaps because it was a Saturday, most of the truly eye-popping fashions were on the racks, and fewer were on the shoppers. Also, it was difficult to even stand still, the crowds were so dense, so I got very few pictures of all the madness.

At one point we wandered into some kind of arcade store with a sign that said "girls only!" and milled about with the junior-high age gigglers, trying to figure out what was going on. We ducked into one of the hot-pinkcurtain-covered booths and saw a consol displaying two photos of Japanese schoolgirls in rather oddly, very mildly, suggestive poses. There was some kind of control mechanism, and with a little experimentation we saw that by tapping the photos they got covered in hearts, lightning strikes, kanji characters, different frames, all kinds of girly graphic elements. We were absorbed in figuring out what the hell we were supposed to do , and why. Was it a game? Would something be printed out? All of a sudden two squealing girls burst in on us. And wow, if they didn't look familiar! They were the girls in the photo, and I guess it was their photo, and they had left for a minute, and we had taken their booth. They kept squealing and pointing at us, and we simply got up and ran.
Friday, January 28, 2005
Inside The Buddha

I can't wait to blog my pictures when I get home. It's just a bit too tricky for me to do it from Japan, but this trip has been a great stimulator of my shutter-finger. The Japanese are so photography-happy that I rarely feel bad or self-concious snapping away at people and things. I'm still getting used to my camera, though, and it's frustrating not to quite know all its powers. I think one of the pictures I wish I could have had bigger camera for is the inside of a Giant Buddha's skull. That's right, I was taking pictures of the inside of a Giant Buddha. Here's a substitute account, including a photo centered on what I'm thinking is the inside of the Buddha's chest: but I'd have to disagree with the caption--it's not scary in there at all. Maybe it's because I was surrounded by bouncy school children and chuckling senior citizens, but I found the inside to be quite delightful, inspiring an almost romantic ebullience. One minute you're outside in the open, and its serene and everyone is well-behaved, and then the next minute you're inside a bronze cave with light and shadows and shallow echoes, and everyone is giggly. There ought to be a little joy inside of enlightenment, right?

The whole day, in fact, was quite delightful. If I ever become a wealthy novelist, I could totally see myself taking a writer's vacation and just hanging out in Kamakura for a few weeks---going on leisurely hikes and studying the fantastical gardens in slow detail. It's clearly a tourist attraction, but a Japanese tourist attraction--Michelle and I saw no more two or three other westerners all day. (I've neglected to mention that the "we" of previous posts is me and my college amiga, Harvard physics student Michelle Cyrier, who is on her way to China for an extended string theory collaboration. When I get back you'll see her in some of the photos.) Rather like the bay area in climate, the town is full of neat and narrow lanes---pretty angled houses nestled in between hilly groves of bamboo and cypress, and ancient temples. From the Daibutsu to the biggest wooden Buddhist scultpure in Japan to its oldest Zen monastery to an impromptu hike up the monastery's mini mountain, today provided a nice counterpoint to Tokyo's urban density. I was particularly charmed by the sight of hundreds of schoolboys running up the monastery lanes and about a third of the way up the mountain, and back, chattering at each other as they panted and raced past Zen monks, all decked out in baseball uniforms. I wonder if I would have been inspired to take my 7th grade weekly mile-run more seriously in such an ancient setting. I wonder if they'd find the rose gardens of Pasadena an equally exotic setting for P.E.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005
Most Expensive Bowl of Ramen I Hope I'll Ever Have

Spent most of today in Ueno, mostly at the Tokyo National Museum. A little overwhelmed with all the art work there, and realizing that I really need to learn more about the details ofJapanese history. My 7th grade timeline didn't provide quite enough context to appreciate all the subtle evolutions in silks, lacquerware and most dazzling of all--swords, both Tachi and Katana. An 11th century sword that's still so sharp the reflections off its edge blind my camera deserves more careful study.

On my way to the train station I was suddenly starving. I saw a restaurant by the concourse that said "forms in English available, please feel free to come inside!" which was pretty encouraging. But inside all I saw was a vending machine. A little disappointed, I lit up when I saw that the options on the vending machine included a bowl of place rice for 150 yen. Put my money in and out came at a ticket. Okay, I thought, maybe I redeem that somplace further in. Walking through a narrow corridor I saw an almost as narrow room, with a bunch of people seated at a bar--each person facing into their own little cubicle. Away from me, towards the inside wall, it was mostly men, but right next to the door sat a young woman. She saw me standing there, confused, and waved me in to sit at the little cubicle next to her. There I was worried to see that between me and the other side of the counter was a red curtain that hung so as to perfectly obscure my face. She pressed a red button in the counter in front of me somebody walked up--I could only see their chest and arms--and started talking to me in Japanese. I said Wakarimasen about four times before the girl stuck her head in my booth and said something rapidly in Japanese--I definitely caught the word gaijin--and I could hear a bit of commotion on the other side. Finall a guy came up who kneeled a bit so I could see his face and with some difficulty told me that I would have to pay 750 yen for Ramen, as the rice ticket I just bought was only a side dish. He assured me the ramen would be vegetarian ("no meat?no fish?" "no meat! no fish!") and I was too chagrined to refuse. After a faceless hand slid me a bowl of ramen and small bowl of rice, a bamboo curtain slid down and covered what small view I had had of the kitchen behind the bar. I was perfectly isolated--wooden cubicle walls on either side, curtain and bamboo curtain in front, my own little tap of water on the side. I guess in such a crowded city, people appreciate the chance to be in their own little world. Nine odd dollars, however, is more than I am willing to habitually pay for a bowl of Ramen.
Dinner at Denny's

I dropped by Sudoidibashi to take some pictures of the Tokyo Dome and its accoutrements, and on the way back I stopped at the Denny's there to get dinner---the fact that the menu was partially in English and that it was next to a hotel greatly helped with the whole vegetarian there. As I was waiting for my non-smoking seat (how is it that in a nation health concious enough not to be self concious about wearing masks so many people smoke so much in so many places) a woman in clothing much unconventional than most Japanese women I'd seen sat down next to me. She had the most amazing blue pants, embroiders throughout in a crazy pattern of thick white thread, with a matching vest, a turtle necklace, and a lacy yarn shawl. I complimented her on her pants, and she told me, with great difficulty, that the embroidery style is a traditional Japanese handicraft called Sashiko and that she made them herself. We ended up eating together, whereby I found out that she, Junko Maeda, is a textile artist whose work has been displayed in New York and Seattle. She was in town for a quilt conference. The conversation was very rickety but very smiley, bits of English and guidebook Japanese held together with help from the waiter and many laughing Wakarimasens. It was a good dinner.
Dinner at Denny's

I dropped by Sudoidibashi to take some pictures of the Tokyo Dome and its accoutrements, and on the way back I stopped at the Denny's there to get dinner---the fact that the menu was partially in English and that it was next to a hotel greatly helped with the whole vegetarian there. As I was waiting for my non-smoking seat (how is it that in a nation health concious enough not to be self concious about wearing masks so many people smoke so much in so many places) a woman in clothing much unconventional than most Japanese women I'd seen sat down next to me. She had the most amazing blue pants, embroiders throughout in a crazy pattern of thick white thread, with a matching vest, a turtle necklace, and a lacy yarn shawl. I complimented her on her pants, and she told me, with great difficulty, that the embroidery style is a traditional Japanese handicraft called Sashiko and that she made them herself. We ended up eating together, whereby I found out that she, Junko Maeda, is a textile artist whose work has been displayed in New York and Seattle. She was in town for a quilt conference. The conversation was very rickety but very smiley, bits of English and guidebook Japanese held together with help from the waiter and many laughing Wakarimasens. It was a good dinner.

