Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Burning Man Festival

Pictures from the Burning Man festival, over the past several years. One of these days, I'll make it there.

Caricature of Prophet Leads to Boycott of Danish Goods

'Freedom of the speech' versus 'Religious respect'. Aside from the fact that the cartoon (below) is unbelievably ignorant and offensive, surely it should be classified as a hate message? Akin to say, Swastikas painted on homes in Brooklyn. Denmark maintains that they have total freedom of the press. If this is indeed true, then the boycott of Danish goods makes sense to me because that's the way to respond to anything we find offensive. And I'd like to come up with my own series of cartoons mocking Danish ignorance and bad taste.

A long-running controversy over the publication of caricatures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad by a Danish newspaper boiled over in the past few days as a boycott brought sales of some Danish products to a halt in Arab countries across the Middle East, while Danish interests came under attack.

A diverse group of Muslim activists has stirred a consumer uproar in one of Denmark's fastest-growing packaged-foods markets in a case pitting freedom of the press against religious sensitivity, and which is playing out in the arenas of diplomacy and global trade.

In recent days, Saudi Arabia and Libya have recalled their ambassadors to Denmark, protests have been staged in places like Dubai, where they are virtually unheard of, and Arab and multinational companies have placed ads in Middle Eastern newspapers to deny any connection to Danish companies.

On Monday, Denmark called for its citizens in the Middle East to exercise extra vigilance. The Danish manufacturer, Arla Foods, which normally sells $1.5 million worth of dairy products a day in the region, announced that its sales there had come to a halt. And two of its employees in Saudi Arabia were beaten by angry customers, The Associated Press reported.

"This is a public uprising," said Louis Honoré, spokesman for Arla, Europe's second-largest dairy company. "This has spread like wildfire. And the boycott has been practically 100 percent."

Other Danish companies reported dramatic sales declines. Trade between Denmark and the Persian Gulf amounts to about $1 billion per year, said Thomas Bay, the consul general of Denmark in Dubai.

"Consumers have a lot of power today," Mr. Bay said. "I'm a little shocked we were not able to settle this issue before."

The controversy has been simmering since the September 2005 publication by the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten of 12 caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad, including one that shows him wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb with a lit fuse. Islam strictly forbids depictions of the prophet.

Flemming Rose, the newspaper's culture editor, said the works were not intended to offend, and were in keeping with a tradition of satirical cartoons. "These were not directed against Muslims, but against people in cultural life in Europe who are submitting themselves to self-censorship when dealing with Islam," he said by telephone on Monday.

Muslim groups in Denmark, and then across the Middle East, demanded apologies from the newspaper and the Danish government.

Late Monday, the newspaper issued an apology. "The drawings are not against the Danish law but have indisputably insulted many Muslims, for which we shall apologize," the newspaper's statement said, according to Reuters.

Danish authorities have expressed regret, but have refused to take action. "We have freedom of the press and the government can't get involved in these kinds of matters," said Mr. Bay, the Danish consul.

Muslim activists say the government had essentially snubbed them, hoping the issue would go away. But in the last few days, it has taken on a life of its own.

Cellphone text messages have zipped throughout the region calling for a boycott and demonstrations. A boycott began in Saudi Arabia, followed by Kuwait, the UAE and other Persian Gulf countries.

On Sunday, Mohammed al-Dhaheri, the Emirates' minister of justice and Islamic affairs, called the cartoons "disgusting and irresponsible," in comments published by the official news agency, WAM.

In Gaza on Monday, about a dozen gunmen demanded an apology from the Danish government and fired automatic rifles in the air in front of the European Union office.

In Dubai, Mohammad Danani, walking Monday night past an empty shelf where Danish cheeses are usually on display, expressed satisfaction. "I will cut them off 100 percent because there is no respect," he said. "It's no longer an issue of apologizing. Now, they have to learn their lesson."

Monday, January 30, 2006

Red Spot

This is very funny.

Shaming Google's Capitulation in China

Sunday, January 29, 2006

"The most important moments of your life"

Javier Bardem, in my humble opinion, is the world's greatest actor. I reached this conclusion after watching "Golden Balls", "Before Night Falls" and, just now, the brilliant "Sea Inside". His versatility is astounding and his ability to inhabit roles is simply mesmerising. If you want to watch art on film, watch him.

I just realised what I'm in awe of, with Bardem. He has a reservoir of feeling that he can tap into. He feels things and reacts to them which means that he isn't really acting. As someone who has trouble feeling things (or trusting feelings), that's amazing to me.

Subway Poetry

I am talking to you about poetry,
And you say when do we eat;
The worst of it is:
I'm hungry too.

"I yell at cats"

This is just plain wrong. Which means it's just plain hilarious.

Friday, January 27, 2006

How do you like your democracy now, Mr. Bush?

Hamas' stunning victory underlines the contradictions and hypocrisies in Bush's Mideast policies.

By Juan Cole

The stunning victory of the militant Muslim fundamentalist Hamas Party in the Palestinian elections underlines the central contradictions in the Bush administration's policies toward the Middle East. Bush pushes for elections, confusing them with democracy, but seems blind to the dangers of right-wing populism. At the same time, he continually undermines the moderate and secular forces in the region by acting high-handedly or allowing his clients to do so. As a result, Sunni fundamentalists, some with ties to violent cells, have emerged as key players in Iraq, Egypt and Palestine.

Democracy depends not just on elections but on a rule of law, on stable institutions, on basic economic security for the population, and on checks and balances that forestall a tyranny of the majority. Elections in the absence of this key societal context can produce authoritarian regimes and abuses as easily as they can produce genuine people power. Bush is on the whole unwilling to invest sufficiently in these key institutions and practices abroad. And by either creating or failing to deal with hated foreign occupations, he has sown the seeds for militant Islamist movements that gain popularity because of their nationalist credentials.

In Iraq, which is among the least secure and most economically fraught countries in the world, the Dec. 15 elections brought into Parliament a set of powerful Shiite fundamentalist parties and a new force, the Muslim fundamentalist Iraqi Accord Front, which gained most of the votes of formerly secular-minded Iraqi Sunni Arabs. Some IAF politicians are suspected of strong ties to Iraq's Sunni insurgency. In Egypt, last fall's election increased representation for the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood from 17 to more than 70 seats in Parliament, making that group a key political player for the first time in Egyptian history. Decades ago, the party once assassinated a prime minister and attempted to assassinate President Gamal Abdul Nasser, but now maintains it has turned to moderation. It aims at the imposition of a rigid interpretation of Islamic law on Egyptians, including Egyptian women.

Now Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement, a branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has come to power in Palestine. In his press conference on Thursday, Bush portrayed the Palestinian elections in the same way he depicts Republican Party victories over Democrats in the United States: "The people are demanding honest government. The people want services. They want to be able to raise their children in an environment in which they can get a decent education and they can find healthcare." He sounds like a spokesman for Hamas, underlining the irony that Bush and his party have given Americans the least honest government in a generation, have drastically cut services, and have actively opposed extension of healthcare to the uninsured in the United States.

