Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Thursday, March 31, 2005
 
Foreign Policy Ten Step Program

Matthew Yglesias gives a superlative reccommendation to a new foreign policy blog, DemocracyAresenal.org:
I, like many people, am a bit tired of complaining about Democrats' national security problems and ready to start doing something about it. . . .There's been a really productive interplay between netroots activist types, more journalistic types (i.e., me), and wonky folks on the economic policy front out here in the blogosphere that has, I think, played a modest but crucial role in the social security debate. Building that kind of engagement on the national security front would be an excellent first step.
The "productive interplay between netroots activist types" clause is what piques my interest. Comments-less though he is, it seems like Josh Marshall at TalkingPointsMemo has created a sticky community of readers who can leverage the information they get from his blog into the kind of participation and political pressure that actually gets people in Congress to change their position. I'd get on board if we can bring that kind of participatory dynamic to the national security and foreign policy arena, issues I find both juicier and more truly pressing.

The mission is getting Democrats to be the party of National Security. Over at DemocracyArsenal, Heather Hurlburt has a ten-step program. It's a bit convoluted for marching orders, so I'm summarizing it and reframing it a bit more positively:

1) Educate progressive activists, don't blame them.
2) Understand the real positions of both progressives and the general public, don't caricature them.
3) Force party leaders to educated themselves on foreign policy.
4) Create insititutions focused on so educating said party leaders.
5) Force foreign policy experts to spend time on the campaign trail, not necessarily during the campaign season. (Matthew Yglesias, that means a road trip for you!)
6) Educate yourself about the military with determination. (Might I recommend Intel-Dump and Armchair Generalist for that purpose?)
7) Create a coherent, consistent Democratic foreign policy narrative.
8) Frame that narrative appealingly.
9) Integrate that narrative with an overall policy narrative and produce candidates accordingly.
10) All of us, get into this.
J. and Praktike have already weighed in asking for more showing, not telling, which I'm taking to mean fastforward through steps 1-8 and really tackle 9 and 10. I most interested in extending 9 and 10 past the election cycle (which we're not in yet, and which isn't actually what this is all about) into the work of actually overseeing our government. Informed popular participation, applying real pressure to the legislative and executive branches, throughout the year, should also translate into better electoral results.
 
Wednesday, March 30, 2005
 
Understanding Influence

Armchair Generalist
cites an LA Times article indicating that the frontrunner to replace Paul Wolfowitz as Deputy Secretary of Defense is current Secretary of the Navy, Gordon England.
England's background is in electrical engineering and business, and he seems to have spent much of his career at General Dynamics, which describes itself thusly: "General Dynamics has leading market positions in mission-critical information systems and technologies; land and expeditionary combat systems, armaments and munitions; shipbuilding and marine systems; and business aviation." When you take a look General Dynamics' Board on TheyRule.net or at Forbes.com, you'll see that there are plenty of military and governmental connections*.

This is the stuff of conspiracy legends. Do a Technorati search on England and you're likely to find items like this round-up of "War Profiteers." The storyline is pretty simple: the people who build weapons systems and sell them are too often the same people--at some other point in their lifecycle--who decide to go to war and decide how to spend our military dollars. And they all know each other far better than the rest of us know them. Therefore much of what gets decided in Washington--what kind of weapons to buy for our army, when to use them so we need more, and what kind of weapons to sell to another country---gets decided primarily based on the interests of a narrow class of very wealthy people and corporations, and not on the basis of what's actually simply good for the country as a whole. For example, this Navy Press Release informs the public about a $27.8 Million contract awarded to General Dynamics' Advanced Information Systems, a unit that Secretary England used to run. Was it really remotely unhelpful for GD-AIS executives and engineers to pitch their project to a staff directed by their own old boss? There's no way of knowing, but you can imagine the storyline.


You won't be surprised to hear that there are plenty of card-carying believers of this storyline in Berkeley, for example, but you might be surprised to hear that there are plenty of card-carrying dismissers around here too. I'm going to paraphrase someone I was discussing these things with the other day, but consider it a mock-up of a representative argument: "My belief in human decency aside, I just can't believe that these kinds of decisions--what fighter jets we want an ally to buy, for example--are just based, or even mostly based, on the profit factor for the corporations that builds them. These decisions are too big and strategic to be based on pure corruption."

I'm guessing the truth is somewhere in between, and that many of these men (well, mostly men) have strong patriotic inclinations to optimize their governmental decisions for the good of the country. But conflict of interest doesn't always have to be blatant or intentional--it can also be unintentional and subconcious. People make a lot of decisions based on gut instincts and comfort levels, and those decisions can be wrong. That's one reason why information is considered the oxygen of democracy, to quote Steven Aftergood. The wider members of the Republic--the kinds of people who do not have tear-sheets on Forbes.com--are supposed to have a chance to look at these kinds of decisions and make a fuss when they get too cozy. The decisions, however, are so thoroughly couched in jargon and byzantine connections, so that's difficult to do. Because I'm a ridiculous optimist, I'm sure it must be possible to get regular, or at least smart and educated regular, people involved in these decisions. Not sure how, though.


*(Sample: Jay Johnson,
Chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Navy, and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1996 until July 2000; George A. Joulwan, U.S. Army. Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, from 1993 to 1997; Paul G. Kaminski under Secretary of U.S. Department of Defense for Acquisition and Technology from 1994 to 1997; Carl E. Mundy, Jr., ed the Marine Corps and served as military adviser to the President and Secretary of Defense from 1991 to 1995.)
 
Tuesday, March 29, 2005
  Bumper Stickers

bumperstickerphotocollage
Originally uploaded by saheli.
This post of TalkingPointsMemo is disturbing. Remember how during Bush-Cheney campaign events last year people wearing Kerry t-shirts got turned away, despite being ticket holders? Well, apparently on GWB's tour to sell social security, three people in Denver seem to have gotten pushed out of an event because the car they were riding in had a No Blood For Oil bumper sticker. As Marshall succinctly puts it, "And, remember, despite the obvious political campaign content, this roadshow is paid for entirely with taxpayer dollars." The notion of kicking someone out of such an event because of a bumper sticker is so patently ridiculous that even the Secret Service is acknowledging that it's wrong and seems to be taking the tack that it must have been somebody else who pushed them out. Which is itself a bit worrying.

Bumper stickers are fascinating tools for free speech. They embody the quintessentially American desire to share your opinion with others. They'll never be replaced with blogs because you can't drag a blog into someone else's view. But you can essentially force someone to at least look at your bumper sticker. I saw this specimen in a parking lot today.
 
Monday, March 28, 2005
 
Americans and Foreign Policy

I've just started reading Beyond The Age of Innocence, by Kishore Mahbubani, and hope to post a review when I'm done. From the introduction a not unfamiliar notion caught my eye:
The curious paradox here is that America is by far the best educated society on the globe. The percentage of its citizens who have had a tertiary education and who have access to all the modern sources of knowledge, from cable TV to the Internet, is among the highest in the world. Yet the American population also appears to be among the least well-informed on global affairs. . . .One hope of this book is to make American society aware that daily, billions of pairs of eyes are watching, studying, and judging America.
It's a common enough line of thought: America runs the world, Americans don't know enough about foreign policy, Americans need to realize that people are watching us, etc.. That Americans know shockingly little in sort of fuzzy absolute terms is a common enough notion: see this set of "red flags," about the American lack of knowledge. I.e., to put it starkly, all other considerations aside, you'd hope that more than half of Americans would have known who Yasser Arafat was back when it was relevant. It's usualy framed as a negative comparison to somewhat poorly specified data about other countires (so who is that has the best foreign policy knowledge to tertiary education rate ratio, anyway?). But at some level it begs the question: so what? Would a more informed populace really be able to change anything? Clearly, the rest of the world isn't interested in how our scores at National Geographic Trivial Pursuit improve. What would be an appropriate response to the gain of some more knowledge?
 