We spent a long time in the Ginza district, partially because we got there a bit too late to see the famous Tsukiji fish market but too early to do anything else but walk around until everything else opened. I get the feeling it's a bit of a tourist trap, but not quite on the Times Square scale of such things. So I was perfectly happy to take in what Bansai and Kimonos I saw. A miniature orange tree on the sidewalk that we marvelled over one hour was sold within the next. Spent quite a while in the Yamaha music store--don't think I've ever seen quite so much space and equipment and text devoted to the production of music. Spent another long while in the Sony building. So many beautiful toys there!

At the Ginza train station a young man carrying a banner was shouting into a bullhorn while a woman next to him waved a sign in the air. I thought perhaps it was a protest. Far from it. As I got closer I saw that her sign was for the Japanese Red Cross and the banner was a list of blood types they were recruiting donors for--the sign was mostly in Japanese but the characters "O!!" were pretty clear. Around the corner were more recruiters, a tent and a Red Cross Bus. They all seemed pretty full. I thought that was kind of cool. A pity that they, like us, have to recruit so hard, of course, but certainly a worthy thing to be shouting about. I wonder what the Japanese restrictions on blood donation are like.

At lunch time I caused quite a stir by trying out a small bit of Japanese. "Watashi wa bejeterian desu," provoked stressed out looks and emphatic gestures to stick to dessert. I didn't mind having sweets for lunch, but one young cashier, Tokuya-san, spoke quite a bit of English and asked me what my exact dietary specifications were. As I was finishing my blueberry pastry, he walked up and asked if I perhaps wanted to try a thing of rice wrapped in seaweed and some miso soup--he had checked with the chef, and there was no fish in that. I thought that was particularly considerate of him, and enjoyed the rest of my lunch, in perfectly reverse order.

I think we also went to the Akhibara Electric Town, but honestly, I'm not sure. After that we were trying to get to a shrine, and at some point we asked someone for directions and found out we were completely in another place than we thought we were. In fact, we were somewhere where people were terribly desirous ofhelping us but had very little English or none at all. Repeated attempts to say "Wakarimasen" (I don't understand?) didn't seem to get across--we experienced the "If I speak very slowly and loudly you will eventually understand me" syndrome, which was amusing. I can't help but try and parse out the patterns in the words I common suffixes. . .bashi for some kind of place name, dori at the end of a lot of road names. I also have to wonder what Tsuki means, since it's in the name of the Tsukiji stations and sounds exactly like the word tsuki that my Aikido instructors use to indicate a forward strike with a weapon.

But we did an awful lot of electronics, including a Saheli-sized refrigerator. Hopefully tomorrow will go a little more according to plan.
Tuesday, January 25, 2005

I'm in Japan! Clock running out on the hostel internet connection. Managing the keyboard is a bit tricky. Was pleasantly surprised that the "subway" was more like BART, so the ride from the airport to central Tokyo was mostly above ground, and I got a view. The two things that struck me as really, really different: 1. every residential area I could see from the train had laundry hanging outside the houses and 2. Every now and then you see someone wearing a face mask. Not sure what that's about. Pretty impressed with my view and with what bit of Tokyo I've walked around. Already met an Iranian student and some Australians.

P.S. Please feel free to talk amongs yourselves! I can't really reply to comments while I'm here.
Monday, January 24, 2005

I'm going on vacation to Japan in a few hours, and may not be able to blog from there. I'll try, though! I'll be back by February.
Sunday, January 23, 2005
Spies, Iran, Leaking, and Oversight

Climateboy, Kevin Drum, and many others are loudly discussing Seymour Hersh's latest offering in the January 24/31 issue of the New Yorker.

It's pretty classic Hersh. Titanic journalist with the best black book in the business gets a number of anonymous sources to reveal some aspect of American military practice that the government would rather prefer be kept secret, and to which the public might rather object. At this point the journalist is so titanic and this is such a standard event that the public outcry is as likely to be about the article itself as it is about the contents.

Except I'm not sure what public outcry is exactly, anymore. More on that later. Building on Drum's summary, here are the main points as I see them:

1) Apparently, we have a covert military presence in Iran, probably fielded from the eastern border with Afghanistan, but potentially fielded from the western border with Iraq. This covert military presence is currently doing reconnaissance, but it may be preparing for covert operations against Iranian targets, such as nuclear energy and weaponry facilities. This aspect is the first focus of the BBC summary of the article noted by Climateboy.

2) These covert operations are somehow new in character from previous operations--they are not part of the CIA, and apparently are not even in coordination with the regional Military commander-in-chiefs. Instead they are somehow under the direct control of Secretary Rumsfeld, and are able to work with much greater freedom from previously mandated restrictions engineered around the CIA, and with much greater freedom from congressional oversight. As far as I can tell, this morning's Washington Post leading article is a follow up on Hersh's story, and the Post's Barton Gellman has documents and interviews describing the creation of a Strategic Support Branch. "A recurring phrase in internal Pentagon documents is the requirement for a human intelligence branch "directly responsive to tasking from SecDef," or Rumsfeld. . .Under Title 50, all departments of the executive branch are obliged to keep Congress "fully and currently informed of all intelligence activities." The law exempts "traditional . . . military activities" and their "routine support." Advisers said Rumsfeld, after requesting a fresh legal review by the Pentagon's general counsel, interprets "traditional" and "routine" more expansively than his predecessors. "

3) The changing nature of these operations in Iran--the kind of work they're doing and the kind of plans they're making--are all indicative that a deeply aggressive Iran policy is being implemented by this administration. The administration seems unwilling to help out the Europeans in their negotiations with Iran. Writes Hersh: "The government consultant told me that the hawks in the Pentagon, in private discussions, have been urging a limited attack on Iran because they believe it could lead to a toppling of the religious leadership." I can believe that this attitude has some currency in the Pentagon. When we visited the Pentagon last spring a "senior administration official" who addressed my class strongly implied that Westerners hoping for systemic change in Iran (via Khatami) are naive, and that the real possibility of change will come from a new revolution--one that the United States might help precipitate. This is also the secondary focus of the BBC summary.

4) In various ways these covert operations revolve around cooperating with other countries whose agendas are not necessarilty strongly aligned with ours (in this case Pakistan&Israel--who knew we'd have those two in the same breath!) and attempting to use "indigenous" agents to actually do some of the dirty work. In exchange for not humiliating A.Q. Khan we are apparently getting cooperation from Pakistan's military. Willing to help us possibly take out Iranian nuclear sites might be some eager and able Israeli commandos. The question is who is doing exactly what. Hersh quotes his main source, a "former high-level intelligence official":
"Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?" the former high-level intelligence official asked me, referring to the military-led gangs that committed atrocities in the early nineteen-eighties. We founded them and we financed then," he said."The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren't going to tell Congress about it."
In the Washington Post, Gellman writes, "A recent Pentagon memo states that recruited agents may include "notorious figures" whose links to the U.S. government would be embarrassing if disclosed."