But the president's attempt to dismiss the old ruling Fatah Party as corrupt and inefficient, however true, is also a way of taking the spotlight off his own responsibility for the stagnation in Palestine. Bush allowed then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to sideline the ruling Fatah Party of Yasser Arafat, to fire missiles at its police stations, and to reduce its leader to a besieged nonentity. Sharon arrogantly ordered the murder of civilian Hamas leaders in Gaza, making them martyrs. Meanwhile, Israeli settlements continued to grow, the fatally flawed Oslo agreements delivered nothing to the Palestinians, and Bush and Sharon ignored new peace plans -- whether the so-called Geneva accord put forward by Palestinian and Israeli moderates or the Saudi peace plan -- that could have resolved the underlying issues. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which should have been a big step forward for peace, was marred by the refusal of the Israelis to cooperate with the Palestinians in ensuring that it did not produce a power vacuum and further insecurity.

Frustrated, the Palestinian public predictably swung to the far right. Their embrace of Hamas does not indicate that most Palestinians are dedicated to destroying Israel; polls show that most support a two-state solution and are weary of the endless violence. Rather, they are sick of the Palestinian Authority and believe that Hamas will be more effective negotiating partners with the Israelis. As a Saudi political talk show host told the Associated Press, "They [Hamas] will be the Arab Sharon. They will be tough, but only a tough group can snatch concessions from Israel."

In a mystifying self-contradiction, Bush trumpeted that "the Palestinians had an election yesterday, the results of which remind me about the power of democracy." If elections were really the same as democracy, and if Bush was so happy about the process, then we might expect him to pledge to work with the results, which by his lights would be intrinsically good. But then he suddenly swerved away from this line of thought, reverting to boilerplate and saying, "On the other hand, I don't see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as part of your platform. And I know you can't be a partner in peace if you have a -- if your party has got an armed wing."

So Bush is saying that even though elections are democracy and democracy is good and powerful, it has produced unacceptable results in this case, and so the resulting Hamas government will lack the legitimacy necessary to allow the United States to deal with it or go forward in any peace process. Bush's double standard is clear in his diction, since he was perfectly happy to deal with Israel's Likud Party, which is dedicated to the destruction of the budding Palestinian state, and which used the Israeli military and security services for its party platform in destroying the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority throughout the early years of this century.

As Orwell reminded us, some are more equal than others.

Bush has boxed himself into an impossible situation. He promoted elections that have produced results opposite of the ones he wanted. For all his constant rhetoric about his determination to hunt down and kill terrorists, in Palestine he has in effect helped install into power a group he calls "terrorists." His confusion over whether this is democracy, which should be legitimate, or is an unacceptable outcome -- and his unwillingness to address the underlying issues behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- suggest that a fatal paralysis will continue to afflict the region.

Fuck the MPAA

Check out this short video parodying the warning messages that the MPAA inserts before DVDs. It features a series of increasingly rude and bullying messages about what you have "agreed" to by buying the DVD, starting with: WARNING: THE UNLAWFUL DUPLICATION OF THIS MOVIE CARRIES A MAXIMUM PENALTY GREATER THAN THAT OF MANY VIOLENT CRIMES. THE EXPENSE OF RETAINING LEGAL COUNSEL COMPARABLE TO OURS MAY RESULT IN THE LIQUIDATION OF YOUR PERSONAL ASSETS. PROCEEDS FROM THE SALE OF OF THIS MEDIA MAY BE USED TO ARREST YOUR CHILDREN.

It gets even better from there on in, too.

(From Brenda via BoingBoing)

"Tristram Shandy: Cock & Bull Story" Review

This wonderfully absurd adaptation of the classic novel isn't afraid to laugh at itself -- and you'll laugh at it too.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Jan. 27, 2006 | Being a lover of the classics is such a humorless gig, particularly when it comes to movie adaptations of great books. Late last year, the Jane Austen Society, as well as many plain old Jane Austen fans, dipped Joe Wright's lively "Pride & Prejudice" into their home test kits and found its Austenticity lacking: The country dance was too noisy and undignified, the characters took unforgivable liberties with the book's dialogue, and too much of the story happened outdoors. The ending seen in American theaters, in which Lizzy and Darcy actually kiss, was the last straw; in Austen's world, characters never kissed, even, apparently, in private.

The terrible and beautiful thing about adaptations of great books is that they're always intruders, invading our already crowded imaginations and demanding a little space of their own. But their audaciousness is often mistaken for a kind of overwrite capability, a demonic code written expressly to erase (and not just accessorize) the joyful and intensely private experience of reading. How much power we cede to a movie adaptation of a beloved book is up to us, not it, and yet we can't help seeing a "failed" adaptation as the dangerous enemy of everything we hold dear.

As an adaptation of Laurence Sterne's 18th century comic novel "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman," Michael Winterbottom's "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" is surely a failure, considering that less than a third of the movie even deals with scenes from the novel. But as an attempt to wrestle with the intricacies of adaptation -- and as a way of facing up, with good humor and humility, to the reality that no matter how much integrity you bring to the task, you're bound to mess up -- it may be the most honest kind of adaptation imaginable. "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" is, among other things, a movie-within-a-movie, a sly meditation on the haphazard, unpredictable nature of creativity, and an affectionate cuff on the nose for actors everywhere, exposing, in good fun, their vanity, insecurities and tendency toward jealousy. The movie's delights unfold like an exotic puzzle: Winterbottom has built a detailed, miniature universe inside a sugar egg.

Sterne's novel is largely considered unfilmable, and by the time we see the actor who's playing the title character here (an actor named "Steve Coogan" --who's played by the actor Steve Coogan) hanging upside-down in an oversize facsimile of a womb -- complete with a realistically spongy-looking pinky-red interior -- we understand why. I confess, with a degree of shame, that I've never read "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman," but if you haven't, either, we're not alone: One of the running gags of "A Cock and Bull Story" is that nearly no one on the set of the movie-within-a-movie has read it, either. (At one point, Coogan thumbs through a copy, desperately looking for a scene he's been told is crucial, grumbling, "Can you believe a book as thick as this doesn't have an index?") Sterne's novel is, as Coogan explains to a journalist in the movie, a groundbreaking work -- "a postmodern novel before there was any modernism to be 'post' about," he says, summing it up nicely. The book includes a whole page that's nothing but black space, as well as some intricate typography effects and illustrative squiggles. It's a story told in digressions and rambling asides, and that's exactly how Winterbottom has structured the movie, too. Although it may seem formless at first, there's really a ramshackle rigorousness to it.

Coogan plays interlocking roles: the hero, Tristram Shandy; the hero's father, the pompous, overeducated Walter Shandy; and a version of the "real" Steve Coogan who has just had a child with his longtime girlfriend, Jenny (the luminescent Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald). Jenny and the baby have come out from London to the country, where the movie is being filmed, just so this small, new family can spend an evening together. Coogan is happy enough to see her, but he's a little distracted: He's been flirting, in a somewhat innocent but potentially dangerous way, with Jennie (the sly, surefooted Naomie Harris, of "28 Days Later"), a young, vitally attractive woman who's working as a runner on the film. And he's engaged in an ongoing rivalry with another actor in the movie -- an actor named "Rob Brydon," who's played by real-life actor and comedian Rob Brydon. Brydon has been cast as Tristram's uncle, Toby, an eccentric figure who, during wartime, suffered a mysterious injury in a very private place -- "just beyond the asparagus," he explains to his love interest, the Widow Wadman (played by Gillian Anderson, in a small but perfectly shaped performance), as they stroll through the scale-model battlefield he's arduously built in the garden on the Shandy estate.

