31 March 2009

Laura Ling Arrested in North Korea

i don't think there's any question that Supreme Being Eternal Excellency Extraordinaire Kim Jong-Il is anything other than a lunatic pustule on the stage of generally coherent (even if not cooperative) global diplomacy. He embraces this paradox of being a total isolationist yet wanting the world to fear, cower and be awed. Has anyone you know ever said anything positive about North Korea in the last decade or beyond? Reports on defectors always contain amazing stories of state idiocy and a vast amount of silent suffering. Welcome to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, where it's always 1953, the counter-revolution long ago interred.

It's extremely disconcerting to learn that Laura Ling and Eura Lee, who were arrested near the Korean-Chinese border on 19 March, have now been indicted for "alleged illegal entry into North Korea and hostile acts." This is a prison system i would never want to see from inside, and i cringe at what may happen to these women. Here's what the CIA World Factbook has to say about the DPRK's legal sysem:
based on Prussian civil law system with Japanese influences and Communist legal theory; no judicial review of legislative acts; has not accepted compulsory ICJ jurisdiction
Prussian civil law? Had to wiki that one; found this quintessential statement by Voltaire: "Where some states have an army, the Prussian Army has a state!" Sounds a bit gitmoetic and may signal something meaningful about the rule of civil law. Otherwise, wiki draws a blank on this subject and there just aren't many sites out there which expound on it in substantive detail (disclaimer: i don't speak german). There are tenets of Prussian law found throughout Europe, so it's probably not as archaic as it sounds, but still... i would not want to go on trial for hostile acts in a country that seems to thrive on hostilities. Laura and Euna were arrested at a riparian border, working on a story about North Koreans who are illegally crossing into China. Oops! Whether the soldiers who picked them up themselves had entered Chinese territory is likely irrelevant, now that the North Korean government has them.

Laura Ling has done a lot of great reporting for Current TV; it's surprising they haven't posted any news about this on their site. i've embedded one of her pieces on this blog, and you can - and should - check out others, including recent reports on the US-Mexican border violence, gangs, etc. She has great interview skills and does really good work. The Committee to Protect Journalists has issued a statement to the DPRK, but who knows what weight that will carry? Since Al Gore is one of the forces behind Current, i want to believe that some kind of contact and tracking of these journalists is happening. Will continue to follow this as more information becomes available.

30 March 2009

Celebrity Madness

While it was hardly a surprise to read this account of Pitt and Jolie's stay in Namibia a couple years ago, the minutiae are still a bit mind boggling. Truly ironic that one of the UN's 'goodwill ambassadors' had no hesitation about controlling who received visas to enter the country during her stay and who did not. Wealthy whites have long manipulated African countries to arrange themselves according to what is most accommodating for those bringing in massive amounts of foreign currency and a media circus, to boot. Ministers trip over each other praising the visitors for even knowing that their country exists; it's hard not to see this as analogous to selling one's soul to the devil. It might have been worthwhile if the touted couple had later promoted Namibia in a respectful, positive way, yet underlying Jolie's comments in a post-natal interview is an attitude of such gross paternalism that, if nothing else, one can't but wonder why she wanted to go there in the first place.
“The borders were drawn in Africa not that long ago,” Angelina explained. “These people are tribal people. We colonised them . . . They have just recently learnt to govern themselves . . . And we need to be there to really support them at that time, to help them to understand how better to govern.”
i can only hope that her next mission doesn't take her to Eastern Europe.

26 March 2009

Busy of late plowing through this amazing article by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone. A must read, an exposé of amazing depth on the financial background of the bank failures. People so greedy and corrupt reading about them makes my skin crawl. They've all made out like bandits, too. White collar crime at its finest, infecting just about the entire global financial system. Anyway, i'm having a post-mid-life crisis so only writing to insist everyone reads Taibbi's piece and if you can afford it, buy gold.

20 March 2009

Obama's Nowruz message: Arrogance Is Us

Judging by the comments on youtube, Obama's imaging staff seems to have succeeded with the latest installment of the new prez' video appeals. Taken at face value, sure, how nice indeed that the US president took time out of his busy schedule to wish the persian world a happy holiday. He even said this in farsi, which has got to be a first, although the excitement over that little tidbit in and of itself shows how conditioned the world (or maybe just americans) has become to a US leader ignoring everyone else's cultural universes. i can't remember the last time people anywhere went gaga over a national leader from, let's say the Middle East, speaking english. In fact, i can't remember ever meeting an iranian who didn't speak english and probably knew our grammar structure better than the previous president (honest disclosure: i've never been to Iran). Yet i'm not sure that persians and others celebrating Nowruz (see my previous post) need to be told "you're just like us" when coming together for the new year. That message needs to go out to Obama's own constituency, the american public, which especially since 9/11 has come to fear or even hate muslims a whole lot more than the reverse.