5) The Meta-Issue: why is it that all of our really trenchant national security discussions have to be built on things like Seymour Hersh's anonymous black book? What are the ethics of leaking? What does it mean to have a public outcry? We have to keep secrets from our enemies. But it's quite possible the Iranians know more about these operations than we do. At some level such big military secrets are based on the idea that the public (the Republic!) doesn't know what's good for it. At some technical level that's true. The Republic as a whole is not capable of building and protecting a nuclear bomb. But at a policy level that violates the very ideal of the Republic, the very ideal that all these cloaks and daggers are ostensibly trying to defend. The thing that worries me about all this is not so much that these covert operations are happening--thought that might be worrisome--but that they are happening with almost no oversight--and with a strongly articulated contempt for oversight.

Check out Hersh's article and the Washington Post article if you can. I'll try to share my reflections and linkage findings soon.

It's National Pie Day, according to the American Pie Council. I thought I'd take this opportunity to link to Weebl and Bob: specifically, Pie, Shoes, and Art, all courtesy of Eric. But they're all about Pie. Mmm. Pie.

Speaking of Pie, I've been rather impressed by some ads I've seen around town and on BART: a campaign for Project Open Hand, a San Francisco based non-profit that feeds the homebound and critically ill. They're fairly simple ads, along the lines of, "give someone a hand, bring them spaghetti," but I can't find a link. Don't know what it is about them, but they're striking and made me think about the issue. I plan on checking the group out more thoroughly in a couple of weeks.
Saturday, January 22, 2005
With My Carrot And My Celery!

I got this link from Dave Barry. They make flutes. Out of carrots. And they sound pretty good. Check out the tarantella out of pure carrot flutes. That there is some pure beta carotene vibrational goodness. But even if you don't like flute music, check out their page. If the pictures don't make you smile, you might have gotten a hobgoblin splinter of glass in your heart--get it fixed before the Snow Queen kidnaps you and turns you blue with cold.

It reminded of one of the greatest songs of all time, one of my top ten favorite Sesame Street numbers. Yes, that's right, the magnificent Captain Vegetable. It doesn't get better than rabbit superheroes.

Friday, January 21, 2005
Watch Out--It's Sponge Bob Square Pants!--And He Wants You to Tolerate!!!

I guess it had to happen sometime. Jill Seargent of Reuters reports that conservative Christian groups, the American Family Association and Focus on the Family, have released statements objecting to the children's cartoon, Sponge Bob Squarepants because they think a video the character appears in takes the promotion of tolerance too far.
"Their inclusion of the reference to 'sexual identity" within their 'tolerance pledge' is not only unnecessary but it crosses a moral line," Dr James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, said in a statement on Thursday.
Hear that? A Moral line! Not only is it wrong to grant gays equal rights, it's morally wrong to even ask people to simply tolerate them.

What provoked this particular outburst, it seems, is this: Sponge Bob, along with a 100 other beloved characters of children's television, is in a cartoon music video of the hit song "We Are Family" that is being shipped to U.S. schools in March. The mission of the video, and the We Are Family Foundation, is to "promote our common humanity" in a post 9-11 world. Clearly, a dangerous, dangerous mission.

It's interesting that, unlike the 1999 Falwell-inspired outcry against Tinky Winky the lavender Teletubby, people are not objecting to the fact that SpongeBob might be interpretted as being vaugely gay. SpongeBog has a high pitched voice and he's always happy, but the creator has firmly stated that he considers all the characters to be appropriately asexual. Instead, people are objecting to the promotion of coexistence, tolerance, & harmony.

Despite their seemingly broad name, the American Family Association's website is pretty much devoted to objecting when their views are not allowed on campuses and when opposing views are allowed on campuses. The only remotely positive item I could find on their front page was an exhortation for sound investment based on the idea that one's money is not one's own but belongs to God. Focus on the Family seems a little more sincere, with wide array of topics, a pitch for Tsunami-relief donations, and articles on dealing with grief. But their bristly anti-Homosexual activism is pretty apparent if you just dig. Weirdly, they appear to be blaming a hypothetical teenager's realization that he's gay on the fact that his fellow school children made fun of him and called him queer. So somehow all this gay bashing is supposed to fix that cycle? Your psuedoscience alarm bells should start ringing when you read things like, " Let’s face it: science is meant to be fact . . . not theory." Some of the outgoing links go to sites trumpetting the fact that completion of Human Genome Project did not find a gay gene, not informing readers that most genes haven't been characterized yet. I would like to know how Hollywood is to blame for gay geese.

I was never too crazy about Sponge Bob Square Pants, because, frankly, he reminds me of housework. I watched one episode with a young friend not so long ago, however, and found it pretty adorable--the power of imagination transforming a simple cardboard box into every kind of possible adventure, from piracy to space travel. I think I'll try to be a little more supportive of the program now.

Only tangentially related, Scott points out that Dilbert now has a gay character.

Thursday, January 20, 2005
Virtual Panoramas

Virtual Panoramas, or immersive photography, has been around for a while. The idea is to take many pictures from a single point, rotating the camera around, so that all the pictures add up to cover 360 degrees worth of view. You could take the pictures and mount them onto the inside of a cylinder, or a cylindrical room, so that once inside the cylinder you could turn around and see the view on all sides. Online, you can view these panoramas by "turning around" with your mouse, these days usually in Quicktime. I recall seeing some version of these online as early as 1995 or 1996 on some kind Berkeley campus tour site, but hadn't really given them much thought since. Yesterday I met Don Bains, one of the web pioneers of this artform, and thereby discovered some really lovely sites displaying virtual panoramas from around the world.

Apparently, the repository of geographical images at is one of the oldest websites around, created in large part by the Geography department's Don Bains. In 1995 he added some panoramas of the campus to it--probably the very panoramas I checked out as a teenager. Bains now maintains his own collection of virtual panoramas, mostly of North America, at VirtualGuidebooks.Com , but Geoimages now hosts the World Wide Panoramas project. Around the solstices (days surrounding June 21 and Dec 21, longest and shortest days of the year depending on your hemisphere) and equinoxes (March 21 and September 21, days when pretty much every place on earth experiences the same amount of daytime), immersive image photographers around the world pick sites to follow a theme, preserving a small slice of global life to document. Last June was World Heritage, September was Bridges, and December was Sanctuary.