Coogan worries that Brydon's performance will overshadow his, even though he knows he's the star; he pesters the wardrobe woman for shoes with a thicker sole, so he'll appear more physically imposing than his colleague. ("It should be like I'm Gandalf and he's Frodo" is his directive.) The friction between Coogan and Brydon is the movie's chief driving force, and their conflict carries straight through the movie's credits and perhaps beyond, even after both this movie and its movie-within-a-movie have ended. They bicker and banter, needling one another with not-so-subtle jabs ("Jenny told me how it hasn't been as good after the baby"). Brydon -- who, early in the movie, delivers a marvelous soliloquy on the yellowness of his teeth -- has delusions of leading-manhood, which Coogan waves away dismissively. But whenever Brydon's back is turned, Coogan's self-doubt manifests itself in little furrows of worry across his forehead. Both Coogan and Brydon are by turns endearing and annoying, and part of what make these performances so fun is that we're not really sure how we feel about these characters from one moment to the next. We may laugh at the parade-float size of their egos, but deep down, we know just how they feel.

"A Cock and Bull Story" suggests how infuriating and obnoxious creative people can be, only to circle back and remind us, gently, how much we rely on them for entertainment and pleasure. Winterbottom pokes fun at his characters (and his actors), but his deep affection for them is always clear. (The screenplay, credited to some dude named Martin Hardy, was really written by Winterbottom's longtime collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce. The dialogue feels bracingly improvisational, and much of it very well may be.)

Serious-minded, thoughtful moviegoers often claim they want their movies to be about ideas. But movies that are "about" ideas are often lonely places, empty, echoing churches that make you wonder, Where have all the people gone to? I think Winterbottom cares about both ideas and people, but his ideas speak through his characters, not over them. And even though "A Cock and Bull Story" has some thematic similarities to Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's "Adaptation," it's a far more challenging, and far less self-conscious, piece of work -- in addition to being much, much funnier. Winterbottom, unlike Kaufman and Jonze, doesn't fetishize creativity; he lets it ride him like a Harley on a rough stretch of road, and if he emerges a little bruised and battered, at least he comes up laughing.

And Winterbottom, always in tune with his actors' capabilities, gives them plenty of room to roam between their lines of dialogue. He doesn't underestimate the value of slapstick (Coogan has a great bit in which he shows us what happens when a hot chestnut is dropped down one's pants), but he allows his actors their moments of tenderness, too, as when Coogan sings his distressed infant to sleep with a velvety baritone lullaby. His colleagues and Jenny, enjoying drinks in the common area of the inn where the cast and crew are staying, overhear him on the baby monitor and later tease him mercilessly, but the endearment we feel toward him can't be dissolved. "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" -- perhaps, like the book it's almost based on -- is a comedy embedded with secret tips for better, more enjoyable living. The best way to survive in the world is to take pleasure in its absurdity, and, of course, to maintain the ability to laugh at yourself. Extra points to you if you can do so while hanging upside-down in a giant womb.

Oprah's revenge

She is a total bitch and if you don't think this is about her ego, I have a certain bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in purchasing.

The daytime queen didn't just expose the lies in James Frey's "memoir." She publicly shamed him -- and it was a little creepy.

By Hillary Frey

Jan. 27, 2006 | Today, Oprah Winfrey found herself in a position she has never been in before: having to apologize to her audience. "I regret that phone call," she said during a live taping of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in Chicago. She was referring to her Jan. 11 phone-in to Larry King, during which the daytime queen expressed support for Oprah's Book Club author James Frey, who was under the initial round of fire for having fabricated parts of his mega-selling memoir "A Million Little Pieces." "I left the impression that the truth does not matter," she said. "To everyone who has challenged me about this book -- you are absolutely right."

Good for Oprah, right? Admitting being wrong, as Oprah has no doubt counseled guests on her show many times, isn't an easy thing to do, especially in front of millions of people. Yet, in the wake of this week's New York Times reports casting even wider doubts on the veracity of Frey's memoir, she didn't have much of a choice. Besides the Smoking Gun's initial investigation showing that Frey lied about time he spent in jail and various run-ins with the law, some employees at the rehab center Frey attended have come forward to dispute his portrait of life there. No doubt her many, many followers (and admirers like myself) have been waiting for Oprah to finally pronounce James Frey a fraud, and to distance herself both from the flimsy book that she made into a phenomenon, and from the lying man she made into a hero.

Yet, even for those of us who have wanted to see Frey go down in flames for his lies, today's "Oprah" was unnerving. As Oprah pounded Frey over various moments in his memoir that have either been proved false or remain dubious (for instance, when and how Lilly, his rehab girlfriend, died, or whether Frey had two root canals without anesthesia), one couldn't help (dare I say it) feeling a little bit sorry for James Frey. As the audience clapped when Oprah spit out a real zinger ("It's a lie!"; "I think you presented a false person"), it was hard to avoid thinking that Frey was being put on display not to set the record straight, but for a public flogging. More than once Oprah emphasized that this experience has "embarrassed" her. Her revenge: shaming another person in front of a live studio audience. Who knew that Oprah was an "eye for an eye" kind of lady?

Through all of this, Oprah has blamed Frey's publisher for mislabeling the book, insisting that it should have been called a novel "based on a true story" instead of a memoir. (Rumors have been floated that Doubleday, or Frey's publisher Nan Talese herself, actually took what had been a novel and rechristened it a memoir, hoping for the kinds of sales only afforded to "true stories." Talese says the book was always presented to her as a memoir.) Today, Oprah brought Talese on to prod her about this. She asked whether there weren't "red flags" in "A Million Little Pieces" that should have led Doubleday to investigate whether Frey's story was true. Citing the gruesome root canal scene, Oprah asked whether that shouldn't have been a signal that Frey was making things up.

To be sure, Doubleday, at the very least, should have required Frey to include an editor's note making clear that he had altered events and changed many characteristics of the women and men who populate his memoir. (Talese announced today that all future editions of Frey's book will carry such a note.) But here's a question: If Oprah can see now that outrageous events like his novocaine-free dental work were "red flags" that the publisher should have heeded, why didn't she pause there, too, before choosing "A Million Little Pieces" for her club? Oprah did her best today to play wounded, claiming that she feels "duped," and "conned" by James Frey. "The book is so fantastical," Oprah told Talese. Then why did Oprah herself take it at face value and sell it to her acolytes?

One thing is certain. As the New York Times' Frank Rich put it on "Oprah" today, this is "amazing television!" Rich appeared along with Richard Cohen of the Washington Post and Roy Peter Clark from the Poynter Institute (there were also, it must be noted, key taped segments featuring the blatherings of Maureen Dowd, Joel Stein and Stanley Crouch) to further the debate over the punishment of James Frey -- though Rich took it one leap further, decrying lying in all aspects of culture, including Enron, the sham of Jessica Simpson's marriage to Nick Lachey and the war in Iraq (at which point Oprah's eyes glazed over). This took what was decent, if depressing, theater to the level of farce. At one point Clark suggested that publishers should institute a ratings system for memoirs, to alert readers to how truthful a book is (an A+, or something like it, going to "State of War" author James Risen; a D to "A Child Called It" author Dave Pelzer); sadly, Oprah and audience seemed to respond well to this idea.