Sunday, March 27, 2005
 
The Blood-Mobile

Nick sent me this absolutely delightful Flash animation of the They Might Be Giants Song, The Blood Mobile, made by David Logan. If you're a fan of such TMBG science standards as Why Does The Sun Shine? you'll love this little ditty. A nice introdution to the functions of blood for small children and review for very, cough, old children. As Scott recently pointed out in comments science + music = sexy! (third t-shirt down.) It reminded me of a recent post by Pharyngula, pointed out as uncommonly beautiful by Ezra Klein:
Tonight, while I was preparing dinner, I slipped and gouged out a small chunk of my thumb with a knife—it stung for a moment, but it was nothing serious, just large enough and deep enough to bleed copiously. It was gorgeous. It welled in cycles with my pulse, and it was like I was dripping rubies. Brilliant, scarlet rubies polished smooth that would splash and sparkle when they hit the countertop.
A meditation on our love-hate relationship with our vital liquid. Makes an interesting juxtaposition with this Ode to Immunity I recently stumbled upon at Rhinocrisy:" Most people go their entire lives without realizing the existence of the lymphatic system, and few people have any sort of detailed knowledge about it." Lymph is indeed fascinating stuff--a passive circulatory system, a kind of graveyard for our immunity battles. The only addition I would make to the bloodmobile song would be a verse about platelets--the cement that's deployed to fix up gashes when we hurt yourself. If you have the time and ability, please consider giving a regular blood donation or trying apheresis, a special kind of platelets donation.
 
Friday, March 25, 2005
 
Service

There's a lot of religious holidays converging this weekend, this year, and if you are observing one I hope all goes well with your observations. I'd like to take this opportunity to reiterate a saying I hold dear: Vasudhaiva Kutumbukam. The whole universe is one family. In a spirt of agape, and heralding of a new year with with the spring, please take some time this weekend to consider the following opportunities:

Feeding the hungry. Please consider donating to Oxfam, the World Food Programme , or Food for Life to feed the hungry, volunteering with Food Not Bombs or Project Open Hand, or, if you're in college, participating in this year's Collegiate Click Drive. (Collegiate Click Drive was started by my friend Ben Brandzel.) You might also want to see if you can get your weekend shopping done at gear that gives.

Sheltering the homeless: Please consider donating to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, or Habitat for Humanity.

Educating the young: Please consider supporting Asha, which does stellar work to educate children in India.

Today is the full moon of the month of Phalgun. Happy 519.
 
Thursday, March 24, 2005
 
Lobbying

Last spring I went on a class field trip to Washington D.C. that was apparently funded through the generosity of one Tom Korologos, Columbia J-School '58, a founding lobbyist of Timmons & Co., and current Ambassador to Belgium. After Seymour Hersh and before the White House, we were treated to a little talk by a lobbyist from Timmons & Co, whose name sadly escapes me. (We were told that then Mr. Korologos himself normally lectured the J-schoolers, but he was busy in Ambassador school. ) The Lobbyist made the case that lobbying was no different than any other first amendment expression, and could be used for the powers of good as well as evil. He tried to tug on our heartstrings by pointing out that Columbia University employs some very large number of lobbyists, but this did not exactly move those of us who had just received our first loan repayment preview statements. Pointing out that the Sierra Club also employs lobbyists was mildy more successful. Honestly, I couldn't come up with a good principle with which to curtail lobbying, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. I appreciated Ambassador Korologos' generosity--goodness knows it was nice to stay in a suite on Pennsylvania Avenue--and I'm sure he'd appreciate my honesty.

I'd like lobbying a lot better if I read more stories about major government figures taking up positions as non profit and public interest lobbyists after they resign from their posts to, uh, spend more time with their families. It would be nice to read that one of the President's closest advisors has a day job protecting trees, for a change. Take a look at the list of Timmons' clients: the only remotely heartwarming one of the bunch is the University of Miami, and I recall The Lobbyist mentioning it emphatically.

All this is prompted by this Washington Examiner article, via the newly-wed Josh Marshall:
Joe Allbaugh, the Oklahoman known for his flat-top haircut and loyalty to President Bush, has a new client: Halliburton, the Houston-based company once led by Vice President Cheney. . . .Allbaugh, a close adviser to Bush during his Texas days, registered to lobby on behalf of Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), Halliburton's construction and engineering subsidiary. Allbaugh's wife and partner at the Allbaugh Company, Diane Allbaugh, is also listed on the registration, which was filed last week with the Senate Office of Public Records. Allbaugh's close ties to the White House give him contacts throughout the administration, Congress and the private sector. As director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during the first two years of the Bush administration, Allbaugh was charged with overseeing the federal government's disaster preparedness and relief programs.. . .Prior to joining FEMA, Allbaugh was one of Bush's closest campaign aides. He managed Bush's first run for the Texas governor's mansion in 1994 and later served as Bush's chief of staff in Austin. During the 2000 election, Allbaugh, a former deputy secretary of transportation in Oklahoma and longtime GOP campaign operative, was the national campaign manager for the Bush-Cheney campaign. Allbaugh, along with Karen Hughes and Karl Rove, was part of the triumvirate of Bush's closest advisers. [Emphases mine]
Off the top of my head, the only time I can think of a major Republican figure going on to a career in civil society is Elizabeth Dole heading up the American Red Cross. I would be very happy to collect some more examples. Democrats, at least, also want to become academics.

All this ruling-class incest reminded me of TheyRule.net, the flash-powered visualizer of the connections between corporate directors and institutions. Googling Tom Korologos, for instance, I discovered that his wife Ann McLauglin Korologos is equally entrenched in the halls of power, heading up the RAND Corporation and sitting on the Microsoft Board of Directors. Using TheyRule.net, I see that she also sits on the board of directors of Kellogg's (cereal, not defense technology--I think!), Fannie Mae, Host Marriot, and AMR. As Josh Marshall wrote, for some people it's a small, small world.
 
Wednesday, March 23, 2005
 
Rocking Out With Bishop Allen

Bishop Allen was in town last night. Longtime readers of the blog might recall that I first saw them at the Mercury Lounge in October of 2003, when I was new to New York. All their songs were from their album Charm School, and the strongest impression they made on me was happy-to-be-singing. They had a bit more instrumentation then (a xylophone?), but by the time I saw them headlining the first Concert for Kerry at the Knitting Factory last April, they had settled down into a more punk aesthetic and their current configuration: Justin Rice with lead vocals and guitar, Christian Rudder on guitar, Christian Owens on bass, and Jack Delamitraux on drums. They showed off one new song from their album last April, and last night half the songs were new to me--Christian Rudder claimed it may be done in a few weeks. Once again, he had a bit of endearing trouble with his guitar, but all in all it was a good show.
The Independant is a huge venue, and it was impressively filled. The lack of intimacy between audience and stage was definitely noticable after hanging out at the Knitting factory, though, and I think the smaller stage was less conducive to the kind of dancing chemistry I've seen Bishop Allen have before. For one thing, I couldn't really get a good look at Christian Owen, which was a bit disappointing, considering how much I previously appreciated her stylin'. I liked all the new songs and the layers they've added to the old songs. Jack Palmitraux's drumming was notably more stylin', and he's got marvelously expressive hair for a drummer. Is it just me or does he look ever so slightly like Dave Eggers? It's probably just the hair.


Various delays meant I didn't get a good feel for the local opening band, Send Help or somesuch, and missed a chunk of the band Bishop Allen is touring California with, We Are Scientists. But I liked their sound, and the delightfully contrived crazy jumping around of the lead singer, Keith Murray. At one point he tackled the bassist, Chris Cain, knocking off his glasses, but Cain played on. Later he jumped uponto something and loomed menacingly over the drummer, Michael Tapper. It's nice to see a small band on a small stage embraced the now stylized histrionics of rock and roll. Murray's also got marvelously expressive hair. Chris Cain was quite proud of the fact that his Tom Selleck like mustache is totally real. I picked up a 6-song EP and look forward to checking it out. If you're in southern California, see if you can catch a show.
 
Tuesday, March 22, 2005
 
Sigh

Brian pointed out how crazy it is that a terrible but singular family conflict in Florida leads the New York Times today, over the worst school shooting since Columbine at the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota. 10 dead so far, including the attackers grandparents, apparently. Brian wondered what happened to "if it bleeds, it leads." I suppose it's our rule of law and sense of priorities that are hemorrhaging right now.
 
