Thursday, January 31, 2008

Friday Funnies - Borat - Alan Keyes/Massage

Below are two Borat clips. One is from the movie, where he meets with the perpetually failed Republican candidate Alan Keyes, who provides Borat with a shocking revelation about some friends Borat met at a parade. Unfortunately, whoever put this clip together on Youtube added some music that drowned out the dialog at the end.

The second clip is a very funny scene that was not included in the theatrical release but is one of the bonus scenes on the DVD. Personally, I think this scene should have been in the movie.

Whatever You Do, Don't Call Him Benny

I stumbled across this forum on a Catholic website a short while ago. The members were discussing, and in some cases arguing, over whether it is disrespectful to refer to Pope Benedict by various nicknames. The consensus was that you shouldn't call him Benny, though "the German Shepherd" might be okay. Even though the forum posts date back to April of 2005, they're worth checking out for a few good chuckles.

And while I am in Catholic teasing mode, while I was driving home this evening, I saw a car up ahead of me with a couple of bumperstickers on it that immediately identified the driver, an older lady, as a Catholic. One sticker read "WE LOVE OUR PRIESTS", clearly meant to be an affirmation of trust for the Catholic priesthood in the wake of the pedophile priest scandals. Fine.

But the second and more prominent sticker had me figuratively scratching my head. It boldly declared "ANGRY? NEED A WEAPON? PRAY THE ROSARY!" Uh, really? I don't know about that. I can see maybe using a string of rosary beads as a weapon. If you snuck up behind someone, you could probably strangle that person to death by wrapping the beads around his or her neck and pulling the cord tight. Or you could swing it like a mace and strike a mortal blow to the person's head. I wouldn't put to much faith in the efficacy of prayer though.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

How's That Freedom Working Out, Mister President?

From the opening of this article on the BBC web site:

"The upper house of the Afghan parliament has supported a death sentence issued against a journalist for blasphemy in northern Afghanistan."

Pervez Kambaksh, a 23-year old Afghan man "was convicted last week of downloading and distributing an article insulting Islam."

How about this as a suggestion for spreading freedom throughout the world? Make it part of our government's foreign policy that it will suspend aid and assistance to any country in the world that does not explicitly ban the death penalty for blasphemy. Here in America it is blindingly obvious, but perhaps the message needs to be shouted through a megaphone:


You can give the Afghan Embassy here in the United States the message at:

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Updated Again: Martin Tankleff Massacres Entire Faculty and Student Body at Hofstra University

Okay, that's a very, very big exaggeration!

One of the biggest murder cases on Long Island in the last two decades was the brutal killing of Seymour and Arlene Tankleff in their Belle Terre home in 1988. Police immediately zeroed in on the Tankleff's 16-year old son Martin. He was convicted at trial in 1990. A useful summary of the case can be read in this Newsday article.

Recently, Martin Tankleff's conviction was overturned and he was released from prison. He is now currently attending classes at my alma mater, Hofstra University, as per this article in Newsday. The article mentions several students who are somewhat uneasy about having a person previously convicted of murder going to the same school as them.

One of the students frets "I think it's pretty unsafe if he's just here under no watch." With last year's Virginia Tech massacre in mind, one of the students interviewed by Newsday felt that Hofstra should have notified the student body that Tankleff would be attending their school.

Personally, I don't believe that Hofstra University had any obligation to notify its students about Tankleff. Lest we forget, his conviction was overturned. It's not a situation like a man who served time for rape was attending the university and there was a reasonable fear among female students that he might not be able to contain his urges if he came upon one of them in a dark, isolated part of the campus at night.

To be honest, not having followed the case that closely, I couldn't tell you 100% either way whether Martin Tankleff is innocent or guilty of the murder of his parents. That being the case, his conviction was overturned, and I personally give Martin Tankleff the benefit of the doubt that he is innocent. I wish him well as he starts his life over again as a free man after some seventeen years in prison. Still, his professors might want to be careful and not grade his term papers too harshly!

UPDATE: A commenter to this post has brought to my attention the website Go check it out if this case is of interest to you.

SECOND UPDATE: Newsday has published a couple of letters to the editor today critical of its story on Tankleff taking classes at Hofstra and the reactions to it by some of the Hofstra students mentioned in the article.

Open Thread: Are Humans A Virus?

My favorite scene from The Matrix is the clip above where Agent Smith tells the captured Morpheus what he thinks about the human race. Besides the interesting observation about humanity, I just love the way Hugo Weaving delivers his lines.

Do you agree with Agent Smith's pessimistic opinion of the human race? Are we just doomed to go on polluting our environment, driving countless species to extinction, and killing each other in conflict after conflict without end? Or, like me, do you cling to the hope, however faint it might be, that the human race collectively can eventually come to its senses and temper its worst impulses?

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Malaysia Must Really Suck

Like many bloggers, I have a sitemeter that not only tells me how much (or to be truthful, how little) traffic I am getting, but also where visitors to my blog are located.

Last year I did several posts criticizing Malaysia, here, here, and here, each one with the words "Malaysia Sucks" in the title. I have another reason for thinking that Malaysia really sucks of late, but at the moment I cannot reveal that reason.

At any rate, on a fairly frequent basis I get hits on my blog from Malaysia. Almost every time, the Malaysian visitor has found my blog by searching the term "Malaysia Sucks" on Google or some other search engine. I can only assume that there are a number of people who live in Malaysia who think that their country sucks too.

If you are a Malaysian or someone in currently in Malaysia who has found this blog by typing "Malaysia Sucks" in an internet search engine, I would love to hear from you why you think Malaysia sucks.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Celebrity Spotting of the Day

One of the small perks of working in Manhattan is that you frequently spot celebrities walking past you on the street or waiting in line at Starbucks.

Today I went into work late because of a meeting about my son at his school this morning. On the way to my office from Penn Station, I went into the Cosi restaurant on 7th Avenue between 36th and 37th Streets to get something to eat for lunch. However, the line was too long, so I turned around to walk out. As I headed for the door, an attractive older woman with red hair seated to my right with her back to the window caught my eye. She looked very familiar to me and I realized it was the actress Annette O'Toole. She was talking to a man who sat on the other side of her table, and as I got to the door, they were directly to my right. I realized that I recognized the man as well. I couldn't recall his name, but I knew it was the guy who played Lenny on Laverne & Shirley and one of the band members in the cult classic This Is Spinal Tap.

So, I googled Annette O'Toole, and was surprised to learn that the man she was with, actor Michael McKean, was also her husband. Whether O'Toole and McKean frequent Cosi enough to rack up enough points on their Cosi card for a free coffee I couldn't say.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Friday Funnies - Pulp Fiction - The Watch

This is a classic scene from Quentin Tarantino's movie Pulp Fiction. Christopher Walken delivers his lines as, well, as only Christopher Walken can deliver them. What makes the scene funny is the buildup to the conclusion of the story that Walken's Captain Koons tells the young Butch.