Here's what I say to Oprah: We don't need a ratings system for memoirs. We need to find meaning in books apart from their authors' oversize personalities, or bizarre travails. Oprah is right that the truth does matter. But if what she really wants to promote through her book club are incredible stories -- and Frey's, had it been true, was perhaps most incredible of all -- she should look back to where she used to find them: fiction.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Unbelievably offensive ad from Boeing

This is for the CV-22 Osprey military plane, showing what appears to be a mosque under siege. The headline reads:

"It descends from the heavens. Ironically, it unleashes hell."

Fortunately, Boeing saw the error of their ways and promptly apologized and withdrew the ad.

In the Zone

Posted on Monday, January 23, 2006. From the transcript of radio communication among Israeli soldiers near Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. The recording was submitted in January 2005 in the trial of the company commander, whose name has been withheld due to a military court order. He faces a maximum of three years in prison. Translated from the Hebrew by Nomi Friedman. Originally from Harper's Magazine, May 2005.

SENTRY: We spotted an Arab female about 100 meters below our emplacement, near the light armored vehicle gate.

HEADQUARTERS: Observation post “Spain,” do you see it?

OBSERVATION POST: Affirmative, it’s a young girl. She’s now running east.

HQ: What is her position?

OP: She’s currently north of the authorized zone.

SENTRY: Very inappropriate location.


OP: She’s now behind an embankment, 250 meters from the barracks. She keeps running east. The hits are right on her.

HQ: Are you talking about a girl under ten?

OP: Approximately a ten-year-old girl.

HQ: Roger.

OP: OP to HQ.

HQ: Receiving, over.

OP: She’s behind the embankment, dying of fear, the hits are right on her, a centimeter from her.

SENTRY: Our troops are storming toward her now. They are around 70 meters from her.

HQ: I understand that the company commander and his squad are out?

SENTRY: Affirmative, with a few more soldiers.

OP: Receive. Looks like one of the positions dropped her.

HQ: What, did you see the hit? Is she down?

OP: She’s down. Right now she isn’t moving.

COMPANY COMMANDER [to HQ]: Me and another soldier are going in. [To the squad] Forward, to confirm the kill!

cc [to HQ]: We fired and killed her. She has . . . wearing pants . . . jeans and a vest, shirt. Also she had a kaffiyeh on her head. I also confirmed the kill. Over.

HQ: Roger.

CC [on general communications band]: Any motion, anyone who moves in the zone, even if it’s a 3-year-old, should be killed. Over.


A man is flying in a hot air balloon and realizes he is lost. He reduces height and spots a man down below. He lowers the balloon further and shouts, "Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?"

The man below says, "Yes, you're in a hot air balloon, hovering 30 feet above this field. "

"You must be an engineer", says the balloonist.

"I am", replies the man. "How did you know?"

"Well", says the balloonist, "everything you have told me is technically correct, but it's of no use to anyone."

The man below says, "You must be in management."

"I am", replies the balloonist, "but how did you know?"

"Well", says the man, "you don't know where you are, or where you're going, but you expect me to be able to help. You're in the same position you were before we met, but now it's my fault."

If you're in, you win

Penetrative sex improves public speaking

A researcher at the University of Paisley has determined that having regular penetrative sex (and only penetrative sex) makes people into better, more relaxed public speakers:

For a fortnight, 24 women and 22 men kept diaries of how often they engaged in various forms of sex. Then they underwent a stress test involving public speaking and performing mental arithmetic out loud.

Volunteers who had had penetrative intercourse were found to be the least stressed, and their blood pressure returned to normal faster than those who had engaged in other forms of sexual activity such as masturbation. Those who abstained from any form of sexual activity at all had the highest blood pressure response to stress.

Killing Blackberry: an example of New Capitalism

An intellectual property lawsuit could silence the ever-present hand-held e-mail device.

For everyone who ever wished that BlackBerrys were illegal, they soon could be. The ubiquitous hand-held e-mail-phone devices often provoke rage in would-be conversation partners, disgust in onlookers, and fury in those forced to endure their incessant beeping.

But Type A workaholics everywhere are in agony, as a mano a mano battle brews over this ostentatious icon of the information elite. In one corner is Research in Motion Ltd., the Canadian firm in Waterloo, Ontario, that created and manufactures BlackBerrys. In the other is NTP Inc., a small Virginia-based U.S. patent firm that apparently holds the patent on BlackBerry's wireless transmission of e-mail.

The fight cuts to the heart of the battle over intellectual property rights in an information economy. With rising competition at home and abroad, companies are desperately trying to stay current by offering new, innovative goods such as hand-helds, downloadable music, and satellite radio, all at sonic speeds of production. But the obsession with novelty is risky business when it is often unclear whether someone else may already own the idea.

NTP's patents concern wireless transmission of e-mail by radio frequency to a mobile receiver like a BlackBerry. The patents were initially registered by NTP founder Thomas Campana, in 1991, to patent a wireless communication system he created for his original pager company. NTP holds that BlackBerry is encroaching on NTP's patents in its wireless e-mail delivery to its hand-helds. BlackBerry insists its proprietary software does not impinge upon NTP's territory.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review an appeals court ruling on the case. Specifically, the appeals court held that although RIM's main relay station is based in Canada, the company must still abide by U.S. patent law, given that customers use the device inside U.S. borders. The high court decision means that all BlackBerry service could be suspended as soon as Feb. 1 if no settlement is reached, causing high-powered frenzies from Wall Street to Waikiki. (BlackBerry has 4.3 million U.S. subscribers.) But the U.S. government isn't entirely on the same page. In December 2005, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office announced that it intended to reject NTP's five patents and its arguments as "unpersuasive." It is still reviewing the case.

RIM put a brave face on Monday's Supreme Court setback. "[W]e were not banking on a Supreme Court review," Mark Guibert, RIM's vice president for corporate marketing, said in a statement. Should a district court judge in Richmond, Va. -- who sided with NTP in 2003 -- rule that BlackBerry must halt its services before the patent office makes its final decision, BlackBerry has created "workaround software" to keep the company in business, Guibert said. NTP could not be reached for comment.

The case was almost resolved last year, when RIM tentatively settled with NTP for $450 million. That agreement imploded, and now the settlement price has skyrocketed to somewhere between $700 million and $1.5 billion, as BlackBerrys have become more popular. With so much money at stake for both companies, analysts say a settlement remains possible.

In the meantime, Karl Marx would be amused to watch RIM and NTP tear each other apart. Now that capital (like communication) is increasingly virtual, those who think they own the means of production may need to double-check their capitalist credentials. It turns out that it's no longer enough to invent a product, build a factory and dominate the market as RIM did. A clever investor such as NTP, a company whose sole purpose is to hold patents, may turn out to be your boss.

The internecine ownership arguments are having some concrete trickle-down effects. While Mommy and Daddy fight over patent rights, the BlackBerry-toting spawn are terrified at the possibility of mobile e-mail deprivation. Ontario-based RIM has been so dominant in convincing American overachievers to buy BlackBerrys that the "South Park" creators should think about adding it to their song, "Blame Canada." If BlackBerrys go dark, so will the mood of much of Wall Street. While this may delight the pen-and-ink crowd, it will likely (if temporarily) cost millions in lost time, reduced efficiency, and therapy bills.