 
Protecting the Truth

My last post was about the Cree syllabary and mentioned its disputed origins. Somewhat jovially, TK wanted to know: Where's the truth?! It's out there! And I suddenly, very seriously, replied--lost, I'm afraid. I've long ago resigned myself to the idea that the truth often can get lost. That's why it's important to protect it when it's young and new and strong.

Sure, some truths--the really deep stuff--are resilient and hardy. Satyam Evam Jayate (The Truth Shall Be Victorious)--I do believe that for a lot of things. The Big Truths I'm not so worried about. But a lot of important things--massively important decisions about everything from war to architecture to medicine to farming--rely on a fine network of many little truths, the slight alteration of which can send people off on the most unfortunate paths.

A lot of what government does is record. People make fun of bureaucrats, but I have always had an enormous amount of respect for a large segment of them. Perhaps it is the lover of Roman civilization in me. The thankless bureaucrat, methodically filing away trivia and paperwork, responsible and productive, is the best friend of the journalist, the historian, or the curious child who should wander into a library basement and realize that her Republic lies at her disposal. I'll never forget the moment when I suddenly realized, deep below the Pasadena Public library, that the transactions of Congress were carefully recorded and sent out to my own favorite haunt--and had been for decades, perhaps more than a century.

There's a natural tension between the career paperpushers of government, who have a neutral job to do, and the elected officials who rotate through as their bosses, who have images to maintain. Any semblance of balance in that conflict has crumpled in the last few years, as Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists describes in this recent Slate/NPR piece. I saw him speak at Columbia, and he's an impressive man, committed to the idea that our national information belongs to us, and that we need to access it and use it to better run our Republic. We are not children to be merely protected by an overclass that gets itself into power, we are the ones who should be in charge. Check out his column, and consider supporting his cause. He wrote:

Information is the oxygen of democracy.

It's worth framing. Take a deep breath, and let's start opening some windows.
 
 
Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics

TK has just pointed out to me the existence of a rather beautiful script: Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics. According to Agfamonotype:
The core of the script now known as “Unified Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics” was first conceived in the mind of one James Evans in the early 1800s. . . .Today, it supports a broad range of languages belonging to the Algonquian, Athabascan, and Inuit families. . . As originally devised, the Cree Syllabary was extremely frugal in its use of symbols. The system consisted mainly of symbols representing open syllables, i.e. consonant-vowel pairs. In addition, there are distinct symbols for word-initial – also known as “independent” – vowels, as well as syllable-final consonants. In total, the symbols numbered 76. Evans’ minimalist approach is well demonstrated by the symbols for the independent vowels. The four vowels [e], [i], [o], [a] are all represented by the same geometric form (a triangle) rotated in each case to a distinct orientation. This same paradigm of identical shapes in varying orientations made the syllabary easy to learn, resulting in a high rate of literacy among the Cree people. [emphasis mine.]
The entire syllabary is visible here, along with a list of languages its used in. Looking for information on Cree was a useful reminder that the Alongonquin are a people, not just a mere hotel in Manhattan. According to Native Languages of the Americas, 45,000 people speak Cree in Southern Canada and Montana. (They also make a case that these syllabaries were not invented by missionaries but are native: isn't it strange that in the many native tribes with no such traditions, the missionaries sensibly provided alphabets based on their own, while for the natives with literary traditions they inexplicably provided weird pictographs and rotating syllabaries unlike anything they'd ever seen before? Isn't it more likely that the Indians are telling the truth and they had these scripts to start with? Not deeply convincing, but an interesting idea.)

Some resources on making the web accessible to people reading and writing in this script.
 
Monday, March 21, 2005
 
Medical Malpractice Revisited

I found out recently that a post of mine about medical malpractice had attracted some (probably Technorati-driven) attention from PointOfLaw, an anti-litigation blog sponsored by the Manhattan Institute (a conservative New York think tank.) You may recall that about a month ago, the New York Times came out with an article on medical malpractice insurance, suggesting that the recent steep rise in premiums is not due to a correspondingly steep rise in payouts, and that therefore it might not be particularly well cured by so called tort reform. They sported a graph, plotting the inflation adjusted amount of malpractice premiums alongside the inflation adjusted amount of dollars. I wasn't actually too concerned with this whole shebang, since the real point of my blogpost was to highlight Andru Ziwasimon's affordable clinic in New Mexico, but I did write this:
What jumps out at me is that even at the point of narrowest difference, there's at least $1 Billion in gross revenue for the insurance industry--and at some points, as much as $4 Billion. That's a lot of medical expense that doesn't really have anything to do with medicine.
Walter Olson, at PointOfLaw, devoted several posts to excoriating the Times piece and its citers, including me, specifically by including me in a list of bloggers who cited the Times piece "uncritically":
Saheli (who seems tempted to construe the gap between the two chart lines as markup, just as we warned some readers would do)
To be fair, I did not explicitly acknowledge the real cost that Olson cites and the Times does not--that is, the cost there is to defending lawsuits where the doctor wins and no claim is paid. But I certainly was not thinking that the 1 Billion gap represented pure profit for the insurance industry--hence my use of the words gross and expense. I see payouts, at least to some extent, as being a legitimate cost of the job of doing medicine. The Hippocratic oath is "first, do no harm," and when doctors screw that up through neglect, they have to pay the price. We can debate about the terms and amounts of that price, but it's a core principle of accountability. Assuming that the payouts are justified by some metric, a large chunk of the other money filling the gap between payouts and revenue, even if not pure profit, is cost that is not really the cost of doing medicine.

In his main post, however, Olson makes a couple other points that I must briefly quibble with.
1) He writes:
If so, then payouts have risen nearly 10-fold after inflation over 28 years, since the 2003 number is shown as being a little below $6 billion. Meanwhile, the figure for premiums charged (likewise inflation-adjusted) has risen from what looks like about $3 billion in 1975 to about $10 billion in 2003.
This seems to bizarrely imply that both of these factors must be rising multiplicatively as a function of time, that is, that each year's value is a product of the previous year's value and some factor. But looking at the New York Times graphic, it's clear that the payout function is best modelled as a line, with a constant slope o f$ .18 Billion per year. The premium function has a steeper slope: $.233 Billion per year. So saying payouts are rising at "a fast clip," as Olson does, begs the question of "fast with respect to what?"

2) Olson also seems to say that the investment revenue of the late 90s was only applied to bridging the gap between premiums and payouts, and that recent "catch-up" is necessary only because of the high payouts. It seems just as plausible that insurers took advantage of the stock market of the late 90s to post huge profits without actually increasing efficiency, and now have to catch up to the expectations they've created on the part of their stock holders.

It's a complicated issue, and Shakespeare buff though I am, I'm not surprised if the solution can't be reduced to killing all the lawyers.
 
 
War

I didn't have a chance to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the war in Iraq on Saturday, but I'd like to send my respects and regards to the troops and Iraqis who are, in good faith, working through a very difficult and dangerous situation. Regardless of how you feel about how we got here, I think we can all wish them well in their everyday work to make Iraq a safe and stable place.

We have no idea how many innocent civilians and troops stuck obeying Hussein have died, but 10,000 or 100,000 are numbers that get tossed around. Given that Iraq is less than 10 times smaller than the United States, that would be like having 100,000 or 1 Million people die here--deeply traumatic to the national conciousness. It's important to for Americans to acknowledge that cost of war, because it is most definitely done in our name. You can help the Iraqi people by donating to Oxfam.

As of today, acording to I-casualties.org, we have had 1698 coalition military deaths. These men and women, mostly teenagers and very young twenty-somethings, took an oath to obey their military commanders so that their country would always have a ready defense at hand. They rely on the rest of the citizenry to look after their interests, risking their deaths and asking them to kill with prudence and caution. We often don't rise to that expectation. You can support soldiers charities here.
 
Friday, March 18, 2005
 
Book Survey Meme

I got lobbed a meme by Armchar Generalist. I normally wouldn't blog these things (What's your favorite ice cream? Say one nice thing about the person who sent this to you, etc.) but since this one is about books, I am charmed and will play.