UPDATED: The End of Mike Huckabee?

The atheist and liberal blogosphere has been having a field day lately with Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Consequently, I shied away from writing about Huckabee, because I did not feel I had anything original to contribute.

With his failure to beat Senator John McCain in the South Carolina primary, a state with a large number of evangelical voters, I think it is safe to say that Mike Huckabee's candidacy is now on the fast track to irrelevancy. His victory in Iowa was a flash in the pan and he has not won a single state since then. So much for "God's Army"!

It looks increasingly likely that in the coming weeks, the contest for the Republican nomination will be between McCain and Mitt Romney.

UPDATE: In the wake of Huckabee's defeat in the South Carolina primary, his campaign is having difficulty raising more funds, as reported in this article in the Los Angeles Times (login necessary).

Here's an excerpt:

On the heels of a crucial loss in the South Carolina Republican primary, Mike Huckabee acknowledged Tuesday that he had cut back his campaign operation in Florida, which holds its primary Tuesday.

At least one person was fired, and other aides quit, according to people with the campaign. Several senior staffers have volunteered to work without pay.

"Right now we're replenishing our coffers," said Bob Wickers, Huckabee's media consultant."It's just a bottomless pit in Florida," he added, referring to the high cost of TV ads.

Wickers acknowledged that Huckabee's loss in South Carolina on Saturday had made it more difficult to raise money.

The financial disarray comes a week before the closely fought Republican primary in Florida, a large state that poses logistical problems for any candidate.

The state can't be covered with campaign rallies alone, and a 10-day cycle of TV ads in Florida can cost as much as $2 million. Even with the staff reductions, the campaign can't afford network TV advertising rates and will instead concentrate on cable TV, Wickers said.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Pig Roast

No Filipino celebration, regardless of the occasion, is complete without a pig roast.

My wife's sister's wedding reception was held right on the beach at the Bohol Beach Club. The lovely bridesmaid in blue helping herself to some of the pickings is my wife's youngest sister Josie.

The Dauis Church

This church is located in the town of Dauis on Panglao Island, just a few minutes drive outside of Tagbilaran City. The Dauis Church, according to my travel guide, was built in 1784. Like many of the churches on the island, it is built of sturdy stone and is accompanied by a watchtower (in this case, the watchtower is in back of the church). The people of Bohol would often have to take refuge in the churches when sentinels on the watchtowers spotted Moro raiders coming up the channel from Mindanao.

My wife's sister Mia was married in this church on June 26, 2004, and I took this photo after the ceremony was concluded, if memory serves. Unfortunately, the church being over 200 years old, it did not have air conditioning! My son, who was only three at the time, had a major tantrum after the mass had ended, having to suffer through the ceremony in a tuxedo.

Even if you are not religious, like me, the churches of Bohol are still interesting to visit both for their architectural beauty and their historical significance.

The Philippine Tarsier

I was going over some of the pictures I took from my first visit with my wife and kids to visit her family in the Philippines back in the summer of 2004. I may end up starting a second blog dedicated exclusively to my wife's home island of Bohol. But for now I thought I would belatedly share some pictures from the 2004 trip.

The cute, cuddly looking creature below is the Philippine Tarsier. The tarsier is the world's smallest primate, and as you can see, it has enormous eyes, which it employs in hunting for its food at night. These pictures were taken at the Tarsier sanctuary in Corella, which is north of Bohol's capital, Tagbilaran City.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Movie Review - I Am Legend

Yesterday I took my son with me to see I Am Legend. Unfortunately, I made a mistake in seeing it at the IMAX® theater at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Uniondale. Don't get me wrong, it is a great IMAX theater. The theater is inside a dome and features a 180 degree screen that enhances the visual effects of movies, particular in scenes that feature flying or other such motions. However, I Am Legend was not shot in an IMAX format, so it did not translate well to this particular theater's screen.

First off, having been aware of the mixed reviews the movie received, I did not expect I Am Legend to be the greatest movie ever made. It ended up being exactly what I wanted out of it, a decent movie that held my interest. Will Smith basically has to carry the entire movie on his shoulders, and he manages to pull it off. His dog, called Samantha, also is likeable, and should be nominated for a best supporting animal award. :-)

Most of the movie consists of Smith's military scientist Robert Neville and the aforementioned Samantha looking for food, supplies and engaging in some recreational activities in a deserted Manhattan during the day, and waiting at mid-day at the South Street Seaport for anyone who might have heard his daily broadcast. Nights are spent huddled in Neville's fortified Washington Square Park home hiding from the lurking threat outside. Neville still is engaged in his self-driven mission to try to find a cure for the virus that wiped out billions of people while turning many of the survivors into vampiric mutants.

I have not read the book I Am Legend, from which the movie is loosely adapted, though I did read a synopsis. I have seen the Charlton Heston film The Omega Man several times and I do recall watching the Vincent Price version The Last Man on Earth when I was a child. In The Omega Man, the infected were not monsters, though the virus turned them into albino-like beings that could not tolerate sunlight. They had formed some kind of bizarre cult called "The Family", and in ideology were like religious fanatics trying to destroy Heston's immune Robert Neville, who for them represented the last living reminder of the human race that was responsible for the world's ills. In the Will Smith film, the infected are violent creatures who are seemingly incapable of rational thought, a conclusion that Smith's Neville arrives at, to his later misfortune.

What I found interesting about the portrayal of a Manhattan devoid of humans in the year 2012 is that it jibes with the description of an abandoned Manhattan as depicted in the book The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. I don't know if the writers for I Am Legend consulted with Weisman in creating the look for a post-human Manhattan, though it would not surprise me if they did. I have not read Weisman's book yet, though I did read an excerpt in a recent issue of Scientific American that focused a lot on what would happen in Manhattan. The buzz around Weisman's book also sparked a History Channel special that aired last night called Life After People. It too featured a glimpse of what Manhattan would look like several years after humanity vanished.

While I generally liked I Am Legend, I thought of things that might have been done to make it a better movie for me. At various points in the film we witness flashbacks of Neville trying to get his wife and daughter out of Manhattan before it is completely quarantined. We can assume that Neville was going to have other personnel with him while remaining in Manhattan to try and stop the virus. I would have liked a flashback scene included that showed the last humans with Neville succumbing to the virus and/or the "darkseekers". When we last see Neville's captured "darkseeker", the antivirus he has injected into her is starting to work because he has also put ice around the darkseeker in order to enhance the drug's effects, but we never see where Neville gets the idea to do it, because in a previous scene the antivirus appears to be a failure. I suspect that after the scene where Anna tells him about the alleged survivor's camp in Vermont and that the virus does not seem to work in the cold, Neville gets upset with her and leaves her for a while to be alone. I wonder if there might be a deleted scene where Neville decides to put ice on the darkseeker after pondering what Anna had told him.