It will also be a significant victory for intellectual property rights. BlackBerry's classic market success will have been brought to heel by a small U.S. holding company that doesn't produce anything, speculates on products that may never exist and exercises intellectual "slavery". In other words, BlackBerry will have been defeated by an idea. Marx would have been VERY proud.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

England, here I come!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

O'ReIlly Factor Debate

A great email from a Factor watcher regarding "Bill" O'Reilly's upcoming Factor debate, where he invites ordinary Americans to debate him on the air, in a subject of their choosing:

"Bill, I would not engage in a battle of wits with you, in your upcoming Factor Debate, because I would not attack an unarmed man." Rich Robins, Philisburg, PA.

Spanish-American War Cellphone Tax

Another story about how well this country is run. What a joke.

Anybody who has ever tried to decipher a cell phone bill knows how tough it can be. One of the charges is a 3 percent fee on every cell phone bill in America. The origin of the tax predates the invention of the cellular phone by nearly a century.
Annie Brinkman and her friend, Stacey Lemle, don't know it, but every time they use their cell phones, they are supporting the war effort -- the Spanish-American War.

The 1898 war involved Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. The fee began as a luxury tax on phones at the turn of the 19th Century. And we're all still paying for it today. Phone bills don’t specify that the tax originates from the Spanish-American War. It is labeled as the federal excise tax, which amounts to 3 percent of every monthly bill.

"When you say it's a federal excise tax, you know, most of the time, oh it's the federal excise tax," said Laura Merritt of Verizon Wireless. "And that's just understood that it's a tax you pay. Where exactly those funds go is something that's a mystery to all of us."

It's not such a mystery anymore. And now, at least three federal courts have ruled the tax illegal. Many cell phone companies support a repeal of that tax. But they say they are caught in the middle.

"We're required to continue collecting that tax from our customers until the IRS tells us to stop doing that," said Merritt.
Some lawmakers are demanding cell phone companies stop collecting the tax and refund three years worth of fees.

But for now, every time you make a cell phone call, you'll continue to pay for a war fought more than 107 years ago.

According to the Web site www.mywireless.org, you can ask the IRS for a refund of up to three years of past taxes. You can also contact members of Congress to ask them to repeal the tax altogether.


Unbelievable..this is a story which the media obviously never brings up. I wonder why?

On this day, a B-52 bomber collides with KC-135 jet tanker over Spain's Mediterranean coast, dropping three 70-kiloton hydrogen bombs near the town of Palomares and one in the sea. It was not the first or last accident involving American nuclear bombs.

As a means of maintaining first-strike capability during the Cold War, U.S. bombers laden with nuclear weapons circled the earth ceaselessly for decades. In a military operation of this magnitude, it was inevitable that accidents would occur. The Pentagon admits to more than three-dozen accidents in which bombers either crashed or caught fire on the runway, resulting in nuclear contamination from a damaged or destroyed bomb and/or the loss of a nuclear weapon. One of the only "Broken Arrows" to receive widespread publicity occurred on January 17, 1966, when a B-52 bomber crashed into a KC-135 jet tanker over Spain.

The bomber was returning to its North Carolina base following a routine airborne alert mission along the southern route of the Strategic Air Command when it attempted to refuel with a jet tanker. The B-52 collided with the fueling boom of the tanker, ripping the bomber open and igniting the fuel. The KC-135 exploded, killing all four of its crew members, but four members of the seven-man B-52 crew managed to parachute to safety. None of the bombs were armed, but explosive material in two of the bombs that fell to earth exploded upon impact, forming craters and scattering radioactive plutonium over the fields of Palomares. A third bomb landed in a dry riverbed and was recovered relatively intact. The fourth bomb fell into the sea at an unknown location.

Palomares, a remote fishing and farming community, was soon filled with nearly 2,000 U.S. military personnel and Spanish civil guards who rushed to clean up the debris and decontaminate the area. The U.S. personnel took precautions to prevent overexposure to the radiation, but the Spanish workers, who lived in a country that lacked experience with nuclear technology, did not. Eventually some 1,400 tons of radioactive soil and vegetation were shipped to the United States for disposal.

Meanwhile, at sea, 33 U.S. Navy vessels were involved in the search for the lost hydrogen bomb. Using an IBM computer, experts tried to calculate where the bomb might have landed, but the impact area was still too large for an effective search. Finally, an eyewitness account by a Spanish fisherman led the investigators to a one-mile area. On March 15, a submarine spotted the bomb, and on April 7 it was recovered. It was damaged but intact.

Studies on the effects of the nuclear accident on the people of Palomares was limited, but the United States eventually settled some 500 claims by residents whose health was adversely affected. Because the accident happened in a foreign country, it received far more publicity than did the dozen or so similar crashes that occurred within U.S. borders. As a security measure, U.S. authorities do not announce nuclear weapons accidents, and some American citizens may have unknowingly been exposed to radiation that resulted from aircraft crashes and emergency bomb jettisons. Today, two hydrogen bombs and a uranium core lie in yet undetermined locations in the Wassaw Sound off Georgia, in the Puget Sound off Washington, and in swamplands near Goldsboro, North Carolina.

Why America Goes to War

Two provocative documentaries, both from the left, offer their views of motives for the Iraq invasion

Dirty little secret: with rare exceptions, there's no such thing as a right-wing documentary. In some informal media Treaty of Versailles, conservatives got talk radio and most of cable-TV news; liberals got the nonfiction movie, which generally has a smaller audience, except when it's made by Michael Moore. Now, emerging from a long season of wounds licking after the 2004 election, the documentary left is back in the Iraq business with Adam Curtis' THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES and Eugene Jarecki's WHY WE FIGHT. Curtis is the agent provocateur of the two. In his 3-hr. BBC documentary, subtitled THE RISE OF THE POLITICS OF FEAR, he makes a breathless case that the US has shifted from a liberal democracy, pledging a better life for its citizens, to a threatening oligarchy, using the specter of alien enemies (lately al-Qaeda) to keep the public in fretful subjugation. He also argues that American neoconservatives have exaggerated the danger posed by Islamic jihadists. The argument, buttressed with a sassy use of news footage and clips from old films and TV shows, zips along with the confident menace of an old horror film. Indeed, with its many questionable rhetorical devices, it's best viewed as a work of docufiction. On that level, though, the movie has it's own nightmare power.

In the much calmer WHY WE FIGHT, the improbably hero is Dwight Eisenhower. As Supreme Allied Commander of World War II, he opposed dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima, according to his son John, who is interviewed in the film. In his 1961 farewell address as President, Eisenhower cautioned against the sprawling "military industrial complex." To Jarecki (THE TRIALS OF HENRY KISSINGER), Eisenhower was a Cassandra unheeded. In the years since Ike issued his warning, the military budget has grown exponentially, and the complex is even more complex, embracing the Pentagon, the arms industry, Congress think tanks and a large slice of the media.

So why do we fight? Because, Jarecki argues, we have all these cool multibillion dollar toys, and we have to play with them somewhere. Iraq is seen as the great playground, both for the weapons and the neocons' vision of a reliable U.S. client state in the Middle East. The second part of this equation awaits history's verdict; the first part didn't work out at all. Iraq has turned out to be an old-fashioned war, one carried out by foot soldiers on dangerous patrol. The toys are not nifty long-range missiles but G.I. Joes: human beings at fatal risk.