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Sometimes you have to fight the good fight, even if it seems futile.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?
All the freakin' time. Three at random: Fred Vincy in Middlemarch by George Elliot, Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, and Clark Kent. (That's right. Clark Kent.)

The last book you bought is:
Not counting How-to manuals and the like: The Unconquerable World, by Jonathan Schell. At the suggestion of Robin Sloan of Snarkmarket.

The last book you read:
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

What are you currently reading?
Oh, please don't ever ask me that. My book Queue is going to rise up one dark night and strangle me. Um, since you insist, a sample:

Watchmen, by Alan Moore
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
The Success of Open Source by Steve Weber
The Unconquerable World by Jonathan Schell
and
Gödel, Escher, Bach:An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstader



Five books you would take to a deserted island
I'm interpretting "books" a little loosely.

The Bhagavad Gita. If I get the space, the whole Mahabharat.
The Riverside Shakespeare
John Keats: The Complete Poems
The Feynman Lectures on Physics
Anne of Windy Poplars by L. M. Montgomery


Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

Robert Stribley: Because he always makes classy, interesting picks.
Michael of Heliolith: Because he is passionate about being informed.
Seshu Badrinath of Tiffinbox: Because he'll serve up something delicious.
 
 
Disappearing Snow

From Zoo Station: the snows of Kilimanjaro are disappearing. From a BBC Travelogue by Euan McIlwraith:

Kilimanjaro, literally the "mountain of snow" is a place where God was said to live, a provider of water for the local Chagga people and, today, the single largest source of tourist dollars in a struggling economy.

But the ice is melting and once it is gone there is a real concern that the 20,000 tourists who come to climb the mountain each year will be gone too. After all a mountain without snow in Africa is just another mountain.

Well, I hope it will never be seen as just another mountain. There's an old saw in the East Bay, hard to verify immediately, that only Kilimanjaro exceeds our beloved Mt. Diablo in total amount of visible landmass from the summit. The Snows of Kilimanjaro was the first Hemingway story I ever read. When I made impatient inquiries about destinations as a child, my sister would often tease me by singing, "Kilimanjaro!" in a particular tune. Sad those snows might not be there when I get there.

 
Thursday, March 17, 2005
 
Periodic Table of Dessert; Sweet Sets

Apparently made by one Andrew Plotkin, aka Zarf:
"You've seen those charts that say, like, "Periodic Table of the Vegetables" or "Periodic Table of the Sausages"? They annoy me. Because they're not periodic. They have no vertical or horizontal correspondences. The actual periodic table of chemical elements has structure -- that's why it's cool. "
Check it out. If anyone feels like buying this for me, go ahead. Yum.

Update: So my friend, KALX DJ Murky Logic, seemed coincidentally inspired to just play a set of candy-centric songs on his weekly radio show, starting the set with a nice dose of Honey Boy by the Supremes. Catch it every Thursday afternoon by tuning in with this Real Audio link. He gives away a lot of free tickets. Mmm, free tickets.
 
Wednesday, March 16, 2005
 
Comic Books in Arabic

From Progressive Muslim Thoughts, the blog of a Washington Peace activist*, a link to a BBC story about AK Comics, an Egypt-based company that's publishing a series, Middle East Heroes, in both Arabic and English. From the BBC article:
Another characters are Zein, known as The Last Pharaoh, who was transported from Ancient Egypt in a time capsule; Jalila, who developed superhuman powers after surviving a nuclear explosion; and Rakan, a warrior with a magic sword from ancient Arabia.What is notable about Middle East Heroes is that the female models are at least as powerful as their male counterparts. Jalila is most powerful character in terms of abilities.
From AK's website: Each hero is a unique blend of traditional, modern and futuristic qualities that symbolize and represent the Middle East nations. I took a quick snoop around and liked the scripts I saw just fine. "
Egos and spooks and feds, oh my! . . .They are the wizards behind the curtain, pulling the strings, connecting all the dots that make the status quo so . . .well, static.
" Conspiracy theories and mastermind rings are the bread and butter of comics, of course, though I'd like to see a super hero pantheon taking on a naturally arising system for a change sometime.


*Found on Pen-Elayne, from a series of posts trying to diversify linkage on the blogosphere.
 
 
Extraordinary Rendition

Over at Crooked Timber Ted Barlow is trying to get people to persuade Connecticticut Republican Senator Chris Shays to become the first Republican Senator co-sponsor of Rep. Ed Markey's bill opposing Extraodinairy Rendition, H.R.952. This is the practice of shipping suspected terrorists--so weakly suspected we have no way of keeping them--to states that we know practice torture, outsourcing the dirty work to them. Not only is it morally wrong, it sets a dangerous tone for our troops to work in and makes efforts at public diplomacy rather useless. I.e. it makes for bad national security. If I'm not mistaken, my friend Colin McCormick helped write this bill when he was working for Markey last year. Writes Barlow:

I’m not an idiot. I know that this bill will never pass in this Congress. But I’d like to see at least one Republican co-sponsor for this bill.

I’m going to ask that readers politely contact Connecticut moderate Republican Christopher Shays, who might be open to persuasion.

His phone number in DC is 202-225-5541. In Bridgeport, CT, it’s 203-579-5870. He can be emailed from this page.

So if you live in Connecticut, or have another less extreme Republican representing you, I suggest you do the same. Barlow has a sample letter on his blog post. Ditto for Republican representatives. Intel-Dump has a couple of posts on the matter and keeps them all here. Getting a Republican Co-Sponsor would be really helpful. As people note in the comments, even these little apparently symbolic victories matter greatly in the bigger picture.
 
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
 
Visual Search

Check out this nifty new search toy: Amaztype takes your search terms and produces a visual browse pile of relevant books or music from Amazon's catalog, arranged in the shape of the letters. It adds a whole new layer of serendipity to the online surfing experience. Otherwise I might not have found "Build Your Own Laser, Phaser, Ion Ray Gun, and Other Working Space Age Projects."



It's a pity that the way the books are arranged appears fairly random. But still fun.
Amaztype searching for lasers in Amazon's book collection.
 
 
Make Magazine

From Robert Stribley, a new magazine/book published by O'Reilly (they of the awesome computer books, not he of the often ghastly news network): Make Magazine, about do-it-yourself projects, hardware hacking and other kinds of digital news. A teaser tagline that caught my eye: "A linear accelerator for studying high-energy physics costs around $5 billion. But you can make one for about 30 bucks with four strong magnets, a wooden ruler, some plastic tape, and nine steel balls." Huh.
 
 
Newsmashing

Paul Boutin at Slate puts into words an idea that's been visually scratching my brain, and then some. That's not to try and take some backhanded credit for it--he certainly put it out there first. It's just to emphasize the enthusiasm of my, "Yes! Exactly!" reaction. The idea: using visual markup software to comment on news articles the way you'd comment on a term paper, as opposed to the way you'd write one. It takes blogging to whole new level of personal communication. I've been planning on giving iMarkup a spin for a while now, but was waiting until I'd be sure to get the most out of my 30-day trial. I guess I better try it soon.
 
 
It's All About The Rate

Matthew Yglesias makes a point worth repeating: even if we're doing slightly better than February 2001 in absolute number of jobs, we're not doing better in terms of actual employment:
The American population grows at around 0.9 percent each year -- that means we've got something like 9 or 10 million more people than we had in February 2001 chasing the additional 300,000 jobs. The recovery, clearly, is no longer literally jobless. We've got the old jobs back, and then some. But there's no reason workers should be "breath[ing] easy" or believing that "A brightening labor market could make this the time to look for a new job." [emphasis mine.]