Some atheist bloggers who reviewed this movie blanched at the ending dialogue, where Neville appears to accept Anna's explanation that what is happening is part of God's plan. I don't think it necessarily has to be the case. Seconds after he sees the beneficial effects the ice is having on the captured darkseeker in conjunction with the antivirus, the attacking darkseekers threaten to break into the lab. Neville realizes there is only one alternative left if he truly wants his work to have any meaning, and he chooses that alternative. I won't give away the ending to any readers here who have not seen the movie, but based on the trailer below, it looks like the DVD will have an alternate ending as well.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Dangerously Gullible

The February 2008 edition of Mother Jones magazine has an interesting article about the belief "among evangelical Christians (and some Orthodox Jews) that Scripture foretells a massive oil find in the Holy Land" and how gullible people forked over their money to liars and frauds who claimed that they could tap that oil and help bring about Armageddon.

The opening paragraph of the article, titled "Let There Be Light Crude" describes a James Cojanis, "a 70-year old retiree" who was "sitting in his San Jose home with the radio tuned to a popular Christian show called The Prophecy Club." The featured guest was Harold "Hayseed" Stephens, who told listeners that "the greatest oil field on Earth is under the southwest corner of the Dead Sea" and his company, "Ness Energy International, was about to tap into it. In doing so, he said, it would drain the oil fields of the Persian Gulf, prompt Arab countries to attack Israel, and at last touch off the great battle that would usher in the end of days."

We learn from the article that Cojanis purchased $120,000 in Ness stock, which has since plummeted to $3,000. Ness had never even acquired exploration rights in Israel. But according to the article, Cojanis remains undeterred. "When they hit oil and the stock goes skyhigh, that means Armageddon is around the corner."

Stories about people who are suckered by con artists are a dime a dozen, especially among the elderly who are trying to make ends meet or are not in full possession of their faculties. Almost everybody would like to strike it big and become rich. But what is frightening about James Cojanis is that he enthusiastically invested in a shady scheme that he hoped would bring about World War Three. He is not someone looking to get rich. He actively wants to participate in a plot that would results in countless numbers of people getting killed if it actualy had a chance to succeed. Cojanis and others like him are not just gullible, they are dangerously gullible.

The online version of the article is available here.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Dumbest Argument Against Atheism Ever

The hat tip to this is a commenter named Pyre @ #9 in the comments for this post at Pharyngula.

Pyre linked to this op-ed in The Jakarta Post by someone named Evi Mariani. Mariani complains that atheism apparently takes all the fun out of life. Life is more entertaining if you believe in ghosts and superstitions. Also, atheism is expensive, because if you cannot afford doctors and hospitals to treat illnesses, then you cannot seek help from witch doctors if you do not believe in their ability to cure you.

The one thing that ran true for me in the article was the author's exchanges with the atheist Australian. I had the same conversation with my Indonesian friend. She was telling me about all of the superstitions and stories she heard about people dying from magic spells and other such things. I told her that such things could not really be true and that there had to be rational explanations for the things she described to me.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Yeah, Whatever Lady

For some reason, I received in the mail today this week's edition of The Long Island Catholic, which is the newspaper for the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

I browsed through it looking for anything that might make for some good material for the blog. The best I found was a Letter to the Editor by one Judy C. of Smithtown.

After decrying the commercialization of Christmas, she further writes, with my own commentary interspersed in parentheses:

"This year, I tried to make a point of saying Merry Christmas to just about every person I came in contact with, even sales people. (It's my fucking holiday dammit, and you better fucking acknowledge it!) I celebrated at Mass too, trying for a brief moment to forget all the other things that take up so much room in my life.

There are some in my family who don't celebrate Christmas. They don't make room for the Baby Jesus. (Sorry lady, but I already had two babies. I fed them, bathed them, and changed their soiled diapers. Baby Jesus is going to have to go somewhere else. I heard tell that there's a manger in Bethlehem that might have some room for the brat.) For some, he's kind of a joke... and the baby that shepherds and kings looked for and longed for is just a little plastic statue that people put under their trees. (Wait a second lady, first you're complaining that nobody wants to make room for Jesus, but when they do make room for him by putting his little plastic statue under their tree, you're still not happy!) The baby has no place in their busy lives. It saddens me that they don't know Christmas... the REAL Christmas. So, I made it a point to read the Nativity narrative in Luke's Gospel this Christmas. I sat by the tree and played some Christmas carols softly while I read out loud. Who was I reading to? Why Jesus, of course! (And I'm sure he was really listening too.)

One thing that has always irked me is when Christians put the adjective "baby" in front of Jesus. It's like they are purposefully trying to make the Jesus of the Bible out to be some cute, harmless little infant. "H-h-how can you be against Jesus? Why he's just a baby!" I noticed Bill O'Reilly often uses this tactic on his Fox News program. He declares "they're afraid of the Baby Jesus." No asshole, we're not afraid of a baby Jesus. We're afraid of the damage that some of his followers will inflict on this nation if they get their hands on the levers of power.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Indonesia - Islam's Giant with Clay Feet

The most populous Muslim nation in the world is Indonesia, a vast archipelago of islands that straddles South East Asia from Thailand to Australia. And with a total population of some 234 million people, Indonesia ranks as the fourth largest country in numbers of persons, after China, India, and the United States.

For those of us who are concerned about the spread of Islamic radicalism, Indonesia, with its dire poverty and its proximity to international trade routes, clearly merits concern. Islamic fundamentalist groups tend to thrive in poor countries where the government is corrupt and there is a lack of basic social services, and Indonesia is certainly a prime candidate in this regard.

Indonesia is home to a bonafide Muslim terrorist organization, Jemaah Islamiyah, which was behind the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005, as well as the 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy, among others. Recently, the Indonesian branch of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an organization dedicated to setting up a worldwide Muslim caliphate, packed a stadium with nearly 100,000 followers. In some parts of the country, particularly in Aceh province on the island of Sumatra, sharia law has been enforced. See my post on this from December of 2006.

Nevertheless, despite some discouraging signs, it would appear that Indonesia is not on the verge of turning into an Islamic theocracy any time in the near future. Recently, I spoke with my Indonesian friend Lucy, who could be considered a double minority in Indonesia; religiously she is a Catholic and ethnically she is Chinese. Before arriving in the United States last month on a student visa, Lucy lived and worked in Indonesia's bustling capital city, Jakarta. I asked her a number of questions to get her perspective of living as a Christian in a Muslim majority nation.

Lucy assured me that Jakarta was a fairly tolerant city with respect to the practice of religion. She told me that she does not feel any pressure to convert to Islam, nor is she harrassed about not wearing a headscarf. However, Lucy did tell me that such toleration did not extend to Christians being allowed to proselytize Muslims. She also confirmed that in marriages wherein a Muslim married a Christian, it was generally the case that the Christian would convert to Islam and not the other way around. However, in certain instances where a Muslim was marrying a wealthy Christian, it is not unheard of that the Muslim will convert to Christianity.