A varied sampler of recommendations from the Sanctuary set: Mt. St. Albans, Washington, DC; the Gandhi Samadhi in India; Clutter's Cave in Worcestershire, England; Marabou's Hut in Gambia.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005
Graffiti Archaeology

This is possibly old news to many readers, but it's new to me, and still pretty cool. I recently found this cool, visual website: Graffiti Archaeology. This flash-intensive website hosts an interactive, timelapse display of layers and years of graffiti at 5 San Francisco sites. It's a fascinating way to look at slices in time--photographs taken over the course of 6 years, documenting a kind of urban evolution. What I think is particularly cool is that the constituent photographs are the work of 11 different people who did not set out to collaborate with each other or produce this final project. Yet it still comes together quite nicely. Check it out--it's quite pretty and fun.
Cal Firefighting

Today I heard about a neat project that's going on at the Mechanical Engineering Department at Berkeley: FIRE, Fire Information & Rescue Equipment. Apparently Berkeley engineers have been working on some kind of wireless sensor networking technology for a while--creating potentially tiny packages of physical sensors (for things like temperature, smoke, etc.), small processing computers, and transmitters. It's not clear to me how small these nodes are now, but apparently they're at least as small as a hand. The engineers seem to be envisioning them shrinking to possibly being smaller than pennies. As they shrank, they'd also get more energy efficient and cost efficient.

The idea behind FIRE is to take the kind of vital information one could gather about a building with a network of such sensors, and during an emergency process it, analyze it, and distribute it. During a fire, say, the system will quickly send the resulting conclusions to firefighters rushing in to rescue the inhabitants, using a small visual display mounted on the inside of their helmets. Communications issues are an enduring problem for first responders, even after 9/11. FIRE seems particularly interesting to me because it is attacking three very different parts of the problem: the physical detection and gathering of information, the communication of that information to firefighters, and an electronic implementation of the NFPA Incident Command Systems to coordinate the responders. All three aspects seem to be being built in parallel, side by side. Just as the partial aim of FIRE is to use information technology to better coordinate the rather urgent collaboration of firefighters, I wonder to what extent engineers can use information technology to coordinate their own collaborations. Designing important systems holistically from the beginning seems like a possibly very useful way to approach engineering.
Monday, January 17, 2005
Yuck, yuck, and more yuck

I am extremely angry right now. While looking online for some links and sources to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I found that the fifth site on Google, and the most official looking one, is a site hating on Dr. King. What the hell? Who gave these neanderthals access to the internet? Honestly, I can't say I have the skills or knowledge to debunk their charges of plagiarism on the Reverend's part, though I kinda feel that even if everything they say is true, that doesn't really diminish his great accomplishments or contributions to American soceity. Most of their other charges are the kind of blatantly irrelevant, almost classic nonsense use to tar any kind of leader. If there were any doubts about their motives, the webmasters prominently offer up a really disgusting article by David Duke that skillfully blends anti-Semitism, Red-Baiting, and every kind of racisim and anti-Intellectualism you can think of.

The reason why this pisses me off so much is that I can only guess that thousands of school-children across the country sat down at their computer last week, or will sit down at their computer this week, to put together a report on Dr. King. And it might have been very tempting to avoid the onerous looking .edu sites, and check out what seems like a promising url, especially with this kind of description: The truth about Martin Luther King: Includes historical trivia, articles and pictures. A valuable resource for teachers and students alike. I know that American school children are increasingly dependant on the internet, and I also know that there are great concerns that they haven't yet learned to discern good sources from bad sources. I can believe that, since often even adults can't. Aw geez. How many impressionable young minds just lost out on a great opportunity to be inspired and educated, to appreciate the value of nonviolence and civil-rights and righteous struggle, and instead got an eyeful of smut? ARGH. This is particularly upsetting because, as far as I can tell, looks like the website of the official organization dedicated to memorializing Dr. King, and founded by his widow Coretta Scott King--is totally out of commission today. So all those clicking school children are going to go right past it to the piece of garbage site. And I can't even give the King Center a donation to help them get their server back up, if that's the issue! I've called The King Center, and am hoping to hear back from them soon about this. When I do, hopefully we can all help them get their website back up.

In the meantime I can't decide what would be best. Google bomb the garbage site with phrases like "pack of lies?" That wouldn't really help this problem, and I don't feel like gifting them with even that kind of link. I guess the most productive thing is to try and link to other good sites that are currently below the garbage site. Here goes: Martin Luther King Jr. (Long Island University's A Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). Martin Luther King Jr. (Day of Service Organization: "Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.") Martin Luther King Jr. (Nobel Prize Biography.) Any other suggestions? If you have a blog or a website, please consider posting similar links. Thanks!

Screenshot of Google's Search Results for ["martin luther king jr."] around 1 p.m, PST, Jan. 17, 2005. (Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2005)
Saturday, January 15, 2005
Good things about 2005

It brings us further and further away from Nov. 17, 1978, when CBS aired the Star Wars Holiday Special.

If the blog seems a little, uh, not good for the next few days, it's because I incurred some brain damage last night. For reasons I can no longer remember, I allowed myself to watch this monstrosity for the longest two hours I've ever experienced. It was a DVD of an early home VCR recording, and the best part was by far the terrible, terrible commercials.

Veritably the last stand of American manufacturing, they gave us a chorus of singing International Ladies Garment Workers Union singers, a comparison of American Bald Eagles and Whirlpool machines, and notably unintegrated GM and Ford unionists. An elderly woman in a rocking chair seemed to exult in, and then demonstrate, the strength of her apparently dead husband's immense Fruit of the Loom briefs, while men dressed as grapes and bananas fawned on her. A priceless newsbreak informed viewers that Brezhnev had announced the testing of a Soviet neutron bomb, and the conviction of former CIA employee William Kampiles for espionage and selling secrets to the Russians.

This was all infinitely preferable to Wookie porn, Wookie gameboys, Wookie/Art Carney-in-Drag cooking shows, and much, much worse. You can read a Salon essay describing the Holiday special here.

Quote from a fellow audience member: I can't believe this was the world my parents chose to bring me into.

The experience has given me a greater appreciation of pretty much every other piece of moving image I have ever seen, and ever will see. Who knew that so many people had so much cinematic talent? Like the Count of Monte Cristo, I did not fully appreciate the joys of film until I had plunged into its deepest nadir. For everything I see after this, I can be at least a little grateful.

UPDATE: SKot Kirkword has an inexplicably thorough and fond website devoted to the "Special" here.
Friday, January 14, 2005
Blogroll: IndiaUncut

A small reward I've gotten from blogging about the Tsunami and relief efforts has been an increased awareness of bloggers and websites who are focused on development, sustainability, and South & South East Asia. Therefore, I've made quite a few additions to the blogroll in the last few days, and I'm going to try and point some of them out over the next few days.

Right after the Tsunami, Amit Varma of IndiaUncut send me some encouraging email, which was particularly generous of him considering that he was busy preparing for an extended visit to the affected areas. His despatches and reflections are collected here. Of the despatches I particularly recommend No. 31, No Knives, Some Payment and No. 43: Love Story by the River, but they're all interesting. I think they're excellent examples of the kind of relaxed, immediate first-person writing bloggers really excel at. From No. 31:
“After the initial phase of relief, we put a price on the medicines we give out. I have noticed, in the past, that when we give medicines for free, people are reluctant to accept them, thinking ‘ if it is free, it cannot be good’. But if we put a value on it, any value, they are willing to accept it. So some days after the initial emergency phase, we start selling medicines at one rupee. They may cost Rs 100, but the people don’t view it as charity, and place some value on it. Later, we may start selling medicines for two rupees. People start valuing it even more, and buy even more.”
A more reflective post "9 lessons learned" post, uptop, is a great summary. His nine items, nicely discussed, are: 1) Do a census 2) Enumerate belongings 3) Build a local emergency warning system 4) Conduct disaster drills 5) Constitute a central relief authority for each district 6) Six – Organise a rating system for NGOs 7) Assess relief needs, and prepare accordingly 8) Stick to regulations 9) Fight poverty. 1&2&7 reminded me of William the Conqueror's Domesday book--inventory having been England's first big step from Dark Ages Semi-Wilderness to Great Nation. 3&4 reminded me of the amazing story at the Digital Divide Network about a Telecenter warning saving an entire village. 6 calls to mind discussions on this blog about the need for better reporting and analysis of the non-profit sector, and 9 always bears repeating.