If you ask the Bureau of Labor Statistics to spit out the Unemployed as Percent of the Labor Force, looking at reentrants, new entrants, and job losers, you get 1.6, 0.5, and 2.7 percent respectively. Not terrible numbers (sort of equivalent to circa 1995) but not fabulous numbers either. My point is not to quibble with the conclusion but to point out that percentages and rates are often more important than absolute numbers. Last week Canadian college math instructor and blogger Moebius Stripper had an elegant post on her efforts to educate her students about compound interest:
Well, speaking as a college instructor, my entire work rests upon the illusion that students are adults, capable of rational thought and analysis of the world around them. Consequently, I strive to challenge their brains with facts and theories, rather than shield their sensitive eyes from things that I’ve “had enough” of. So, last semester, rather than remove the ads whose revenue helps offset my students’ tuition and related fees, I addressed their mounting credit card debt in a fashion even more radical for this West Coast campus: I educated them. . . .And, all due respect to Pink Floyd and all - that, kids, is the difference between education and thought control. . .But if I ever saw a student of mine defacing said ads with the compound interest equations and calculations pertinent to the interest rate offered - that, now, would be a happy day for this college educator.
As the kind of person who fantasizes about political protests that don't involve puppets or bongo drums, but instead legions of people armed with clipboards, graphing calculators, and budget projections, I can say amen to that.
 
Sunday, March 13, 2005
 
Punk Rock Visitors to San Francisco

Saturday night I caught the 3rd Annual Tribute to The Clash and Joe Strummer at Bottom of the Hill. One band that particularly caught my ear was visting from Costa Mesa, called Radio One, and I got their eponymous album. They're clearly dead serious about paying homage to The Clash all year round, and the lyrics are poundingly political. A lot of the songs seem a little too endlessly thump-thump-thump to me--the melodic core of musicianship which lurks in the heart of my favorite Clash songs is harder to feel on Radio One's debut album. But live, Radio One has a delicously roaring look and feel (their song The Outlaw was what snatched my fancy), and a few of the other songs on the album are very satisfying: No Heroes, Hooligan and particlurly Headlines:

Attention-Attention Read the
Headlines keep a watchful eye no
Matter what they say
Human Interest vs. Big Business
Where black and white reads
Shades of grey


Naturally, of course, I can find plenty to quibble with in their revolution-promoting lyrics. I suppose longing for nuanced policy statements in punk rock is too much to ask for, but I can always hope. The intensity of not-apathy is to be appreciated for now.

Lead singer Ruben Rivera was nice enough to autograph the liner notes, and guitarist Clint Gonzalez had a freakin' awesome white and stenciled text jacket that I, unfortunately, couldn't snap a good picture of. They said they'll be back in April, and I look forward to keeping an ear out for them.

Amusingly, this followed an evening at the 23rd Annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, where I caught I was Born, But, a very moody film-essay by Roddy Bogawa: a kind of meditation on his life in punk rock precipitated by the death of Joey Ramone and capped off by the death of Joe Strummer. The film ends with footage of Strummer and the Mescaleros singing Hey Ho, Let's Go and and when he's done he shouts out to the audience, "Support your local bands. Support independant films." Amen to that.
 
 
Calvin Trillin on First Lieutenant Brian Slavenas

Please either check out or go out and buy the March 14th issue of The New Yorker*. Starting on page 64 is a beautiful, sad, sad, tender essay by Calvin Trillin, documenting his search for the story of one dead American soldier, the announcement of whose death on the radio inexplicably drove Trillin to tears one afternoon. The soldier was Brian Slavenas, a lieutanant in the Illinois National Guard. His father is a veteran in support of the war, and his mother is a peace activist opposed to it. Trillin quotes a teacher, Lance Gackowski, on Slavenas' constant aiming for the excellence in a split family:
"Some kids in that siuation just shut down,"Gackowski told me. "He tried to fulfill both of their visions of what a noble man should be."
What a noble man should be. Not a phrase you hear too often. Go read the article.


* (cover is a woman with green hair and a duck sitting on her head.)
 
Saturday, March 12, 2005
 
Commemorating Gandhi's March to the Sea



Thanks to Sepia Mutiny for the reminder that today is the start of the 75th anniversary commemorartions of Gandhi's Salt March. 75 years ago Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and 77 other marchers set out from his ashram at Sabarmati, and over the course of 25 days they marched 241 miles to the sea. When they got to the sea at Dandi, on April 6, 1930, he held up a lump of natural sea salt and defied an empire.

What was so important about salt? In our era of processed-food and sodium cutting, it's hard to remember that plain fresh food doesn't have a lot of salt, and that humans do need some salt, every day, to replenish the sodium they lose from perspiration. This is even more true in the hot climate of South Asia, and salt is also vital for preserving food if you don't have refrigeration. For millenia Indians have been making sea salt, even the most impoverished having that right to the ocean. The British saw this need and used their might to create a salt monopoly, dictating that only they could make and sell salt, thereby making aristocrat and peasant beholden to foreigners in their own land. Thus simply boiling ocean water to collect a basic necessity of life became one of the greatest acts of civil disobedience.

Salt-march.org.in, which created the banner above, has a nice collection of historical documents,
in particular a set of political cartoons about the salt march. A lot of information is hiding under the deceptivily simple moniker of "trivia." Today in India thousands set out on a commemoration march, which is also organized by salt-march.org. I was particularly moved by the story of an 83 year old Gandhi look-alike, himself a freedom fighter, who is going on the march:
‘‘Look, that’s Mahatma Gandhi,’’ cries out someone from the crowd at Gandhi Ashram, pointing to 83-year-old Bokka Appa Rao. As he enters the ashram dressed in dhoti, Gandhi spectacles, and carrying a lathi, children rush to him, people look on with amazement, and cameras don’t stop clicking. Rao says he lives the life Gandhian — in thought, in conduct, and, in a way few can, in appearance too. He’s here from his native Bhimavaram village in Andhra Pradesh to take part in the re-enactment of the Dandi march.
Gandhi's movement was called Satyagraha (the fight and determination to establish the truth), and the participants Satyagrahis: warriors of truth. We've been having a lot of discussion of pacifism, Gandhian non-violence, effective knowledge and effective political action. As we forge our own paths, let's take a moment to recall the struggles of the Satyagrahis.

Satyam Evam Jayate. The Truth Shall Be Victorious.
 
Friday, March 11, 2005
 
Reminder: We Don't Have An Offical Language

Rishi sent me this amazing article about a kid in Maryland who got offended because, during Foreign Language week, the school broadcast the Pledge of Allegience in different languages. Apparently it was Russian that got him all stressed out.
"This is America, and we got soldiers at war,"the 15-year-old said. "When you're saying the Pledge in a different language which nobody understands, that's not OK.". . . .Charles Linton, Patrick's father, said the use of other languages is disrespectful to the country. "It's like wearing a cross upside down in a church," he said. . . .The pledge was to be read in Spanish, French, Latin, Russian and German. School officials said the activity will continue, with the English version of the Pledge being read first for the rest of the week.
Okay. I don't live too far from Russian Fort, and much of the Northwest and Alaska was originally colonized by Russians. Other large chunks of the nation were first colonized by the Spanish and the French. A large portion of our scientific (and military) heritage is German, and our motto (E Pluribus Unum. From Many, One. Get it Patrick? From Many.) is in Latin. Not to mention that our western railroads were built by indentured Chinese laborers, much of the Central Valley lands that now feeds the the West were settled by Punjabis, and many of our Northwestern farms were worked by Japanese immigrants. I'm not even going to try and list the influence of the Italians, the Dutch, the Iranians, the Lebanese, the Polish, the Greek, the Korean. . .Yeah, you get the picture.

Given the situation in the world right now, it seems to me that learning as many "foreign" languages as possible is about as patriotic a thing as a young student can do.
 
 
Alleged to Escape From The Trial, Shoot Judge, Carjack and. . .?

Some extremely disturbing mayhem in Atlanta this morning: The New York Times summarizes what seems to have happened so far: One Brian Nichols was on trial (for raping his fiancee?) when he allegedly grabbed a sherriff deputy's gun and shot and killed Judge Barnes, court reporter Julie Brandau, and perhaps one other Sherriff's deputy. He probably would have been in plainsclothes without handcuffs and then, it seems, he escaped, hijacked a car from, and pistol whipped, an Atlanta Journal Constitution Reporter, Don O'Briant--read his own account of what happenned to him:
First he asked how to get to Lenox Square.
Then he pulled a gun and said "Give me your keys or I'll kill you!"
I gave him the keys, and then he said "Get in the trunk."
I said no. I thought maybe I was going to be killed, but I wasn't going to get in the trunk.I turned to run, and that's when he hit me in the head with his gun.
I fell down, and I got up and ran into a garbage bin. I got up again and ran.
I scrambled into the street, waiting for the shots to come, but they didn't come.
After abandoning O'Briant's green Honda, it seems that the suspect might have hijacked a tow truck. But he's still at large in Atlanta, and schools there are under lockdown. The Atlanta Journal Constitution is posting updates here.
This is a horrible story, which reminds me of the story of the murderers of Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry: how can someone not realize that they're much better off dealing with the possibility of a rape conviction than with a much surer double or triple murder conviction? Or getting shot. Admittedly, if all of this is true, this guy has defied the odds and may very well escape. For now. But he would undoubtedly be one of the most hunted men in recent southern history. Every single member of law enforcement is going to take this personally. For that matter, a bunch of journalists might start taking this personally. The media attention may make it even more difficult to stay underground.