One of the more annoying things that Lucy finds about living in a Muslim country is the call to prayer every morning, around 4 a.m. she told me. Lucy complained that it is very loud and close to her apartment, and if she happens to wake up during that time, she finds it hard to get back to sleep.

I also queried Lucy about Indonesian Muslim attitudes towards Americans and the United States. She said that anti-American attitudes have increased in Indonesia, particularly since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I asked her if Indonesians differentiated between policies of the Bush Administration with which they disagreed from attitudes towards Americans in general. She replied that they did not, since it was the American people who voted for him. (I wasn't about to get into the 2000 election, where Gore won the popular vote.) Indonesians felt that Americans were responsible for the actions of their government. Amusingly, Lucy told me that Indonesians had an acronym for Democrats, NATO, or "No action, talk only".

When it came to Islamic fundamentalists, Lucy told me that while their numbers had grown since 9/11, they still had not grown by much in comparison with the population and that they were not very influential. Lucy's observations seemed to jibe with the findings of a recent article on Indonesian Islam in The Economist. Islam in Indonesia is still infused with elements of native mysticism, and the geography of the nation itself makes it virtually impossible for a strict, unified religious doctrine to be imposed on its 234 million people.

While there are organized groups trying to impose a strict sharia based Islam in Indonesia, such as the aforementioned Hizb-ut-Tahrir, there are also organizations trying to actively counter them with a more moderate form of Islam that promotes a separation of mosque and state. One such organization is the Wahid Institute, which is headed by Yenny Wahid, the daughter of Abdurrahman Wahid, who was president of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Ms. Wahid warns of the consequences of an Indonesia under the control of radical Muslims: "It is big enough to destabilize the region." She says, "imagine if Indonesia became a hotbed for terrorism, or a source for people to get martyrs from. We've got enough people to provide an army of terrorists if we're not careful."

So, for the time being, it does not appear that Indonesia will become some Islamic colossus spreading jihad throughout South East Asia. Here's to hoping that people like Yenny Wahid will help to keep it that way.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The E-Waste Dilemma

The January 13 edition of Newsday had a timely and important editorial on the problem of "e-waste", that is old tv sets, computer monitors, and other electronic equipment.

And what is the problem with "e-waste"? According to the Newsday editorial, "E-waste is a disproportionate source of the heavy metals in landfills. Up to 40 percent of the buried lead comes from e-waste, which also contains cadmium and mercury."

The editorial notes that less than 10% of New York City's e-waste is recycled. "A lot of it gets picked up by sanitation workers. They toss it into their packer trucks, which crush the machines, releasing toxins that can damage the workers' health. And much of the city's e-waste ends up in the incinerator in Newark. From there, the toxic fumes can easily drift to Manhattan, where the e-waste originated."

Courtesy of National Geographic, here is an overview of the toxic components in our computer harddrives and monitors.

Sadly, as this article from this month's issue of National Geographic reveals, the Newsday editorial barely scratches the surface of the problem.

Even if you try to do the right thing and bring your old computer to a recycling company here in the United States, there is a good chance that it might end up being shipped overseas to a developing country where environmental standards are non-existent. In Ghana, poor people burn the flame-retardant insulation off of the copper wire in order to sell the copper to a scrap metal dealer.

The article's author describes the scene as follows:

"They break copper yokes off picture tubes, littering the ground with shards containing lead, a neurotoxin, and cadmium, a carcinogen that damages lungs and kidneys. They strip resalable parts such as drives and memory chips. Then they rip out the wiring and burn the plastic. [Mensah] sells copper stripped from one scrap load to buy another. The key to making money is speed, not safety. 'The gas goes to your nose and you feel something in your head,' Mensah says, knocking his fist against the back of his skull for effect. 'Then you get sick in your head and your chest.' Nearby, hulls of broken monitors float in the lagoon. Tomorrow the rain will wash them into the ocean."

The problem is especially severe in Asia, particularly China. The organization called the Basel Action Network, or BAN, which is opposed to the shipment of hazardous waste to poor countries in the developing world, did an eye-opening documentary on the town of Guiyu in Guangdong Province called Exporting Harm. According to BAN's press release, they found that:

"men, women and children toiling under primitive conditions, often unaware of the health and environmental hazards involved in operations which include open burning of plastics and wires, riverbank acid works to extract gold, melting and burning of toxic soldered circuit boards and the cracking and dumping of toxic lead laden cathode ray tubes. The investigative team witnessed many tons of the E-waste simply being dumped along rivers, in open fields and irrigation canals in the rice growing area. Already the pollution in Guiyu has become so devastating that well water is no longer drinkable and thus water has to be trucked in from 30 kilometers away for the entire population."

The problem is only destined to become worse, at least for the foreseeable future. The National Geographic article cites "Moore's Law", named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who "observed that computer processing power roughly doubles every two years." That means, according to the article, "that at any given time, all the machines considered state-of-the-art are simultaneously on the verge of obsolesence." Furthermore, "a switchover to digital high-definition television broadcasts is scheduled to be complete by 2009, rendering inoperable TVs that function perfectly today but receive only an analog signal."

Below is a segment from a Canadian news report that provides a useful, if grim summary, on the problem. It is worth watching.

It is natural for us to think that once we put something out on the curb to be collected by the sanitation department, we no longer have to care about what happens to our trash. But what we buy and how we dispose of it has real consequences for real people in many places around the globe. Now that you have read this post, you can't say you haven't been put on notice.

Saudi Justice

While perusing through my copy of Eyewitness to History last night for my post Things Left Unsaid, I came across a Westerner's description of two executions he witnessed in Saudi Arabia in 1958.

A man and a woman were found guilty of murdering the woman's husband and both were sentenced to death. The man was publicly decapitated with a sword. Then it was the woman's turn. But was her fate to be executed as swiftly and painlessly as the man? Nope. Not a chance.

"The recital of her crime...was read out as she knelt, and then the executioner stepped forward with a wooden stave and dealt a hundred blows with all his strength on her shoulder."

"As the flogging ended the woman sagged over on her side."

"Next, a lorry loaded with rocks and stones was backed up and its cargo deposited in a pile. At a signal from the prince the crowd leaped on the stones and started pelting the woman to death."

"It was difficult to determine how she was facing her last and awful ordeal, since she was veiled in Muslim fashion and her mouth was gagged in order to muffle her cries." (After all, why spoil a good stoning by letting the stoners actually hear the agonized cries of the woman they were stoning. Can't let them feel any twinges of mercy or compassion, right?)

"Had this scene been taking place in the middle of the desert it would have been grim enough, but that it should have been enacted in the heart of modern Jeddah's business neighborhood lent it a dismally macabre quality."

"The crowd were no longer silent. The men snarled and shouted as they flung their stones, their faces transformed into masks of sadism."