Some might consider Varma to be opininionated and impassioned. While you may not always agree with him, I think you'll definitely find his writing interesting. Funny recent post about the changing use of the word "Marxism": So perhaps what Bhattacharjee is really saying is: “Marxism the belief system is dead. Long live Marxism the brand.”. Varma's running for some kind of Indibloggies award. I just wish he'd add comments or trackback!
Thursday, January 13, 2005
Ipod 1

For some reason I never got into the idea of Ipods. I mean, besides the fact that I would feel mildly ludicrous for spending that kind of dough on an MP3 player when I still haven't actually converted even 10% of my music collection to MP3s, and the fact I probably don't even own 40 gigs worth of music, the Ipod is just not really a toy I could lust after even in the extreme abstract. This despite friends relentlessly pushing it, and my favorite blogger Neil Gaiman's constant mentions. There was just something that bugged me about them. Something about the styling. The marketing. The shape. Something. . .something.

Maybe I was psychic, and knew it would be one more thing to have to have in common with the Shrub. I have to say, if his playlist looks anything like Wonkette thinks it does, he's both smarter and more evil than people think he is.

Hattip: Robert Stribley.
Wednesday, January 12, 2005
Cool, Kinda

A few days ago Slate's Fred Kaplan asked readers to nominate their choices for Secretary of Homeland Security. Despite my usually scathing comments about DHS, I kinda actually think it's a fundamentally good idea that could, in the right hands and with the right support, do a lot of good for the country. It's just that the chances of those circumstances materializing in this administration are rather low.

So I made a serious nomination, one based on Kaplan's premise: DHS does not need a political star or law enforcement agent, it needs a manager. But unlike a lot of people, I think there are plenty of non business organizations that have good, effective managers. The mission in government, unlike business, is not to save costs and increase profit. The mission in government is to use funds efficiently to accomplish specific goals. So non profit might actually be a better place to look, and while Kaplan, naturally, didn't actually credit me, he did mention my nominee: Several intriguing candidates received one or two votes: Marsha Johnson Evans, a retired Navy admiral and the head of the American Red Cross; Carly Fiorina, chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard; Lou Gerstner,* former CEO and chairman of IBM; Jamie Dimon, president of JPMorgan Chase; and Ken Feinberg, former head of the 9/11 Victims' Compensation Fund. Emphases mine--Marsha Evans, of course, was my pick. I have to say, I'd even go with the Jack Welch nomination that was most popular.

All for naught--the president has chosen Michael Chertoff, U.S. Appeals Court Judge (presumably a Bush pick picks) who previously was an Assistant Attorney General under Ashcroft. Let's see how he works out--I'll try to be hopeful.
Actually Cool

Two nice links from Robin Sloan at Snarkmarket: baby hippo picture, and a review of the best boardgames of 2004. I agree with Robin that Hansa sounds Ubercool, but other, more silly sounding ones, I want to try are Cranium Hoopla and Loco: Maybe what you really want is a game with just one rule. Ladies and gentleman, I give you Loco. Play a card (valued zero to five in one of five colors) onto the discard pile for that suit, then take any poker chip (of the same five colors) from the table—that’s all you do on a turn. When the game ends about 10 minutes later, each chip a player owns is worth the value of the card on the top of that color’s discard pile. Even though you can explain all the rules for Loco in a single lungful of air, it’s massively fun and unaccountably addictive.
Tuesday, January 11, 2005

By Spencer Hsu in today's Washingtonpost:
D.C. officials said yesterday that the Bush administration is refusing to reimburse the District for most of the costs associated with next week's inauguration, breaking with precedent and forcing the city to divert $11.9 million from homeland security projects. Federal officials have told the District that it should cover the expenses by using some of the $240 million in federal homeland security grants it has received in the past three years -- money awarded to the city because it is among the places at highest risk of a terrorist attack. But that grant money is earmarked for other security needs, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said in a Dec. 27 letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua B. Bolten and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Williams's office released the letter yesterday. Williams estimated that the city's costs for the inauguration will total $17.3 million, most of it related to security. City officials said they can use an unspent $5.4 million from an annual federal fund that reimburses the District for costs incurred because of its status as the capital. But that leaves $11.9 million not covered, they said."We want to make this the best possible event, but not at the expense of D.C. taxpayers and other homeland security priorities," said Gregory M. McCarthy, the mayor's deputy chief of staff. "This is the first time there hasn't been a direct appropriation for the inauguration." . . .The region has earmarked federal homeland security funds for such priorities as increasing hospital capacity, equipping firefighters with protective gear and building transit system command centers. . . .Inauguration officials said they plan to spend $40 million on the four-day celebration, which will include fireworks, the swearing-in, a parade and nine balls. Those expenses -- which do not include security and other public services -- are being funded by private donors. [Emphases Mine.]
D.C., you will recall, has no real Congressional representation. Kudos to the Republican chair of the committee responsible for overseeing it, Thomas M. Davis III (R-VA), for protesting this egregious dis. Take a look at the donor list for this inauguration: by my CNTRL-F count, not a single major "DC" donor is an actual person. Instead they are all corporations and lobbyists. Not surprising, considering that only 9% of DC residents voted for Bush--all of 19,007 people. Think the president's being a little vindictive?

Folks, the good people of Washington DC, many of whom keep our country running, and who are at a highly disproportionate risk of attack, don't have any real representation. It's upto the rest of us to shout out for them. It's our capital, and it deserves better than such shoddy treatment. Write to your Congressional Representative and Senators, and ask them to stick up for the city that so graciously hosts them. Complain to the President and Vice President. Consider sending a note of protest to Bush friend and Inauguration Co-Chair Bill DeWitt Jr., care of his Cincinatti Firm: Reynolds, Dewitt, & Co; 300 Main Str, Cincinnati, 45202.