Having to lockdown your schools because someone is running around with a gun after having shot three people in a courtroom full of people has got be extremely nerve wracking, and I wish the people of Atlanta the best in dealing with the situation.

Abstractly, this is a very interesting story to read about, because so far I haven't read any quotes from people who were in the courtroom, so everything is still "allegedly" except when the police are talking. But O'Briant's story is particularly striking because it's not often that you get a reporter writing about crime without an allegedly. First hand knowledge is a rare thing in journalism.
Link from Eva Chan.

UPDATE: (3/12 Saturday Morning) So they caught the suspect, without a struggle, but possibly with an addition to the bodycount. You really gotta wonder what kind of thought process led to this sad, sad series of events.
 
Thursday, March 10, 2005
 
Hitchens on Ohio

From Mark A. R. Kleiman, a link to the Christopher Hitchens article in Vanity Fair about possible vote fraud in Ohio. That's right, the election that caused us to still have Bush as president. Written by a rather famously anti-Kerry and pro-War writer. The opening lines caught my eye because of his mentions of Kenyon College--a good friend of mine went there, so I remember noting the news about Kenyon's determined Lords and Ladies staying up all night to vote:
The polls opened at 6:30 AM. There were only two voting machines (push-button direct-recording electronic systems) for the entire town of 2,200 (with students). The mayor, Kirk Emmert, had called the Board of Elections 10 days earlier, saying that the number of registered voters would require more than that. (He knew, as did many others, that hundreds of students had asked to register in Ohio because it was a critical “swing” state.) The mayor’s request was denied. Indeed, instead of there being extra capacity on Election Day, one of the only two machines chose to break down before lunchtime.

By the time the polls officially closed, at 7:30 that evening, the line of those waiting to vote was still way outside the Community Center and well into the parking lot. A federal judge thereupon ordered Knox County, in which Gambier is located, to comply with Ohio law, which grants the right to vote to those who have shown up in time. “Authority to Vote” cards were kindly distributed to those on line (voting is a right, not a privilege), but those on line needed more than that. By the time the 1,175 voters in the precinct had all cast their ballots, it was almost four in the morning, and many had had to wait for up to 11 hours. In the spirit of democratic carnival, pizzas and canned drinks and guitarists were on hand to improve the shining moment. TV crews showed up, and the young Americans all acted as if they had been cast by Frank Capra: cheerful and good-humored, letting older voters get to the front, catching up on laptop essays, many voting for the first time and all convinced that a long and cold wait was a small price to pay. Typical was Pippa White, who said that “even after eight hours and 15 minutes I still had energy. It lets you know how worth it this is.” Heartwarming, until you think about it.
. . .

Across the rest of Ohio, the Capra theme was not so noticeable. Reporters and eyewitnesses told of voters who had given up after humiliating or frustrating waits, and who often cited the unwillingness of their employers to accept voting as an excuse for lateness or absence. In some way or another, these bottlenecks had a tendency to occur in working-class and, shall we just say, nonwhite precincts. So did many disputes about “provisional” ballots, the sort that are handed out when a voter can prove his or her identity but not his or her registration at that polling place. These glitches might all be attributable to inefficiency or incompetence (though Gambier had higher turnouts and much shorter lines in 1992 and 1996). Inefficiency and incompetence could also explain the other oddities of the Ohio process—from machines that redirected votes from one column to the other to machines that recorded amazing tallies for unknown fringe candidates, to machines that apparently showed that voters who waited for a long time still somehow failed to register a vote at the top of the ticket for any candidate for the presidency of these United States.

However, for any of that last category of anomaly to be explained, one would need either a voter-verified paper trail of ballots that could be tested against the performance of the machines or a court order that would allow inspection of the machines themselves. The first of these does not exist, and the second has not yet been granted.


Go read the article. (Hey, there are Russian Supermodels or somesuch on the cover of Vanity Fair, so you could just go buy the magazine.) Kleiman has had interesting things to say about Black Box voting in the past.

Blogger is being a bit tempermental, so I may not be back for a while.


 
Wednesday, March 09, 2005
 
Backwards Right Coast

I am totally amused by the overwrought tones of the piece in today's New York Times about how Chaat (Indian fast food) has finally gotten to New York:
Chaats are jumbles of flavor and texture: sweet, sour, salty, spicy, crunchy, soft, nutty, fried and flaky tidbits, doused with cool yogurt, fresh cilantro and tangy tamarind and sprinkled with chaat masala, a spice mixture that is itself wildly eventful. The contrasts are, as one fan said, "a steeplechase for your mouth," with different sensations galloping by faster than you can track them. All Indians in America are homesick for the same thing, said Mitra Choudhuri, a software engineer from Gujarat, who lives in Fort Collins, Colo. "There is no chaat here, only curries," he said. But in the New York region that has finally changed. [Emphasis mine.]
It's a nice description of Chaat. However, I'm thinking the author ( Julia Moskin) needs to look beyond the continental divide for her sampling of America, and some of these desis she quotes need to think about moving left. Because out here in Cali we've had plenty of awesome Chaat for at least the ten years that I've been going out. The king, of course, is Berkeley's legendary and once underground Vik's Chaat Corner (which has a fascinating business backstory), but Chaat is so common we even have a new chain popping up all over, called Chaat Cafe. I realize it is the New York Times, but they keep talking about "America". Link from Cyrus Farivar, who is blogging his adventures in Estonia right now.
 
 
Beautiful, Beautiful Information

From WorldChanging.com, a press release about a gorgeous mapping project from Columbia's Earth Science Institute:
The GRUMP [Global Rural Urban Mapping Project] data collection consists of three individual databases that build upon population datasets mostly from national statistical offices, satellite data and other representations of settlements. GRUMP Human Settlements is a global database of cities and towns of 1,000 persons or more, each represented as a point, and includes information on population sizes, longitude and latitude coordinates, and data sources. Populations were estimated for 1990, 1995 and 2000. The GRUMP Urban ExtentMask is the first systematic global-scale attempt to portray the boundaries of urban areas with defined populations of 5,000 and larger. The GRUMP Population Grid represents the distribution of human population across the globe, accounting for urban population concentration more precisely than previous efforts. It allows for inferences about urban versus rural populations, and cities of different sizes, when used in combination with the Urban Extent Mask.
Over at the actual GRUMP site, the amazing Gridded Population of the World lets you examine the vital stats of any nation.

To take a line from Paris Hilton via Robin Sloan: That's hot. Really hot. Rock on.
 
Tuesday, March 08, 2005
 
Quote of the Day

"There's nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won't cure."--Jack E. Leonard to Ed Sullivan.
 
 
In Memoriam

From Geomblog I find the sad, if not surprisng, news that the physicist Hans Bethe died on Monday. He was one of the last great titans from the age of Quantum mechanics and the Manhattan Project. From reading James Gleick's Genius, which was very influential on me as a teenager, I will always carry an impression of him as he was to Richard Feynman: an affectionate, brilliant, mentor. I had the privilage of seeing him speak in 1999 at the Centennial conference of the American Physical Society in Atlanta. Maybe it was the dazzle of his accomplishments, but he exuded both brilliance and heart. The New York Times has a long obituary of him, though I find it rather overfocused on his policy and weapons work. Cornell, which he built into a top-notch physics school, has a nice webpage with some videos of him lecturing. Geomblog tells the delightful story of the alphabetical article.