And finally, "It took just over an hour before the doctor in attendance, who halted the stoning periodically to feel the victim's pulse, announced her dead."

Things Left Unsaid

Probably all of us have been in situations where we felt we should have spoken out but instead remained silent. Sometimes these situations are serious, but other times we held our tongues either out of fear or to avoid inflicting or being the object of embarrassment.

One of the most potentially funny situations for me was way back in 1992. I thought at the time that I wanted to be a social studies teacher. One of the requirements for getting certified was to student teach for one semester. The school I was assigned to was West Hempstead High School.

One day, well into the semester, the Social Studies faculty for the school, along with us student teachers, had a meeting with the school librarian. The librarian wanted to fill us all in on some interesting books and resources the library had recently acquired that might be useful to the faculty and their students.

One of the books that the librarian showed to us was Eyewitness to History, which contained a number of excerpts from eyewitnesses to and participants in historical events, from Thucydides account of the plague that struck Athens in 431 BCE up to the fall of Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

As the librarian gave her brief description of Eyewitness to History, it became quite clear to me that she had not actually read it, at least not in its entirety. You see, as a history buff, I had purchased a copy of the book several years earlier, and I knew there was one section of the book that no teacher or librarian would want the students to read.

When I was in junior high school, one of the required reading books for us was the Diary of Anne Frank. My readers who also read Anne Frank's diary will probably recall that the favorite parts of the book for us horny junior high school kids at the time were the brief sections where Anne Frank writes about her sexual feelings. Well, compared the Diary of Anne Frank, there was one section in Eyewitness to History that was absolutely pornographic by comparison.

One of the featured writers in Eyewitness to History was a French novelist called Gustave Flaubert. In the featured excerpt, Flaubert writes of his adventures with his travelling companion Max in a whorehouse in Egypt!

Flaubert describes one of the prostitutes: "Kuchuk Hanem is a tall, splendid creature, lighter in colouring than an Arab; she comes from Damascus; her skin, particularly on her body, is slightly coffee-coloured. When she bends, her flesh ripples into bronze ridges. Her eyes are dark and enormous. Her eyebrows black, her nostrils open and wide; heavy shoulders, full, apple-shaped breasts."

Then there is the "[a]rrival of Safiah Zugairah, a small woman with a large nose and eyes that are dark, deep-set, savage, sensual; her necklace of coins clanks like a country cart; she kisses our hands."

Then on to the business at hand: "Coup with Safiah Zugairah ('Little Sophie') - I stain the divan. She is very corrupt and writhing, extremely voluptuous. But the best was the second copulation with Kuchuk. Effect of her necklace on my teeth. Her cunt felt like rolls of velvet as she made me come. I felt like a tiger."

Part of me wanted to tell the librarian about this passage in the book, but I held back and kept it to myself. I figured it was unlikely that any of the students in the school would ever come across those passages, though if any did, I have no doubt it would have become one of the most read books in the school library.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Kudos for the Day - January 11, 2007

I'm several days late in acknowledging it, but I did not want to let it go by. I have put up a number of Pet Peeve of the Day posts where I bitched about something or someone that annoyed me. But I don't want to give the impression that I don't appreciate the good things in life too.

This past Friday morning when I boarded the 8:33 train at Hicksville for Penn Station and sat in my seat, I realized that I forgot to bring my monthly ticket. By the time I realized it, the doors had already closed and the train was on its way to the next stop. Even worse, I only had one dollar on me, so I could not even afford to purchase a ticket from the conductor.

As the train started to pick up speed, I saw the conductor at the far end of the car. Rather than remain in my seat and wait for him to get to my end of the car, I got up and walked down the car towards him. He saw me and asked me to wait a moment while he finished checking the tickets of the passengers in the section. When he was done and gave me his attention, I explained to him that I forgot my monthly ticket. Expecting him to tell me that I would need to buy a ticket on the train, I was surprised when he waved his hand dismissively and said "Don't worry about it" as he continued on to check the tickets of the other passengers.

I had seen a number of times where passengers would tell conductors that they forgot their monthly tickets and the conductors would insist that they had to pay the fare. Experienced conductors have probably learned to tell when a passenger is sincere and when they are full of shit. Furthermore, when confronted with such a situation near other passengers, they probably feel more pressured to insist that the passenger buy a ticket, because otherwise other passengers might claim that they forgot their monthly ticket too and ride the train for free. When I explained my situation to this conductor, we were in the open area where the car doors were, and the fact that I proactively approached him rather than remained in my seat must have convinced him of my sincerity.

I didn't get that conductor's name, but I thank him for his kindness and understanding.

Subversive Question of the Day

Would Jesus have healed a man with erectile dysfunction? If so, would Jesus have had to have grasped the man's flaccid member?

Alaska - Magnet for the Batshit Crazy

In his book Into The Wild, Jon Krakauer devotes Chapter 8 to a number of other cases where individuals who were either ignorant, insane, or a combination of the two, attempted to make a go of living in the wilds of Alaska and met with unfortunate ends.

The most tragi-comic of all was the story of "Carl McCunn, an affable absentminded Texan who moved to Fairbanks during the 1970s oil boom." McCunn was also an amateur photographer, and he wanted to spend the summer in a remote area of Alaska near Fort Yukon to shoot pictures of the wildlife. His stay might have been uneventful but for one incredible act of stupidity on his part. McCunn had hired a bush pilot to drop him off at a remote lake, BUT HE FAILED TO MAKE ARRANGEMENTS for the pilot to pick him back up at the end of August!

We know what was going on in McCunn's mind, because he recorded his thoughts in a diary that he kept. By late August, when the pilot did not arrive to pick him up, McCunn confessed to his diary, "I think I should have used more foresight about arranging my departure." Still, by September, McCunn was filled with a burst of hope. While out hunting for duck, a plane buzzed overhead. It circled twice flying low over the camp. McCunn waved at the pilot, but the plane could not land because the plane was equipped with wheels instead of floats, so it could not land on the lake. So when the plane flew away, McCunn was certain the pilot would bring back help for him.

This past spring, when I was taking scuba diving lessons, one of the most important things I was taught was the proper use of hand signals. For example, when you are on the surface of the water, waving your hands above your head is a sign of distress. To signal that you are okay, you bend your arms sideways and place your hands on the top of the head. If you want to piss off a divemaster, try waving your arms to indicate that you are okay. Under the water, you better not give a thumbs up unless you intend for you and your dive buddy to surface. What McCunn did not realize when he waved at the pilot was that he was giving the signal for "all OK; assistance not necessary." To signal "SOS; send immediate help", McCunn should have had two upraised arms. This mistake sealed his fate. Starving, frostbitten, and bereft of hope, Carl McCunn blew his brains out with his shotgun in late November or early December of 1981.