You might want to point out that, unlike our President, most DC residents & federal government employees don't have the opportunity to spend almost a third of the year on vacation and outside the city.
Monday, January 10, 2005
Text Messaging & Disaster Relief

After some of my blogging about the Tsunami, commenters Michael and Scott have pointed out an interesting truism in the nonprofit/service world: people always want to build something new rather than improve what's out there. In my second blog item on the Tsunami, I somewhat gushingly proposed a server script that automatically translates undersea earthquake signals into cell phone calls, paging out warnings. Hopefully the web can help people working in parallel catch up with each other, and if there's any good to be drawn out of a disaster, it might be that the increased news coverage helps to bring these innovators together. Ganesh Blog pointed me to this BBC article by Clark Boyd about the efforts of Taran Rampersad in the Carribean, Dan Lane in Britain, and others who are now working on Alert Retriveal Cache--an idea that Rampersad already had from back when hurricane Ivan hit his country.
Mr Rampersad said: "Imagine if an aid worker in the field spotted a need for water purification tablets, and had a central place to send a text message to that effect. "He can message the server, so the server can send out an e-mail message and human or machine moderators can e-mail aid agencies and get it out in the ield." . . .The idea is to use open-source software - software can be used by anyone without commercial restraint - and a far-flung network of talent to create a system that links those in need with those who can help.
"This is a classic smart mobs situation where you have people self-organizing into larger enterprise to do things that benefit other people," says Paul Saffo, a director at the California-based Institute for the Future.
Jude at Iddybudy has a thorough post also detailing this technological collaboration, and she pointed me to Taran's own blog--it's fascinating to read an interviewee's post-interview wrap-up. Obviously, he's got lots of fascinating detail on the potential of mass media warning systems. Yesterday he went over a New Scientist article on the subject, pointing out that there's greater reach and stability with multiple systems that complement each other. "For example, the SMS broadcast could be sent to an email list of HAM operators, or even broadcast to specific people who are HAM operators in the region. The possibilities are limited to what is usable within the affected region." He also links to an amazing article at by Andy Carvin:
One of the first stories to hit home for me was that of Mr. Vijaykumar, a former volunteer at a telecenter in Nallavadu, India, run by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation. Vijaykumar, who's now living in Singapore, received word of the tsunami well before anyone in southern India did. He called his family in Nallavadu, then called the telecenter. Another telecenter colleague living abroad, Mr. Gopu, did the same thing. Immediately the community sprung into action. Using the telecenter's public address system, local volunteers alerted fellow villagers. Among the 500 families in Nallavadu, 150 of their houses were destroyed -- yet no one died, because the telecenter responded to the imminent crisis at a time when no other local or national warning system was in place.
That's power.
Friday, January 07, 2005
Sick Joke

It seems like some of the American soldiers charged with guarding Iraqi captives at Abu Ghraib regarded them as nothing more than material for sick jokes, and I'm starting to think our Attorney General confirmation is the same. Phillip Carter at Intel-Dump has all the goods: his Washington Monthly article spelling out the relationship between Gonzalez's memo and Abu Ghraib, and Carter's appearance on Talk of the Nation yesterday. From Eric Umansky at Slate's Today's Papers:
That memo also stated that the president has the power to toss aside anti-torture laws. Asked repeatedly whether he still thinks the president can order torture, Gonzales bobbed and weaved, insisting it's not an issue since the president would never do such a thing. Finally, he said, "I guess I would have to say that hypothetically that authority may exist." . . . A Post editorial says Gonzales left an "unmistakable" message: "As attorney general, he will seek no change in practices that have led to the torture and killing of scores of detainees and to the blackening of U.S. moral authority around the world." Not that any of this matters much: Gonzales' confirmation is what the LAT calls "a foregone conclusion;" the paper also suggests the hearings are now done.[Emphasis mine]
Last night on the Daily Show, after mocking the more amusing absurdities of senate confirmation proceedings, Jon Stewart suddenly belted out, "Is anyone going to grill this M-----f---er?" Some Democrats and even Republican Lindsay Graham made a show of it. Patrick Leahy cut to the heart of a problem shared by most of Bush's advisors:
My concern is that during several high-profile matters in your professional career you have appeared to serve as a facilitator, rather than an independent force in the policy-making process. The job of Attorney General is not about crafting rationalizations for ill-conceived ideas.

Senator Biden tried to make it clear that Gonzalez had to pay his dues and answer the committee's questions:
You're in no way -- as you implied to two of the questioners, you're in now way jeopardizing a future case. That's malarkey, pure malarkey.
So we're looking for candor, old buddy. We're looking for you when we ask you a question to give us an answer, which you haven't done yet.
I love you, but you're not very candid so far.
And so please do not use the strawman, "Well, as the future attorney general, I may not be able to comment on what that law means." You are obliged to comment.
Yet all this chitchat doesn't really matter. Gonzelez knows he ain't obliged to do anything. His number one listed qualification is loyalty to the president, and that trumps any sense of obligation to the Consitution. Rumsfeld is still around, and Gonzalez is only getting promoted. The few bad apples---mostly teenagers---are getting hung with the full weight of recent American autrocities. As Seymour Hersh wrung his hands on another Daily Show episode: we all just lay down and let these guys take over the country.

Thursday, January 06, 2005
Tsunami Realpolitik

On a few random messageboards, among psuedonymous lurkers and trollers, and in the unhallowed halls of the Ayn Rand Insititute*, I've heard people complaining about the military resources we (the United States) are using to help Tsunami victims. They do not see a link between the aid missions, like the deliveries of food and medicine that are being made by the helicoptor pilots of the USS Abraham Lincoln, and our national interest.

It's easy to dismiss such reactions. We can live the way we do because we have stuck our national noses in every corner of the world. I feel it's obvious that as the wealthiest nation on earth we have a moral duty to help others, especially at times like these, especially when we are particularly suited to doing so. (I.e. we are less affected than many other nations, and we have the best portfolio of battleships and helicoptor pilots in the world.) But the complainers won't have anything to do with a nation's moral duty. That's fine, we can play the realpolitik game with them. Click on the timestamp permalink to see my strategies.

The most basic argument: We are the biggest economy in the world, and like the biggest corporations, we need to have the biggest PR machine in the world. This is our PR. Note the last line of the New York Times article I linked to above:
"It hasn't really hit yet," said Lt. Scott Cohick, one of the Seahawk pilots. "You see these places that used to be villages. And now there's only a mosque and lines that used to be streets."
If we do this right, the imams of those mosques might call for gratitude to the Americans. If we don't do it, we give more fuel to those who would use their minarets as anti-American recruiting stations.

Recall my previous post about Sumatra coffee---that transaction is a two-way street. There are a lot of Americans who can make a decent case that their productivity will drop if prices in gourmet coffee spike over the long run because Sumatran coffee production is completely destroyed.

The most direct argument, however, comes from the ever-brilliant Intel-Dump: these aidm missions are relatively safe, good practice for our troops. No one is really shooting at them, but they have to practice logistics and coordination and hard work in traumatic circumstances. When I was a teenager, I went on a version of Outward Bound, which was started by Kurt Hahn in Scotland during World War II.

Laurence Holt, part owner of the Blue Funnel Shipping Company, was looking for a training program for young sailors who seemed to have lost the tenacity and fortitude needed to survive the rigors of war and shipwreck, unlike older sailors who, because of their formative experiences on sailing ships, were more likely to survive.

While I have been fortunate enough not to have to call it into play very seriously, I still stand by the basic principle: if you practice doing something very difficult under somewhat safe circumstances, you are much more likely to be able to deal with very difficult situations under dangerous circumstances. Which brings the tail of the dragon back to its head: if there was one thing that Kurt Hahn believed in, it was that doing the right thing would also--somehow, some way--end up being the most self-helpful thing.