Like a PBS Frontline special, but with a bit more attitude, WHY WE FIGHT makes a cogent case against the Iraq adventure. The film is, of course, a handbook for the converted. Those in agreement will see it; those opposed to it will ignore it. That is the fate of political documentaries in an age when the left mostly talks to itself.

Can anyone name this medieval device?

Winner gets a free chastity belt.

Sex, Dogma-style

No mention of golden showers and/ or donkey-punching. I guess I can keep doing them until I hear otherwise.

As scholars question the place of nudity in marriage, Islamic clerics are hotly debating exactly what sexual practices are acceptable, writes Brian Whitaker

A curious religious debate is raging in Egypt. The question is: should you keep your clothes on when having sex?
It began when Dr Rashad Khalil, an expert on Islamic law from al-Azhar university in Cairo warned that being completely naked during intercourse invalidates a marriage. His ruling was promptly dismissed by other scholars, including one who argued that "anything that can bring spouses closer to each other" should be permitted.

Another scholar suggested it was OK for married couples to see each other naked as long as they don't look at the genitals. To avoid problems in that area, he recommended sex under a blanket.

It's not entirely clear whether Dr Khalil has considered the full implications of his edict. Doesn't the prospect of all those virile baton-wielding Egyptian riot policemen (for example) doing it in their boots and black uniforms sound just a little bit kinky? But we'll let that pass.

Unlike Christianity, which tends to be squeamish about sex, Islam has a long tradition of talking about it openly. Up to a point, this is much more healthy. While Catholic priests are enjoined to remain celibate, Muslim clerics are expected to marry and indulge heartily with their wives in the pleasures of the flesh. In many parts of the Muslim world, especially where folk are poor and uneducated, the local imam is the person many turn to for guidance on matters relating to sex and marriage.

Over the last few years, hundreds of Islamic "fatwa" websites have also sprung up on which clerics - often with uncertain qualifications - answer all manner of questions that have been sent to them, including ones about sex. Some of their answers about what "good Muslims" should or shouldn't do in bed are very explicit, so readers under 18 should stop here. While some of the advice is sensible, a lot of it is completely daft, so remaining readers over the age of 18 may wish to get a second opinion before putting it into practice.

Actually, it had never occurred to me that Muslims might be required to keep their clothes on during their most intimate moments until a few months ago when I was browsing through IslamOnline, the website supervised by the prominent (and controversial) Qatar-based cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

Delivering a fatwa on oral sex, 79-year-old Dr Qaradawi describes it as a disgusting western practice, resulting from westerners' habit of "stripping naked during sexual intercourse". But he continues: "Muslim jurists are of the opinion that it is lawful for the husband to perform cunnilingus on his wife, or a wife to perform the similar act for her husband (fellatio) and there is no wrong in doing so. But if sucking leads to releasing semen, then it is makruh (blameworthy), but there is no decisive evidence (to forbid it) ... especially if the wife agrees with it or achieves orgasm by practising it."

On this issue, Dr Qaradawi's views are more permissive than those of several other clerics on the internet. One states that oral sex is definitely forbidden, adding that "this hideous practice will draw the anger of Allah". Another, asked if oral sex is permitted, replies: "I don't know what is oral sex, please define it."

Masturbation is generally frowned upon by Islamic scholars, though they disagree about how sinful it is. The Inter-Islam website describes it as an indecent practice that has "crept into the youngsters of today". Masturbation has become prevalent, the website says, because of the modern tendency for young people to marry later (contrary to the advice of the Prophet). As a result, they feel a need "to fulfil their carnal desires but ... cannot do so in the normal way, ie sexual intercourse". Islamic Voice describes masturbation as an "abominable and wicked act" which is forbidden in Islam. "Its harms are great and it has disastrous consequences as established by doctors."

The "proven" medical effects of masturbation - which, of course, include damage to the eyesight - were once listed by Abd al-Aziz bin Baz, the late Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, and his list is reproduced on numerous Islamic websites. According to bin Baz, masturbation causes disruption of the digestive system, inflammation of the testicles, damage to the spine ("the place from which sperm originates"), and "trembling and instability in some parts of the body like the feet". In addition, there is a weakening of the "cerebral glands" leading to decreased intellect and even "mental disorders and insanity". Furthermore, "due to constant ejaculation, the sperm no more remains thick and dense as it normally occurs in males". This results in sperm which is not "mighty enough" to make a woman pregnant or produces children who are "more prone to disease and illness".

Other scholars argue that masturbation is basically forbidden but may be permitted if the person is unmarried or masturbates in order to avoid a more serious sin such as adultery, or if the masturbation is to release "sexual tension" rather than to fulfil "sexual desire". In a fatwa for IslamOnline, Sheikh Mustafa al-Zarqa says: "I conclude that the general principles of sharia [Islamic law] go against this habit, because it is not the normal way of fulfilling sexual desire ... it is a deviation - and that is enough to condemn it, even though this act does not fall under the category of absolute prohibition."

There is generally more consensus among scholars on the question of kissing. Males and females should not kiss unless they are related by blood or marriage. Same-sex kissing, on the other hand, is allowed as long as it is done without "lust" and avoids the person's mouth. Hands and cheeks are the preferred places to kiss. The forehead is also good because the Prophet reportedly once gave a man a smacker between the eyes.

In this context, the ethics of kiss-of-life resuscitation are considered by IslamOnline. The website quotes Dr Ahmad Muhammad Kan'an, head of the infectious diseases department at the Primary Medical Care Administration in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia: "The kiss of life is legally permissible because it is a means of resuscitation, if Allah wills. Yet, it goes without saying that it is impermissible unless necessary. So, if it is certain that the victim has already died, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation becomes impermissible, for there is no necessity in such a case." While administering the kiss of life, IslamOnline adds, rescuers should be careful to do it with "neither lust nor pleasure".

There is much disagreement on Islamic websites about anal sex between men and women. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest-ranking Shia cleric in Iraq, says it is "strongly undesirable", but permissible if the wife agrees. This seems to be quite a common view, though many Sunni clerics maintain that consent is irrelevant. "Anal sex is a grave sin and is completely forbidden, regardless of whether the wife agrees to it or not," one says.

The most common religious objection to anal sex is that it frustrates the main purpose of marriage - to produce children - and the same objection is applied to masturbation. "Islam strictly forbids the waste of seminal fluid," one website says.

It is precisely to avoid having too many children that some Muslims practice anal sex. One man, writing to the Islamic Q&A website, says that his wife doesn't have any problem with it. "I think this is the best way of family planning instead of using condoms," the man writes, though he adds that many of his friends have told him otherwise. "People are confusing me so please tell me what to do." Mufti Ebrahim Desai replies: "The futile excuse of it being better than a contraceptive doesn't carry any weight. If you are justified in using a contraceptive, then there are many different options on the market which could be adopted, instead of this hideous practice."

Although Muslim scholars regard pregnancy as the primary goal of sex and marriage, they are generally more pragmatic than the Roman Catholic church about family planning. Contraception is allowed, though the rules can be rather complicated.