If Jon Krakauer had written Into The Wild in 2004 instead of 1996, he undoubtedly would have devoted a section of his book to Timothy Treadwell, a grizzly bear enthusiast who spent 13 summers in a row living among the grizzlies in Alaska. I decided to watch Werner Herzog's documentary about Treadwell, Grizzly Man, after having watched and read Into The Wild.

Treadwell shot over 100 hours of footage of himself and the Alaskan grizzlies during his time there, and the better part of Herzog's documentary consists of Treadwell's footage. For those who might not be familiar with Treadwell (who it turns out is from here on Long Island), he was killed on October of 2003 along with his girlfriend, by a rogue bear that invaded their camp. It is believed that the attack happened suddenly, as Treadwell's camera was turned on but the lens cap had not been removed. However, the attack was recorded on audiotape. Herzog does not play the audio for the viewer, but we are informed that while Treadwell was being mauled by the bear, he pleaded for his girlfriend to run for safety. Apparently she ignored his pleas and tried to drive off the bear by striking it with a frying pan, causing the bear to turn on her as well.

The picture that emerges of Treadwell in Herzog's movie, intentional or not, is of a man who was seriously deranged. Below is a segment from the documentary in which Treadwell rants to his camera against the National Parks Service. Be forewarned that his diatribe is laced with gratuitous use of the "F" word. Treadwell boasts of the protection he provides for the bears, but one never gets the sense that the he actually did anything to protect the bears, nor much less that the bears required it. At best, judging from what I have seen and read, the most that Treadwell achieved was to raise public awareness about the Alaskan grizzlies.

And here is an amusing spoof of Treadwell called Hedgehog Man.

It's interesting how the state of Alaska seems to draw so many people to it who seek to live life on the edge in the wild. For some of those who met their death, like McCandless and Treadwell, they seemed to have been blinded by their own attitudes towards nature. Nature is seen as something to commune with, as if nature was a conscious entity that can reward one's love and reverence. Nature is in fact indifferent to us, and does not require our reverence, but it does deserve our respect.

Alexander Supertramp - Part 2

I felt drawn to the story of Christopher McCandless not just because it was an interesting tale in and of itself, but for personal reasons as well. You see, I once tried to leave my family and everything I knew behind to strike out on a journey similar to McCandless. However, my trek was of a far briefer duration and considerably less risky than the adventures of the self-styled Alexander Supertramp.

If you only saw the film adaption of Krakauer's Into The Wild, you might think that Chris McCandless just suddenly decided to travel across America upon graduating from college in the spring of 1990. But in Chapter 12 of the book, it is revealed that McCandless made a regular habit of going away for months at a time during summer breaks between semesters in college. In the summer of 1989, a year before McCandless embarked on his two year voyage that ended with his death by starvation in an abandoned bus near Denali National Park, he had even made a brief foray up to Fairbanks, Alaska.

Since as far back as the 6th grade, if my memory serves, I was fascinated with maps, as well as history. During my junior high school years, I loved reading fantasy adventure stories, running the gamut from Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. A common feature of all these stories was that they provided maps of the fantasy worlds created by the authors, across which the protagonists travelled in pursuit of their fortunes or in carrying out their quests. I took a keen interest in poring over a worldwide atlas that we had in my house and developed a longing to explore the world, to the point of drawing a line to mark the path across the globe I intended to travel. To give you an idea of how out of touch with reality I was, I had incredibly naive notions that I would somehow raft across the Bering Strait to Siberia and then make my way down to China.

It was during the winter of 1986/1987 that my wanderlust reached a fever pitch. In the middle of my senior year at high school, I was also very depressed at the time and unhappy with my life at the time. I was still a believing Catholic at the time and I envisioned for myself a journey that would be not only physical, but also spiritual and transformational as well. My travel ambitions though were considerably trimmed. Instead of spanning the globe, my plan was to travel north into Canada. I intended to make my way up to the shores of the Ungave Peninsula in Quebec, where I believed that something would happen that would change my life and give me a divine purpose.

I set out on what I anticipated to be my epic journey in early-mid January of 1987, twenty-one years ago. I don't recall the exact date, though I remember it was a Monday. Unlike McCandless, I left a note behind for my parents, both of whom were at work that morning. I don't remember exactly what I told them. I do recall that I did not tell them where I was going, but that I had to go away for a while. Fortunately, the weather was in my favor that day. The sun shone and the temperature was mildly cold.

Rather than going to school, as I normally did, I walked to the Long Island Rail Road station at Hicksville and purchased a one way ticket to Penn Station in Manhattan. I had withdrawn $600 from my savings account so that I would have ample funds to buy whatever I might need on my voyage. I carried with me either a shoulder bag or a knapsack, I can't recall which, in which I packed several changes of clothes, some snacks and water, and a few other basic amenities. As I sat in the Manhattan bound train, I bristled with excitement and anticipation. I could scarcely believe that I was actually embarking on the journey I had planned.

Once the train arrived in Penn Station, I set out on foot, walking north up Eighth Avenue. After 59th Street, I had Central Park to my right side for the next fifty blocks. Everything was going exactly as planned with no hitches or complications. But once I had crossed over 110th Street and left Central Park behind me, my surroundings noticeably changed. Up until then, I had trodden through either commerical or wealthy residential areas. Now I found myself in Harlem.

There I was, a white teenager from suburban Long Island, walking through an economically distressed African-American neighborhood. But to my surprise, no one really seemed to take much notice of me as I continued up Eighth Avenue. I remember feeling troubled seeing the poverty of the people and the decaying buildings. I think I might have witnessed a drug deal at one point. I remember seeing ahead of me on the sidewalk one African-American man surreptitiously hand something to another man as if they were making some clandestine transaction. I also remember seeing across the street from me in a vacant lot several middle-aged African-American men huddled around a fire in a steel garbage can.

Passing through Harlem unmolested, I crossed a foot-bridge into the Bronx. I continued north, alongside the bank of the Harlem River. After Manhattan came to its end on the other side of the river, I turned sharply north away from the river. Eventually, I came upon Van Cortlandt Park, which I cut across during the early afternoon. Making my way through the park, I crossed the border into Yonkers, a city in Westchester County. At this point, I recollect stopping at a deli or grocery store, where I purchased a bunch of bananas and a sandwich. I took a break for lunch and then continued on my journey. Nearby was a stretch of wooded land, through which an abandoned railroad track ran. I followed the path of the railroad tracks.

Because of the time of the year, the sky got darker earlier, and by 5 p.m. dusk was fading into night. I had no idea where I would spend the night, but figured I would find someplace to sleep eventually, so I kept on going. As it grew darker, I walked alongside the Sprain Brook Parkway for a while. I don't remember at what point I broke away from the parkway, but I found myself making my way towards a small town north of Yonkers called Ardsley. Passing through a residential neighborhood, I walked over a small bridge that spanned what I think was a dry creek bed below. I made my way down to the creek bed to explore it. On either side of the creek bed were the concrete foundations of the bridge. On the foundation on my side of the creek bed there was a ledge that was more than wide enough to accomodate me. I climbed up onto it, ate my dinner, and decided that given the late hour and the darkness, here was an ideal spot to spend the night. Though the night air was crisp and cold, I was dressed warmly and I could have easily spent the night on that ledge, and were it not for unexpected circumstances, I probably would have.