*I really wish I could link to their editorial on the subject. They seem to have taken it down. Here's Google's cache, which will probably expire soon.
Wednesday, January 05, 2005

I can't go to this Bay Area Tsunami Benefit:

Jyothi 2020 - A Kathak Program - Tsunami Fund-raiser - Jan 29th, 2005, Los Altos, CA

for reasons that are more frustratingly misaligned than you can imagine. But maybe you can! It sounds awesome.
Compassionate Caffeine Consumption

NZ Bear at Truth Laid Bear, who runs the the TTLB ecosystem, made a very obvious suggestion the other day: Buying Sumatran coffee and Sri Lankan tea ought to help Tsunami survivors. I would add in the long run and the big picture. The Sumatran coffee you pick up off the shelf today has already been paid for in Sumatra, so it's not a new source of funds. But an increase in demand might eventually create a more robust economy there, particularly since NZ Bear helpfully posts a long list of Free Trade and Shade Grown coffees and teas. Tully's has even created a special Tsunami response blend, 100% of the net proceeds from which will go to WorldVision's Tsunami relief. Lutheran World Relief regularly sells fair trade products to benefit their relief work.

Cost-plus, a family favorite, is a pretty good source of handicrafts from South and South East Asia, and you are very likeley to find some good stuff from Indonesia and Thailand and India there. They will often label their stuff with the region, so you can even concentrate on Sumatra or South India as the case might be. The South Indian coast is a source of beautiful shell work, embroidery and metal work, and I will keep an eye out for generally accessible suppliers.

I know that a lot of beautiful fabric, especially batik tie-dyes, comes from Indonesia, and I'm trying to find stores that specifically sell fabric from Sumatra. Perhaps we ought to see more sarongs this spring.
Tuesday, January 04, 2005
Odd Headlines

While recycling some old newspapers, I found this odd headline in a Contra Costa Times from Dec. 18:

Bush is told U.S., allies not winning.

Not losing, just not winning? What does that mean? I thought combat war was generally seen as a zero-sum game until you withdrew, and that in the case of zero-sum games our beautiful English language has a precise word for not winning: losing. The article is mostly background, and it seems the news was that intelligence officials from three different agencies (CIA, Defense, and State) have informed Bush that we aren't "winning." Presumably the reason these officials then felt the need to anonymously talk to three Knight Ridder reporters (Warren P. Strobel, John Walcott, & Jonathan S. Landay) is that they didn't feel their message got across through normal administrative channels.

The San Jose Mercury News, another local Knight Ridder paper which serves a slightly less conservative audience, headlined their version of the article: Insurgency is working, 3 agencies warn Bush. South Mississippi's Sun Herald: WARNING:
CIA, State Department tell Bush the coalition isn't winning the war. definition of "to warn": "1. To make aware in advance of actual or potential harm, danger, or evil. " Emphasis mine. Isn't this more "informing"?

The Philly Inquirer: Bush is warned of insurgency's power over vote. Ah, okay. We're in advance of the election. But "power over vote" doesn't really convey the ability to make a city's entire electoral commision resign. (Though to be fair that hadn't happened yet when these headlines were written and the resignations may have been reversed/overreported. But still.)

In journalism school we were always told to pay extra special attention to the lede (the first sentence) because that is essentially what makes the reader decide to whether or not to read the rest of the article. I always thought this a little unfair: what really makes the reader decide to readan article is the headline, and even if they don't read the article, that's what informs their impression of the day's news. And, of course, reporters don't write headlines, editors do.

Will Eisner, legendary comic book artist, has died. Neil Gaiman has a nice memorial up on his blog, where I originally learned about Eisner.
Monday, January 03, 2005
Clinton & Bush I to Spearhead Relief Effort:

Whoa. From CNN today:

President Bush named his two immediate predecessors on Monday to appeal for private donations for tsunami disaster relief, saying, "The greatest source of America's generosity is not our government; it's the good heart of the American people."Flanked by his father, George H.W. Bush, and former President Clinton, Bush told reporters at the White House, "To draw even greater amounts of private donations, I have asked two of America's most distinguished private citizens to head a nationwide charitable fund-raising effort."Both men, both presidents, know the great decency of our people," he said. "They bring tremendous leadership experience to this role. And they bring good hearts."

Good job, Mr. President! Gee, do you read my blog? That would be weird.
Sunday, January 02, 2005

(So this is what I actually blogged about yesterday.)

The New Republic has republished online a 1985 editorial it ran after a Mexican earthquake which cost 30,000 lives and $4 Billion. It noted two major and manmade problems with disaster relief: affected countries being too proud to ask for help, and massive inefficiencies of coordination and logistics. The former problem is only tractable to the extent that national governments will not be entirely perverse about their dealings with the world when it comes to helping their own people (e.g. Myanmar's eerie silence). However, for countries less entirely ornery, for whom the issue is more one of national pride, TNR had a fairly practical solution: "If we made a prior agreement with other nations, promising to help each other in case of disaster, the burden would be to refuse aid rather than to ask for it."

The real issue TNR addressed in 1985 was one of coordination, and the realization that dawns upon the reader--that we have almost the exact same problems now, 20 years, the PC revolution, the Internet & World Wide Web, the Human Genome Project, and Google later--is both humbling and infuriating. Without diminishing this disaster at all, I have to agree with Stefan at MemeFirst: our response is a little irrational. It makes the most sense if it's really signally a true sea-change. As Matthew Yglesias and Kriston Capps groused early in the Tsuani blog cycle, it's really amazing how unprepared we are as a world for disasters when we know that, regardless of the specifics, they are going to happen. Yglesias:
"But it always seems very ad hoc. People scramble around to see which charities are active in the relevant area, and potential aiding governments don't quite know what resources they have at their disposal, etc., etc. In light of the fact that there evidently is a widespread and pretty deep commitment to global disaster relief, this makes me wonder if there isn't a politically feasible opportunity to make all this work better by establishing a reasonably well-funded and well-resourced permanent international agency to step in and do this work rather than having everyone scramble around ad hoc after something happens. This -- unlike some other stuff people would like to see it do -- seems like the kind of task that the UN is pretty well-suited to do, since various governments have a pretty good record of cooperating with each other on these kinds of issues so you wouldn't see the usual paralysis. Obviously, the UN already has a substantial aid component, but unless I'm mistaken there's isn't the sort of body I have in mind -- a kind of global FEMA ("GEMA," I suppose you would call it)."

TNR, of course, had this same idea twenty years ago, when Matt and I and probably Kriston were small children. They named their proposal Griefbusters*, and they were totally contemptuous of the UN's Disaster Relief Organization, which seems to have since been reorganized into the Office of Coordinating Humanitarian Affairs. I am generally suspicious of all editorial writing on the UN because it seems like everyone has an axe to grind and it's so difficult figure out what the facts actually are, but TNR did highlight two key problems with what existed then that I can believe:

1) the UNDRO had no ordering authority. TNR compared this to a traffic cop who can only help direct people who already know where they're supposed to be going.
2) UNDRO had no assets and very little standing staff. Each time a disaster struck it was immediately dependant on coordinating new donations and volunteers from volunteering countires.

OCHA seems to have made a difference, mainly by having a beautifully belligerent Undersecretary in Jan Egeland, and by creating Reliefweb, which connects humanitarian organizations with each other and donors. But as far as I can tell the basic problems still remain. The UN groups who actually have the resources to swing into action are the UNHCR, the UNDP, and UNICEF--and they just aren't optimized for this kind of thing.