He told us how the sun shines. Rest in peace, Dr. Bethe.
 
 
Thought of the Day

I thought I'd toss out the following to y'all.

Clearly I'm in love with the power of information and the importance of spreading knowledge. The ideals of the first amendment, the marketplace of ideas, the transformative power of truth on individuals and society--these are big inspirations to me. There are certain models we're sort of taught in school--that freedom of information leads to societal corrections, that discussion is the first step to progress, and that the public forum amounts to a constant source of constructive criticism. But the implementation of these models seems increasingly broken to me. (I'm not saying that it's more broken than before--I try not to buy into nostalgia--but that the break is more apparent to me.) Our lives and society seem very suboptimally arranged for people to take information and do something with it. Long-time readers know that I love blogging about charities and good causes, especially those with a Paypal button, and one reason is because it's one of the few web mechanisms which I know translates knowledge into action. All too often information is entertainment, not GI Joe style battle-halving knowledge.

A lot of people, especially journalists, like to consider the question--what does it mean to be an informed citizen? But the answer to that question itself rarely seems informed by concrete measurements of what a citizen needs to do with information. The standard answers: Vote, write letters, protest and start or volunteer at or donate to an organization. What else? How to decide? How to prioritize? How to do these things effectively? I mean, there are so many possible ways of making a difference. Is there a way to figure out what's the most efficient combination of actions a concerned citizen can embark upon? How do we turn readers into participants--not just in the creation of media, but in the running of society? Some of these ideas are being addressed by Joe Stange of the Participant, who sadly, is on hiatus from blogging. I'm just looking for more ideas, more links, more thoughts. Yes, that's right, more information. It's the thing I know best, so I would really like to make it more useful.
 
 
Superpowers Again

News from China:
In a highly anticipated announcement, Beijing on Tuesday released details of the planned new anti-secession bill during its annual session of parliament. . . ."Using non-peaceful means to stop secession in defense of our sovereignty and territorial integrity would be our last resort when all our efforts for a peaceful reunification should prove futile," Wang Zhaoguo, vice-chairman of the National People's Congress (NPC), told the session.In the event of any conflict, China would take the utmost care to protect civilians and foreigners, as well as their property, Wang stressed.Taiwan issued a strong protest against the proposed law, saying it ignores the island's sovereignty and raises tension in the region by giving the Chinese military a blank check to attack.
. Over in Taipei, E. Heroux correlates the tension with Taiwan's apparent status as the #1 most sleepless country.
 
Monday, March 07, 2005
 
Lasers

WickedLasers.com will sell you a 50 mW laser for $274. For $411 you can get two. (Props to the company for making the price of the second laser $137. Nerds. ) I can think of a couple of people for whom I might have purchased such objects as wedding presents, were I wealthier. Perhaps luckily for all of us, I'm not that wealthy. It's a ludicrous amount of optical power to have in a pointer, and you sure as hell better never point that thing at me. "This laser is strong enough to burn holes through black trash bags. You'll also be able to pick up beautiful women (or men) when they come up to ask you about your super powerful laser. Professional use only." Well then! Maybe I should get one after all. I punch a lot of holes in black trash bags. Considering the importance of garbage bags to disaster preparation, maybe every family should stock one of these puppies.

I am reminded of the video we had to watch in lab class in college before we got to do experiments with the more powerful lasers. A scientist in a lab coat, with a truly stereotypical set of glasses and a neutrally nonchalant voice narrated all the possible dangers of lasers on eyes. Then a laser was aimed at the (removed) eye ball of some unfortunate beast. Said eye-ball hissed and crackled and burned. There was a pause. The neutrally voiced man: "That was impressive. Let's watch it again." And so we did. I'm pretty sure this thing qualifies as a Class IIIb laser. According to this 1999 era pdf, while few states have (had?) laser regulation, many of the ones that did regulated Class IIIb lasers. I also didn't know that laser pointer safety is a big concern of the Food and Drug Administration. Yes, that's right, Food and Drug. Mmmm. Lasers. Mmmmm.

Or maybe that's because they were anticipating Chef Homaro Canto's desire to use a Class IV laser for cooking.

National Security geeks might remember the uproar over the New Jersey guy accused of pointing lasers into an airplane cockpit--the guy who originally tried to blame his daughter. (Daily Show write up.) Apparently the set of national security geeks intersects strongly with the set of laser jocks: See all the skeptics who wrote to the UK's Register. I was sent the original wicked link by Dr. Colin F. McCormick, who is also in the intersection between laser jocks and national security geeks. He pointed out that green beams are more dangerous than red beams because they don't spread as much, so the photons are more concentrated. I also recall being told that since our eyes are very sensitive to green light, it's easier to burn out rods and cones with them. And actually, dark red and infra red lasers can be very dangerous because a) they heat up water, the principle component of eyeballs, really well and b) you can't see them very well or at all, so by the time you feel the beam, it's probably too late. Here's a link to the OSHA safety standards. If you buy these lasers, please play and work safely with them. Eyeballs are a precious commodity.
 
 
EU & China

Of interest to our superpower discussion is yesterday's Thomas Friedman column. Basically, Friedman is arguing that the reason he objects to the EU's desire to sell weapon systems to China is because they are weakening the balance of power in Asia without strengthening their own military. He finds it problematic that Europe wants to make money from arms sales (though he also points out that this arms sales may just be a promotional deal to go with airbus sales) without buying much itself, creating a large economy that can't defend itself--or needs the United States to defend it. I know a lot of people might look at the situation and say, "oh, see, Europe is so wise--they realize military spending is not important," but I have a hunch that Friedman is right, and Europe is conciously factoring the United States into the picture. What I find particularly amusing is that most of this column just refers to "Europe." Looks like the Pax Romana really is coming back.
 
 
Freedom to Blog

I haven't really been able to delve into investigating the nitty gritty the recent attacks on blogging, but luckily Robin at Snarkmarket found the relevant Dan Gillmor post for me.

So first it seems that most people regard FEC Commissioner Bradley Smith's CNET interview, which I blogged last week, to have been saber-rattling meant exactly to get liberal bloggers like me upset with McCain Feingold. That diagnosis works as long as the FEC doesn't go down the route he warned of. So we'll see. I liked Robin's idea of drowning out the money in money in politics with more money.

Gillmor spares no wrath for Apple Computer's going after bloggers as non-journalists in its bid to find the leaker of its corporate secrets. I want to say that I sympathise with the need for an entity to keep its work secret, and NDAs ought to be honored, but what I find disgusting is the strategy that Apple used. When you go to court arguing a certain principle, you really better believe in that principle, and not just be using it for to further narrow concerns of immediate legal tactics. Court decisions set precedent, and are part of the law. For Apple to go to court and argue that online journalists are not actually journalists is really disturbing. To me it indicates that their entire marketing persona, promoting do-it-yourself-ness, is completely insincere. I'm hoping that's wrong and they'll come to their senses. They're a very beloved company of a lot of friends of mine, and in a world where we have so many companies to hate I'd like to keep a few companies to love. But honestly, I am less interested in getting an Apple right now.
 
Sunday, March 06, 2005
 
Totally Rad

Best Guiness Book of World Records I've heard in a long time: most people tandem surfing, more than 40 people on a 40 foot long surfboard, on Australia's Gold Coast, riding in together for four minutes. ""It was the best four minutes of my surfing life. It went in strong and straight," [board creator Nev Hyman] told Queensland's The Sunday Mail newspaper." Check out pictures at BBC, Global Surf News, and CNN. The gigantic board will go on a world tour, raising money for Tsunami relief.
 
Friday, March 04, 2005
 
Drunk in Africa

I just discovered a travel essay by my Columbia classmate and friend P.J. Tobia, called "Soused Africa," in Modern Drunkard Magazine Online. P.J. ran off to Africa for several months after graduation, and most of his journalism was about AIDS, but considering that the man routinely carried a bottle of gin in his pocket, he's well qualified to report on alcohol. While it's worth it just for the picture of him drinking out of a metal bucket, the article provides a nice, gritty read:
“That’s damn fine!” I yelled, hoping my exuberance would break the language barrier. It worked. The small crowd cheered and laughed as I poured half the bottle down my gullet, and people clambered into the small shack to buy the azungu another round.
I believe P.J. will have a regular column in the print magazine, so if you're into such things, check it out. Cheers!
 