Shia clerics often seem to be more flexible in sexual matters than Sunnis. For example, "temporary marriage" is a Shia tradition which in effect legalises prostitution. Sunni clerics, especially those influenced by Saudi Wahhabism, like to assert their authority by forbidding anything that might be remotely pleasurable.

Much of the discussion is sadly reminiscent of the old Christian debate about the number of angels that can dance on a pinhead, but sex is only one part of the problem. The current fashion for online fatwas has created an amazingly legalistic approach to Islam as scholars - some of whom have only a tenuous grip on reality - seek to regulate all aspects of life according to their own interpretation of the scriptures. It is much harder to find any discussion on Muslim websites of matters that some would say form the basic substance of religion, such as the nature of love and spiritual experiences.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

If you like Orwell and well-made British movies, don't miss this one.

Save Serenity!

Fans of Joss Whedon, take note! This site is hellbent on resurrecting the unjust death of the UPN show, Serenity. The count is at $387, which should be good enough for about...3 seconds of new footage. Can I suggest a better tack?

But the DVD movie and TV show in record numbers and they'll have to bring it back. Look at what with Fox's "Family Guy".

Tender Love

Did you know that the UPN show "Girlfriends" is executive produced by Kelsey Grammer aka Frasier?

Why do I find that creepy?

Talking Tools

I read this article today and it reminded me of this sordid little tale, from my wanton youth, related at the end of this article. Kids...you don't want to grow up into someone like me.

Talking Head Vibrators
Sex toys with microsized, close-up lens cameras attached are disturbing enough, but what are we to make of a multispeed vibrator with a recording device which allows you to “record your own voice, your lover’s or download voices from anonymous strangers to fulfill your most lustful ambitions”? Four out of five Fleshbot staffers we discussed this with expressed some discomfort with the idea; as one of them put it, “Having someone whisper sweet nothings in my ear is one thing, but hearing my lover’s voice come out of my pussy while I’m trying to get off is just plain creepy.”

Your mileage, of course, may vary.

In 2000, I met this girl in Stamford, Connecticut, in a bar called Temple. To cut a long story short, there was no chemistry so when she asked me what I did, I played coy and eventually told her, with mock reluctance, that I designed sex toys and that my new project was a talking vibrator with the ability to download dirty talk from "our" website.

I guess this intrigued her enough to call me at my work number, which I had given her. As soon as the receptionist put her through, she said to me: "Wunderman...good name!"

Good Eagle Woman

Encountering homeland security in Iowa City, Mona Prince discovers the dignity of speaking up against intimidation.

In a climate where the United States is seen as an aggressor enforcing her way and will on the rest of the world, I found myself excited last summer to be heading to America after being chosen as part of the International Writing Program (IWP) in Iowa City. My excitement stemmed from the fact that I refused to believe that the US, with one of the best constitutions in the world, where individual rights are cherished and defended, has lost its soul. Rather I wanted to believe that its current policy is an aberration that came to pass as a result of fears arisen after 9/11, and not a true reflection of what America is all about. I could not think of a better bridge to mend the widening gap between the image and true face of the Arab "other". As an Egyptian woman writer and academic, I wanted so much to show the true face of the other, transcending the stereotype that has been propagating in the US lately, wanted in my own small way to unveil that thick veil of misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

I was officially invited by the US Embassy in Cairo and funded by the US State Department to participate in the IWP, an invitation I wholeheartedly accepted. I was delighted to be part of a programme that fosters mutual understanding, cross-cultural communication, and tolerance; to share and exchange ideas with, and learn from, the other international writers as well as our American counterparts in an academic institution setting at the University of Iowa where the programme resides.

I arrived in Iowa City and my first two weeks in the program was all I would have hoped for. I felt energised, thinking of many things I want to do -- material for my writings that would benefit from my stay in the US within the IWP. One of my major interests and ideas for a writing project was to visit an Indian reservation, get in contact with Native American traditional storytellers and learn about their spiritual practices. What unravelled after those two weeks was so much telling of the extent of the erosion of the American way as a result of the current administration's policy and how deep it has affected even the best of sanctuaries and defendants of individual rights, transforming academics and poets into big brothers driven by homeland security to charter the handling of their programmes.

I informed the programme director of my interest in visiting an Indian reservation and explained to him the reason behind my interest. His initial response was positive. So I took it upon myself to search for potential places I could visit and found one in a neighbouring state. I informed the director where I would be heading -- a short visit to Minneapolis to visit an Indian reserve. The e-mail response that I have received from the director was a total shocker in both language and content. I was threatened with homeland security law, informing me that I could not leave Iowa City and if I did I would be expelled from the programme and the United States. I was made to feel like a prisoner at best, a criminal at worst. At no point before or during my visit was I made aware of any rule in the IWP program restricting the movements of international visitors. Additionally, an immigration officer confirmed that there were no such rules. This incident and what followed thereafter made me think whether this response from the director was an isolated and petty exercise of power or was symptomatic of a bigger picture where homeland security and what it entails is starting to seep into the American system, reaching the gate of institutions that are traditionally viewed as strong voices for the preservation of the individual rights, voices against stereotyping and labelling of the "other". Are the fences of Guantanamo Bay slowly closing on academia, indeed on all of us? I abided by the director's decision and did not go to Minneapolis. Elation and excitement were quickly replaced by feelings of failure and depression. Guantanamo seemed just around the next corner.

After a few e-mail exchanges with the programme director, and a fruitless effort to get advice or help from the US embassy, I decided to break my silence and to speak out against the intimidation and abuse. I wrote several statements against the unprofessional and undiplomatic handling of my situation, while demanding at the same time an official apology, as well as to be provided with the governing laws by which writers should abide while in the programme. I sent all the official correspondences between the programme director and myself to all parties concerned, as this matter impacted upon all the members of the IWP programme. Not only was I severely criticised for speaking up against this injustice, I was repeatedly intimidated, offended, and threatened by the grave consequences that would be directed at me if I do not put an end to my vocalism, which I took to mean, "Shut up and take the abuse." The programme director, eventually, decided to terminate my participation in the programme because of the public statements I made, as clearly stated in his official letter. I was removed from all my scheduled public cultural activities and my funding was cut, leaving me with two days to evacuate Iowa City. The termination letter cited a US State Department decision that I have yet to receive.

After my deportation from Iowa City, I joined a group of African Americans who were evacuated from New Orleans after the Katrina hurricane. I felt for them and in some way felt part of them. What those evacuees told me in interview is a counter- narrative that expressed their concerns about how America was, to their minds, disintegrating from within, which has resonated very well with my own experience in Iowa. A different form of "homeland security" had been imposed on them, and their human and constitutional rights had been violated. During the current administration they had more than ever been marginalised, made to feel like they belong to a second-class America. They looked at the breach of the levy that flooded the city, their homes, as a symbol of the neglect of the current administration that is preoccupied with the "unjust" war in Iraq. They were forced at gunpoint -- fully loaded M16s -- to leave their houses while affluent white Americans were extended all necessary assistance and did not have to leave their homes. They told of being searched several times for weapons, as if they were terrorists in their own country. They were shipped in a plane, guarded by armed soldiers, without knowing their destination, to finally land as refugees in Omaha, Nebraska.