I had huddled into a fetal position on the ledge, using my bag as a pillow, looking forward to as good a night's sleep as could be expected in my situation. However, I don't think I had even drifted off to sleep before I found my solitude disturbed. I heard the voices of two men approaching and looked up to see two flashlight beams shining down into the creek bed. I did not know what these men were looking for, but I suspected the possibility that they might be police officers responding to a report of a person sleeping under a bridge. Whoever they were, I felt that I could not allow myself to be discovered by them. I gathered up my things and as quietly as possible made my way to the far end of the ledge from them. I paused a moment to look back and saw the silhouettes of the two men behind the beams of their flashlights. Then I turned and ran up the slope to the road above.

I continued for a short while longer, where I found myself in what looked like downtown Ardsley. I remember it was very dark and deserted, and it was at that point that I began to despair. I was feeling cold and I had no idea where I was going to stay. After sitting down on a bench and pondering my situation for a few minutes, I came to a difficult decision. I decided that I had to abandon my journey to Canada and return home, disappointing not only myself, but presumably the God who wanted me to make the journey. However, given the late hour and the darkness, making the return journey back to Manhattan on foot was not a realistic option.

As luck would have it, a bus stop was nearby and not much time passed by before a bus arrived. I remember feeling very scared when I stepped onto the bus, as I was not sure how I was going to get home. There was an African-American man who looked to be in his early fifties sitting up front near the bus driver, also an African-American man, whom the passenger appeared to be friends with. I explained my situation and the passenger reassured me I would be fine. The bus took me to the Yonkers Metro North train station. From there, I caught a train that took me to Grand Central Station in Manhattan. A middle-aged Caucasian man guided me to the subway that would connect me to Penn Station, where sometime before midnight I caught a LIRR train back to Hicksville.

After the train pulled into Hicksville, I walked the final leg of the journey back to my house. I think it was after midnight, though I do not recall the exact time. For a while I huddled in the section of our front yard that ran along the south side of my parents house wondering what to do next. I was cold and tired and wanted to sleep in a warm bed, so I quietly entered the house and tip-toed to my bedroom, which was nearby on the ground floor of the house. My mom was asleep in the tv room, which was across the hallway from my room, but she did not stir as I walked into my room, shut the door behind me, and huddled into bed.

Early the next morning, I awoke to my mom calling my name as she cried tears of relief. She hugged me and held me close, and I realized how glad I was to see her and be home again. I spent that day home from school and my mom told me about what she and my dad did in reaction to my note, while I told her in deliberately vague terms where I had gone and why. I think I was a little disappointed that my grand journey ended so prematurely, but at the same time I felt some measure of pride that I actually did try and that I made it as far as I did. I had gotten a taste of adventure and found it was enough for me. If it were not for the men who disturbed my sleep underneath that bridge in Ardsley, who knows how much farther I might have gone.

Christopher McCandless saw his family as something he had to get as far away from as possible. As for me, I was not running away from my family, I was running towards something, namely what I believed would be an encounter with the divine. In the end I was not up to the task, though it would be many more months before the religious faith that inspired my journey would begin to fall apart.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Friday Funnies - The Midget Bible Salesman

Foul Play with Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn is one of my all time favorite movies. In the beginning of the film, Hawn's character, Gloria Mundy, finds herself the target of a criminal conspiracy led by an as yet unseen man called "the Dwarf". When an unexpected visitor rings her door, hilarity ensues.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Yet Another Eighties Music Medley

What can I say. So many great songs to mine. The irony of it is that I was not even into most of this music during the 1980's. I liked U2 and some INXS, but for the most part I was into hard rock and heavy metal. During my teenage years, I dismissed bands and artists like Depeche Mode and Morrissey as being for fags. I'm ashamed to admit that I was a bit homophobic during that era, and it was not until the early Nineties that I really started to appreciate their music as well as shedding my homophobia.

Pet Shop Boys "What Have I Done To Deserve This".

Morrissey "Every Day Is Like Sunday".

Depeche Mode "People Are People". A classic plea for tolerance.

U2 "40" Live at Red Rocks. One of the oldest CD's I have is a collection of U2's live early 80's songs called "Under A Blood Red Sky". This version of "40" has a somewhat different ending than the version on the CD. I love how at the end each band member bows out one at a time, until only the drummer is left while the audience continues to sing out "How long, to sing this song? How long, to sing this song? How long? How long? To sing this song"

INXS "Don't Change". I absolutely loooooooove this song, but rarely hear it on the radio. I am thrilled that I found this video on Youtube. Unfortunately, the sound quality is not that great and the embedding was disabled, so I can only provide a link. INXS was a great band. It's too bad that Michael Hutchence was so fucked up in the head and got himself killed, either by hanging himself in a bout of depression, or accidentally while engaging in auto-erotic asphyxiation.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Alexander Supertramp

Last Thursday night we watched the movie "Into The Wild" on the pay-per-view movie channel in our motel in Connecticut. My wife was about halfway through the book of the same name by Jon Krakauer. I started reading the book this morning on the train ride to work.

The movie and book tell the story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who turned his back on his family following his graduation from Emory University in Atlanta in May of 1990. He adopted for himself the moniker of Alexander Supertramp and spent the next two years crisscrossing the western United States before embarking on what he called his Alaskan adventure in April of 1992. Attempting to lead a life of total isolation, living off of only what he could hunt and forage for, McCandless ended up not being up to the task he had set for himself and he slowly succumbed to starvation. A group of hunters found his body in an abandoned bus about two and a half weeks after he died.

During the course of his peregrinations, McCandless befriended a number of people, and it is clear from the book that he made quite an impression on many of them. One of the unlikely friendships he struck up was with a lonely octogenarian widower whose wife and only son had been killed by a drunk driver in 1957. Krakauer describes the man, whom he calls Ron Franz (not his real name), as having been a "devout Christian." Krakauer writes "[w]hen Franz met McCandless, his long dormant paternal impulses were kindled anew."

McCandless encouraged Franz to give up his sedentary existence while he was still fit and healthy, and Franz was inspired enough by McCandless to actually follow through on it. In a letter he wrote to Franz, McCandless implored him to "put a little camper on the back of your pickup, and start seeing some of the great work that God has done here in the American West.' Franz proceeded to do so and ended up occupying McCandless's former campsite, awaiting his promised return.

Late in December of 1992, Franz was driving with two hitchhikers that he had picked up. He started telling them about his friend "Alex". One of the hitchhikers realized who he was talking about and sadly informed Franz of a magazine article he had read about how McCandless had died the previous summer. Franz was devastated by the news.