TNR wanted to take a majority of the cash that normally goes into ad hoc responses, and plough it into making a standing army of volunteers, experts, equipment and supplies--ready and waiting to go at a moment's notice, with default authority pre-ordained by treaty. In the Cold War of 1985, the reliably anti-Communist TNR wanted no part of a global Griefbusters Team, and wrote rather charmingingly:
"If the Soviet Union decides to create an Eastern bloc rescue team, no harm will be done. It would be better for the superpowers to compete for the affections of the world with aid to disaster stricken nations than by supplying arms." Well, in our nominally unipolar world, a global team might actually be more realistic.

It seems to me that if this idea was plausible in 1985, it's absolutely possible in 2005: we have the use of computers and the web to coordinate all this information, and a lot more wealth to pay for the same basic supplies. The prices of plastic sheeting and biscuits have probably not risen quite as fast as inflation. The first US military aid reaching Sumatra today exemplifies why a powerful, governmentally backed body would be useful: the Red Cross doesn't have battleships and fleets of helicopters to reach completely devastated cities.

Can we make it happen? Private donations this time are expected to add upto hundreds of millions of dollars. I have always been bothered by the insistence of some that money given right after a specific disaster must be used for that specific disaster even once it's been taken care of. It's very possible that this intense outpouring of aid will in fact be necessary, that's just how bad this Tsunami was. But should it be possible to get the survivors back up on their feet and still have some cash left over, there's no moral reason why that cash can't be saved for a future disaster, which inevitably will strike. Those future victims will be just as deserving then as these Tsunami victims are now. We could use the momentum of this global reaction to create a general reserve of readiness and funding. As private citizens of the deeply connected 21st century world, we should feel empowered at our ability to raise so much cash in a matter of days--and maybe think about directing that power more efficiently for the future. It would benefit all of us. It may even be possible to get this standing army of disaster relief going without governmental or even corporate initiatives, with sufficient web-based organization.

Of course, what I have to wonder is--how is this different from the Red Cross & Red Crescent societies? Shouldn't we just make them stronger and better? My surface reaction: The Red Cross performs such important tasks of neutrality in the theater of war that mixing it up with this kind of aggressively transnational rapid-response team might not be a good idea.

Definitely something the international community--and the web community--needs to start discussing seriously.

*Between thinking that I had posted about this and rewriting this post, I have mentioned Griefbusters to friends, including a disaster preparation expert. Their instantaneous reaction: That's a terrible name. You don't bust grief, you heal it. It's far too cute for a serious project. As I've observed before, journalists are addicted to grimly cute puns, so I'm not sure I can divorce myself from those instincts. But I kinda think a group with such a relentlessly unpleasant mission might benefit from a little humor and the use of Bill Murray as a sort of mascot.
New Year's Redux

Blogger seems to have eaten my New Year's Day post, which is mildly inauspicious, but you win some and you lose some. I hope you all have had safe and celebratory weekends despite the rather grim ending of the year. A midnight change-of-the-calendar custom I recommend if you have friendly neighbors: Go outside with musical instruments and good friends and serenade the skies for just a few minutes. I was loaned a wooden lizard who had slats strung on cord for its body, so when I grabbed its tail and head and flexed them back and forth, a joyous percussive noise resulted. There were recorders and cow bells and child-sized xylophones at hand as well. Our miniature jangling parade was all the sweeter for not being in some massively organized and crowded public square. Try it, you might like it.

I am going to stop linking to the TsunamiHelp post in every post, and have instead added a link to it on the right hand side, which I'll leave there as long as seems helpful. This is an important story I intend to keep reading about and commenting on, but I hope people will not be offended or disappointed if I move back towards my usual mix of serious and funny subjects. Life must go on, and let's hope the new year will bring some much needed improvements.
Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com


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Blogs I Read (Or Try To)
113th Street
american footprints(Nadezhda & Praktike)
ANNA's Diary
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Dave Barry
The Bellman
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Campaign Desk (CJR)
Combing the Sphere
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The Daily Rhino (Bong Breaker)
Dark Days Ahead
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Brad DeLong
Atanu Dey on India's Development (Deeshaa)
Daniel Drezner
Cyrus Farivar
Finding My Voice
Neil Gaiman
Ganesh Blog
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Green Ink!
Alexandra Huddleston
Iddybud (Jude Nagurney Camwell)
India Uncut
Intel Dump: Phillip Carter et al
The Intersection (Chris Mooney)
Jesus Politics
John and Belle Have a Blog
Mark A. R. Kleiman
KnowProse (Taran Rampersad)
Maenad (Nori Heikkinen)
Scott McCloud
Mind Without Borders
Electrolite: Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Corey Pein
Political Animal(Kevin Drum, formerly Calpundit)
Kevin G. Powell
QuakeHelp (South Asian Quake)
Radiation Persuasion (Nick)
Scott Rosenberg(
Rox Populi
Nick Schager
Idea Spout: Daniel Sanchez
Sepia Mutiny
Amardeep Singh
Snarkmarket (Robin Sloan & Matt Thompson)
South-East Asian Earthquake and Tsunami Blog
SreeTips: New To Sree
Steprous (Bear)
Robert Stribley
Talking Points Memo: Joshua Micah Marshall
Tech Policy
A Tiny Revolution
To The Teeth
Manish Vij
Vinod's Blog
War and Piece
Nollind Whachell
Matthew Yglesias:Old
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham
Ethan Zuckerman

Some Categories

Blogs focusing on policy, politics, and national security:
Armchair Generalist
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
The Decembrist
Brad DeLong
Daniel Drezner
Green Ink!
Iddybud (Jude Nagurney Camwell)
Idea Spout: Daniel Sanchez
Informed Comment: Juan Cole
Intel Dump: Phillip Carter
The Intersection (Chris Mooney)
Irregular Analyses
Jesus Politics
Mark A. R. Kleiman
Liberals Against Terrorism(Nadezhda & Praktike)
Political Animal(Kevin Drum, formerly Calpundit)
Talking Points Memo: Joshua Micah Marshall
War and Piece

Photo Blogs
Daily Dose of Imagery
Alexandra Huddleston
Radiation Persuasion (Nick)

Columbia Journalism Folks
Apartment Therapy
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
Campaign Desk (CJR)
Ranajit Dam
Cyrus Farivar
Alexandra Huddleston
Corey Pein
Nick Schager
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham

Literature, Fiction and Entertainment
Dave Barry
Neil Gaiman
Electrolite: Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Scott McCloud

A Note on Comments
Haloscan is not very good at counting comments. If a comment thread is more than three months old, and you think there might be comments, please click the comments link even if it indicates zero comments. It won't display the true count properly. Thanks!

A note on permalinks
I find that a lot of people don't know about permalinks. When you want to have someone read a specific blog entry, then you should find that blog entry's permalink, click on that, and send them the resulting browser address. Otherwise they will just be sent to the blog in general, and between your reading the blog entry and your correspondent's or audience's getting to it, a whole slew of material may have pushed the entry off the front page. In this blog, the permalinks are the timestamp at the end of the entry. (Feel free to frequently send your friends and family permalinks from my blog!)

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