Before I flew back to Egypt, I was able to finally arrange a meeting with Native Americans. I met one of the five elders of the Dakota nation who still speaks the Dakota language and performs the spiritual ceremonies of his tribe. Contrary to what I have heard from the IWP administration, I was unreservedly welcomed by the spiritual elder and his family. I was offered a sweat lodge ceremony that is meant to purify the soul, mind and body, which was attended by other non-Native Americans. We were a mixed group of all colours and ethnic backgrounds. The ceremony began with an ancient Indian saying "we are all relatives." Following the instructions of the spiritual elder, we all prayed in our different languages for the good health and happiness of all people. The ceremony ended again with the same wise man iterating that "we are all relatives." After the ceremony was finished, all of us had a collective dinner at the house of the spiritual interpreter. Before I left the reserve, I asked if I could have an Indian name. They agreed, and a special ceremony was held for me the following day. The name that was given to me from the spiritual world was "Good Eagle Woman."

I flew back home empowered by the immense knowledge and experience I gained in the US. In spite of having the misfortune of leaving the programme earlier than planned, and being subjected to such unjust and unfortunate treatment from the IWP director, I remain enriched by the whole journey, by finding it in myself to stand up for my rights, to refuse to be intimidated into silence. When I was about to leave the US, I witnessed the emergence of voices that started to speak out against the war, against the erosion of what is great in the American system, against homeland security as pretext for silencing "other" voices. I will always remember the people that came to my defence; the refugees in Nebraska that hosted me when I was deported from Iowa City, and my spiritual enriching encounter with the Natives. As my journey came to a close, I came out of it flying like an eagle having broken free, resisted being bullied into submission, even under the pretext of "homeland security". I can't think of my journey to the US without thinking about the "Good Eagle Woman" as a symbol for resisting silence.

Chelsea: The Proctor & Gamble of Football?

If you've ever had the displeasure of working for or with Proctor & Gamble, you'll be well aware of their proclivity of planning for every contingency, outspending their competition and following a single business and marketing model for their products without a single deviation until it can be proven that that model is obsolete. It's cold, ruthless and very effective.

You could say the same thing about the model employed by Jose Mourinho's Chelsea FC, financed by the seemingly endless wealth of their Russian benefactor, Roman Abrahamovic. They never lose and when they do, it's widely seen as an anomaly. It's also celebrated as a victory for the soul of football over the finances. And therein lies the problem with Chelsea and why their adoption of a P&G-like model is a bad thing for football.

It's not a question of them having more money than their rivals: Man United, Arsenal, Real Madrid, Juventus and FC Milan have been outspending their competitors for years. The difference is that those teams have never, openly at least, eschewed attractive football in favor of a negative, results-first approach that Mourinho seems to insist on. He maintains that he's not in the business of entertaining, but in the business of getting results. He's right. In the short term.

This approach is suited to P&G because their objective is simple: make money. Football is, lest anyone forget, is charged with "entertaining the proles". If it stops doing that, the long term damage to the game might be be irreparable. If the leading light of English football wins but doesn't entertain, less and less people will watch, especially the younger generation. They'll be the kings of an ever-shrinking kingdom. And while the record books will speak of Chelsea's dominance, the magic of football is maintained only through the applause and songs of the fans.

Manchester United fans can point to 1999 as the year where their team proved that you can win and be magical, all at once. And forever, that remains the gold standard. If Chelsea hope to ever become the greatest team ever, they'll need to do more than win games. They'll need to win fans.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Collateral Losses

Instead of trumping the figure of US losses at every single turn, how about the number of innocent lives lost in this war? Civilian men, women and children that the media seems to shrug it's shoulders at as if to say "People die in war". Had these been American civilians, there would be speeches and black ribbons, memorials and flowers by the thousands, eloquent poetry and moments of silence. Because they're not, we get another kind of silence; the silence of heads turning away, as if to say that what happened just wasn't important enough.

There is no "war on terror". This is a war of hubris and arrogance. The events of 9/11 were a crime on innocents but so are all the innocent people who die through unmanned drone strikes in crowded civilian areas in Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm fed up with all the Orwellian double-think spin on what is essentially a human travesty.

Atech's toilet paper dispenser/iPod dock

Well, it's a good thing we discovered a cure for cancer and AIDS before we tackled the problem of people unable to charge their Ipods in the bathroom. This isn't a hoax, by the way.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Econ-Atrocity Bulletin

Ten Reasons Why You Should Never Accept a Diamond Ring from Anyone, Under Any Circumstances, Even If They Really Want to Give You One (2/14/02)
By Liz Stanton, CPE Staff Economist

1. You've Been Psychologically Conditioned To Want a Diamond
The diamond engagement ring is a 63-year-old invention of N.W.Ayer advertising agency. The De Beers diamond cartel contracted N.W.Ayer to create a demand for what are, essentially, useless hunks of rock.

2. Diamonds are Priced Well Above Their Value
The De Beers cartel has systematically held diamond prices at levels far greater than their abundance would generate under anything even remotely resembling perfect competition. All diamonds not already under its control are bought by the cartel, and then the De Beers cartel carefully managed world diamond supply in order to keep prices steadily high.

3. Diamonds Have No Resale or Investment Value
Any diamond that you buy or receive will indeed be yours forever: De Beers’ advertising deliberately brain-washed women not to sell; the steady price is a tool to prevent speculation in diamonds; and no dealer will buy a diamond from you. You can only sell it at a diamond purchasing center or a pawn shop where you will receive a tiny fraction of its original "value."

4. Diamond Miners are Disproportionately Exposed to HIV/AIDS
Many diamond mining camps enforce all-male, no-family rules. Men contract HIV/AIDS from camp sex-workers, while women married to miners have no access to employment, no income outside of their husbands and no bargaining power for negotiating safe sex, and thus are at extremely high risk of contracting HIV.

5. Open-Pit Diamond Mines Pose Environmental Threats
Diamond mines are open pits where salts, heavy minerals, organisms, oil, and chemicals from mining equipment freely leach into ground-water, endangering people in nearby mining camps and villages, as well as downstream plants and animals.

6. Diamond Mine-Owners Violate Indigenous People's Rights
Diamond mines in Australia, Canada, India and many countries in Africa are situated on lands traditionally associated with indigenous peoples. Many of these communities have been displaced, while others remain, often at great cost to their health, livelihoods and traditional cultures.

7. Slave Laborers Cut and Polish Diamonds
More than one-half of the world's diamonds are processed in India where many of the cutters and polishers are bonded child laborers. Bonded children work to pay off the debts of their relatives, often unsuccessfully. When they reach adulthood their debt is passed on to their younger siblings or to their own children.

8. Conflict Diamonds Fund Civil Wars in Africa
There is no reliable way to insure that your diamond was not mined or stolen by government or rebel military forces in order to finance civil conflict. Conflict diamonds are traded either for guns or for cash to pay and feed soldiers.

9. Diamond Wars are Fought Using Child Warriors
Many diamond producing governments and rebel forces use children as soldiers, laborers in military camps, and sex slaves. Child soldiers are given drugs to overcome their fear and reluctance to participate in atrocities.

10. Small Arms Trade is Intimately Related to Diamond Smuggling
Illicit diamonds inflame the clandestine trade of small arms. There are 500 million small arms in the world today which are used to kill 500,000 people annually, the vast majority of whom are non-combatants.