 
Interesting Japanese Signs

Juergen Specht is a German photographer living in Japan, and and the first of his many Documentation collections (The Naked Festival of Chiba, Ice Sculptures at the Meiji Shrine, The Homeless of Ueno) is a collection of graphical Japanese warning and prohibition signs. They're not all that different, besides the fact that they usually feature much more involved graphics than our warning signs, but I thought the following were rather interesting:


Generally speaking, I think these more graphical signs are spot on. Warning signs are particularly necessary for children, and I sometimes wonder if our very abstract graphics aren't enough to capture their attention.
 
Thursday, March 03, 2005
 
Superpower

I've been really intrigued with the discussion of Superpower stirred up by my blogpost on reinstating the draft.
MichaelM wrote last:
I just don't feel that the US is qualified to lead as things stand. I don't want to see someone else stepping up if that's what most people (with varying points of view) believe would happen-- I can't escape the perception that everything we (the US gov't) touch(es) goes bad.
The list of American failures and blowbacks that feed such a perception is long and true: Chile, East Pakistan, Central America, Pre-Revolution Iran, Afghanistan, even Saddam Hussein's Iraq. We can be awful bullies, and the sooner regular Americans realize that and work to deal with it, the better off everyone will be. We are often extrordinarily arrogant, and many of the broiling problems threatening to overwhelm us today are the direct consequences of our previous carelessness. As Fitzgerald observed on the small, social scale so many years ago:
"They were careless people . . . . .they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess that they had made. . ."
But I cannot agree that everything we touch goes bad. It's simply not true. I recall Teresa Heinz Kerry's speech at last years DNC:
To me, one of the best faces America has ever projected is the face of a Peace Corps volunteer. That face symbolizes this country: young, curious, brimming with idealism and hope, and a real, honest compassion.
And it rings true to me. It rings true, also, of the humanitarian work American soldiers do all the time--whether it's on an ordered mission providing crucial aid to the Tsunami victims, or helping to build schools in Iraq and Afghanistan on their own time and with donations they raised themselves. And it rings true of the hardwork of hundreds of Foreign Service workers the world over, promoting human rights and extending American aid.

I'm a big believer in breaking false dichotomies. One does not need to overemphasize one of these formulations while turning a blind eye to the other. Acknowledging our failures and mistakes is not unpatriotic--it is, in fact, supremely patriotic. And acknowledging our good qualities and the fact that we are far from the worst candiate for world Superpower is not unidealistic--it's merely realistic.

I don't have some sentimentally patriotic notion that America should always be on top. I prefer to envision a multipolar world, hopefully dominated by democracies built on strong and free republics, well informed by humanitarian ideaologies. Democracies that at least aim for the ideals of freedom of speech and of the press, freedom of religion, due process, and human rights. It's a beautiful vision, and I think it's a vision that I share with MichaelM and J., and with plenty of patriotic Americans and idealistic non-Amerians alike. It's not entirely unrealistic. EU and India are just two other candidates that come to mind. Others may shape up with needed reforms. We'll see.

But there are many ways to get there and not get there, and we aren't anywhere near there yet. The problem with America right now--the big, big problem--is that we the people are disengaged from the operation of our Republic. We are ostensibly the power and the will behind a giant colossus, but we are abdicating our say in its actions--most especially abroad. At this rate, one could say we deserve to lose our status as Superpower. But lose it suddenly because of a stupid failure to adaquately prepare our military? That really helps no one. I'm just not too keen on what's shaping up to take our place. So we, the people, really need to do what we can to shape our collective future, and as always, that starts with a good discussion.
 
 
ARGH: McCain FeinGold Threatens Blogs?

When I was in college it seemed like all my fellow Democrats were just obsessed with getting McCain-Feingold passed. They were convinced that the greatest problem in politics was money, that it disadvantaged the Democrats enormously, and that McCain-Feingold would finally bring politics back to the people. I have no idea if this reflected Democratic gospel throughout the country--Berkeley not being the best place to find an exemplar sample. I have noticed that Democrats seem particularly loyal to the idea of McCain Feingold even when it doesn't really help them mechanically (Bill Clinton having been one of the greatest party fundraisers of all time), and not necessarily willing to debate the nitty gritty of the regulations. Campus Republicans were against it, ostensibly on First Amendment grounds, but their arguments were almost always about the actual campaign contribution caps, not the advertising--and I certainly thought that we have to keep bribery under control. Still, I was a little lukewarm on the law. I applauded many of its ideas and motives, but was not confident in its mechanics. Apparently, I was right.

Josh Marshall at TalkingPointsMemo links to a CNET interview with Federal Election Commissioner Bradley Smith. It's terribly unclear, but it seems that previously, in 2002, the FEC specifically exempted the Internet from McCain Feingold rules aimed at prohibiting coordination in traditional advertising between a political campaign and an advocacy group, since advocacy groups are not subject to the same stringent donation laws that campaigns ostensibly are. Apparently Chris Shays (R-CT) and Marty Meehan (D-MA), the House sponsors of the bill, decided to sue the FEC over this, and last September U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly decided that the special treatment of the Internet was against the intent of the law. In fact, it seems, an exemption for news organizations to just mention candidates may only apply to old media. The problem is--how do you define an online ad? Is a link an ad? Is mentioning a candidate positively an ad? Is reproducing campaign email an ad? Is a mass mail asking your friends to donate an ad? Kollar-Kotelly apparently wants to regulate all that. Which could easily include fining individual bloggers for linking to candidates and extolling them. And most individual bloggers, like me, can't possibly afford to deal with FEC fines. Inscrutably, the three Democratic commissioners seem to be on her side, stymying the FEC's ability to appeal her decision. The ability to say your say on the internet and spread information cheaply is probably the single greatest first amendment development of the last 100 years, and has done more to bring politics to the people since the advent of radio--yet it's under attack by those wishing to protect politics from special interests. ARGH.

In 2001, Josh Gerstein--the first online journalist I really followed, whose excellent ABCNews.com White House Wag column, has, sadly, been taken down by ABC--wrote a piece cleverly pointing out the asymmetries between the law's effect on newspapers and on television. You can catch a visually mangled version at web.archive.org. So now it isn't entirely clear what exemptions apply to what media and how. In fact, this whole story is a bit tangled up, and I'm still looking into it. To quote Bradley Smith from the interview: "This is an incredible thicket. If someone else doesn't take action, for instance in Congress, we're running a real possibility of serious Internet regulation. It's going to be bizarre."
 
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
Apartment Therapy
Armchair Generalist
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
Dave Barry
The Bellman
Mine's On The 45 (Brimful)
Campaign Desk (CJR)
ChennaiCentral
ClimateBoy
Combing the Sphere
Crooked Timber
Daily Dose of Imagery
The Daily Rhino (Bong Breaker)
Dark Days Ahead
The Decembrist
Brad DeLong
Atanu Dey on India's Development (Deeshaa)
Daniel Drezner
Ennis
Ephemera
Cyrus Farivar
Finding My Voice
Forsv
Neil Gaiman
Ganesh Blog
Geeky Chic 2.0 (Echan)
Geomblog
Green Ink!
Heliolith
Alexandra Huddleston
Iddybud (Jude Nagurney Camwell)
Indeterminacy
India Uncut
InSpiteOfEverything
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)
1Locana
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)
Reneebop
Rhinocrisy
Scott Rosenberg(Salon.com)
Rox Populi
Felix(&Rhian)Salmon
samVaad
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
Subjunctive.net:klog
Talking Points Memo: Joshua Micah Marshall
Tech Policy
TiffinBox
A Tiny Revolution
To The Teeth
TreeHugger
Unfogged
VatulBlog
Venk@
Manish Vij
Vinod's Blog
War and Piece
Nollind Whachell
Wonkette
WorldChanging
Matthew Yglesias:Old
Yglesias:Tpmcafe
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham
Ethan Zuckerman
Zwichenzug



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
Eschaton(Atrios)
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
Wonkette
Yglesias:Tpmcafe

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

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

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


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