Franz tells Krakauer, "When Alex left for Alaska, I prayed. I asked God to keep his finger on the shoulder of that one; I told him that boy was special. But he let Alex die. So on December 26, when I learned what happened, I renounced the Lord. I withdrew my church membership and became an atheist. I decided I couldn't believe in a God who would let something that terrible happen to a boy like Alex."

However, in an interesting contrast, the farewell message that McCandless wrote before he died in that abandoned bus was "I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL."

I think I can understand why both men reacted in entirely different ways to this tragedy. As an atheist myself, I believe that the universe is indifferent to us. McCandless did not die because some God did not care about him. Rather, he died because he had put himself into a situation that he was not equipped to handle. The local game he hunted was not sufficient to sustain his nutritional requirements. The river that he easily forded in April had become an impassable raging torrent that summer due to the melting of the ice. Had he reconnoitered further up the river, McCandless would have come across a steel cable spanning the river with a basket that he could have used to transport himself to safety. Alternatively, had he managed to be a little more successful at feeding himself, he might have survived long enough to be rescued by the hunting parties that converged on the bus on September 6, 1992. If there was a loving god watching over Christopher McCandless, it would not have required that much of a miracle to have enabled Chris to survive.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Is This What's In Store for Humanity?

I watched "Idiocracy" yesterday. I liked it. It is one of those stupid but funny movies that makes you laugh. Below is the opening segment which sets up the premise for the film.

And that's my lazy post for the day.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Back From New Hampshire

I spent the last two days taking my Indonesian friend to Concord, New Hampshire, where she will be attending classes at the Franklin Pierce Law Institute shortly.

As a sign of how little I have been paying attention to the news lately, I didn't realize that we were arriving in New Hampshire just as the primary race there was heating up. But once I got off I-93 at exit 14 and saw the multitude of signs for the various presidential candidates for both parties, I understood what was going on. Probably the saddest sight I saw was a man standing on a street corner at the intersection of Loudon and Main Street holding aloft a Dennis Kucinich sign. Talk about an exercise in futility.

The bad news was that my friend did not yet have a place to stay for the semester. To keep costs down, she shared a room with my wife, kids, and I on Thursday and Friday night, but she would need to reserve a motel room for next week while she looked for housing. Unfortunately, because of the primary election coming up on Tuesday, motel room availability in Concord was minimal for the weekend and virtually non-existent on Monday and Tuesday. I called one motel last night to try and book tonight and tomorrow night for my friend, and while I was on the phone with the clerk, she put me on hold for a moment. I was starting to get worried when she got back on the phone with me and informed me that they just had a cancellation and that a room with a single King-sized bed was now available up to Wednesday. I made the reservation so that my friend would have a place to stay at least until Wednesday morning while she set up housing arrangements.

Leaving Concord this morning shortly after 10 a.m., I had to bring my wife to her nursing home job in upper Manhattan. Her shift was scheduled to start at 3 p.m. I was reasonably confident I could make it, and I probably would have gotten her to work on time, except for the unavoidable fact that by 1:30 we were all quite hungry and needed to eat. Consequently, my wife ended up being 22 minutes late. Oh well, still not bad considering where we started from. I told my wife that at least for today, she would have the longest commute to work of anyone at the nursing home.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

UPDATED: Farewell Benazir Bhutto

As just about everyone knows by now, twice former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed yesterday morning in Pakistan.

It is still not clear exactly how she died. Early reports had her being shot at least twice and then being struck by shrapnel from a bomb that exploded nearby. Now a Pakistani government spokesperson has offered a more mundane though no less tragic explanation for the cause of Bhutto's death.

Here is an excerpt from this article on the BCC's web site:

Talking about the cause of Ms Bhutto's death, the spokesman said she had died from a head wound.

It was, he said, sustained when she smashed against the sunroof's lever as she tried to shelter inside the car from the gunman, who set off a bomb after opening fire with a gun.

"The lever struck near her right ear and fractured her skull," he said. "There was no bullet or metal shrapnel found in the injury."

Time will tell if it is true. I don't know much about Pakistani culture, but I wonder if peddling a story like that might be an attempt to minimize Bhutto's death. If she died by an assassin's gun shot or a bomb, she becomes a martyred leader like India's Indira Gandhi. But if her death was a tragic accident, like what befell this late American congressman and entertainer, her death can be portrayed by her opponents as nothing more than the consequences of her own clumsiness.

While I have known who Benazir Bhutto was since I was a high school student, I don't know much about her personally. During her two stints as Prime Minister of Pakistan, she does not seem to have been a particularly effective ruler, and she was removed from office both times before completing her term. Her opponents would claim that her administration was incompetent and corrupt, while her supporters would argue that the powerful interests who opposed her undermined her ability to govern. Knowing that such things are never black and white, I would say it is likely that it was a combination of the two.

An historian named Arthur Herman, in this piece that originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal earlier this year, declared that "As prime minister of Pakistan, Ms. Bhutto proved to be one of the most incompetent leaders in the history of South Asia."

But as flawed as Benazir Bhutto was, her death is still a terrible tragedy. Even if the actual cause of her death was as described above, it was still caused by the attempt on her life. While her life in and of itself was no more important than the dozen or so of the other people who were killed in the assassination attempt, the attack was not just against Bhutto, but even more important, it was an attack against the very idea of representative democracy itself. The whole idea of democracy is that issues are settled at the ballot box, and the loser, however grudgingly, must accept the results. The figures who were behind the assassination attempts on Bhutto struck a blow against the right of the people of Pakistan to choose their candidate at the voting booth.

Hopefully this weekend I will be able to do a post focusing on Pakistan, as I have felt for some time that Pakistan is the true central front in the struggle against Islamic extremism.

UPDATE: Here is an article on about the controvery surrounding the conflicting accounts of Benazir Bhutto's death.

For me, the most interesting part was this short paragraph:

"CNN national security analyst Ken Robinson, who worked in U.S. intelligence in Pakistan during the Clinton administration, said he suspects Bhutto's enemies are attempting to control her legacy by minimizing the attack's role in her demise."

"They're trying to deny her a martyr's death, and in Islam, that's pretty important," Robinson said.

Looks like I was right on the money regarding the possible explanation I offered above about why the Pakistani government was claiming she died from banging her head against a sun-roof lever instead of from gunshot or shrapnel wounds.

Happy 2008!

Best wishes for peace, happiness and prosperity in the new year to all!

Due to time constraints, I have not been able to post anything new in the last few days. I friend of mine from Indonesia is staying with us for a few days before she starts school in New Hampshire. She is a Christian and ethnic Chinese from a majority Muslim country. (Little known facts - Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country, as well as the number four country in the world in population, after China, India, and the United States).

I will see if she won't mind an interview to provide readers of Exercise in Futility with a perspective on what it is like being a non-Muslim in a Muslim majority country.