Sorry to be a party pooper at the Obama Love Fest. Some of what he said just struck me as incredibly arrogant, so i won't sully my otherwise outstandingly ethical blog by posting the video, but here's the link in case you haven't seen it. i imagine people across the Middle East watching this message and thinking, "Which country is a threat to its neighbors and world harmony? Which country needs to reformulate the way it deals with the rest of the world?" For one thing, consider this from allacademic.com: "Since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran has hosted the largest refugee population in the world. The Iranian experience with hosting, maintaining, and repatriating this large refugee population represents a significant position in the region, yet under-examined, dimension of contemporary Middle Eastern affairs." While it's true that Iran is trying to get the afghan refugees repatriated now, they still took them in which is a lot better than the US performed after creating nearly 4 million displaced people in Iraq, about half of whom left the country. Likewise, people in the muslim world have seen Israel remain the top recipient of US military aid for decades, while the US continues to criticize the iranians for supporting Hezbollah and Hamas in arming themselves against israeli aggression. (Yes, it's true that in Lebanon things are never simple, but if we look at the over-arching scope of destablization of foreign governments, Iran can barely hold a candle to Israel or the US - especially the US!)

Actions always speak louder than words, even if they're pleasantly spoken and carefully crafted. If Obama wants the iranian people to support their government's engagement with the US, then for starters he needs to put the reigns on Israel's invectives against Iran by immediately cutting the amount of money handed over the Tel Aviv. He also needs to stop with the double standard of criticizing the iranian nuclear power program as a threat to global stability (there are plenty of other reasons to criticize this program) and demand that Israel sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. As an iranian acquaintance of mine has often pointed out, everyone knows that Iran has at least a couple former-soviet nukes stashed away somewhere and this is probably true of other countries in Central Asia as well, e.g. Uzbekistan. None of these countries is going to come clean on sequestered nukes at a time when Israel is constantly threatening to attack them, and itself refuses to participate in IAEA monitoring regimes. (Duh.) Lastly, as Iran's influence in Iraq becomes both undeniable and substantial, Obama has to stop jerking his policy around in terms of troop presence and troop mandate.

These issues are really just the tip of the iceberg. Iranians know that US influence is far-reaching both behind and in front of public view. Iran's ties around the world are also vast yet in most cases, non-problematic politically from the perspective of those countries with which it cooperates, at least outside the region. Does this mean they have no agenda? Of course not. But here's perhaps the crux of the problem. The US has got to accept that its vision of who gets to do what, where, is not always (rarely?) in sync with other peoples' visions. Until someone gives me a good reason to see the american superpower model as inherently, intrinsically superior, then i'm not able to see it that way. Obama's message to iranians just seems like more of the same: act the way we want you to act, interpret the world the way we interpret it, and all will be well. Continue to pursue your own model for global engagement and... well... don't say we didn't warn you.

18 March 2009

Another reason NATO/US should leave Afghanistan

Here's part of an email i received today from an afghan woman:
this date (23/12/1386) is solar year and it is the official date for Afghanistan. the date you mentioned (1429) is the lunar year. most Islamic countries use lunar, but Afghanistan, Iran and some other countries use solar. this is Mohammad's (peace be upon him) date of birth.
And Nowroz is on Saturday not Thursday.
She is based in Kabul, which is 3-1/2 hours ahead of where i am at GMT+2. This map also indicates that Nepal is 5-3/4 hours ahead of me - no idea what's up with that, although until someone sets me straight, i'm going to assume the extra 15 or deficit 45 minutes (depending on how you want to calculate) has something to do with either elevation or religion. Or maybe it's a new designation, post-kingdom, that has to do with Maoism? When a whole country has its head in the clouds, anything's got to be possible.

Nowruz is the Zarathushtrian (Gk. Zaroastrian, Persian Ahura Mazdian) New Year. The website zaroastrian.org offers this background on the calendar:
The Iranians of old had a tropical [solar] calendar for many centuries. The downfall of the Sassanian Empire in the 7th century disrupted the astronomical structure of the religion and the state. The 365-day year, followed by the majority of Zarathushtrians in India and Pakistan with little astronomical knowledge, for the last eleven hundred years, has advanced the calendar to where Nowruz now occurs in the late summer. However, almost all Zarathushtrians in Iran and a minority of Parsis of India and Pakistan follow the "Fasli" or seasonal calendar. It is an almost tropical calendar. It is corrected by observing the leap year. Meanwhile, although the Iranians, who were converted to Islam, observed and are observing the Muslim lunar calendar for religious purposes, the Iranian calendar was soon restored within a century for administrative and economical reasons and that it continues to be their daily time reckoning.
I think we can agree that any country juggling two calendars already at odds with each other has no use for implementing a third. Additionally, the framework a society uses to understand the intersection of events and time should, theoretically, have a direct impact on how it responds to whatever traumatic events befall it. (A lot of psychologists study this relationship; unfortunately, their academic papers are largely unavailable to non-subscribers of the professional journals.) However well-meaning NATO soldiers may be, they are still an occupying force working under a completely different sense of time from most people in Central Asia. Since the ability to survive trauma and sustain resistance seems intimately connected to how one measures time, two opposing forces using different systems of time are utlimately never going to establish a symbiotic relationship that makes any kind of sense. You either go insane, or you go home. My suggestion to NATO is that they opt for the latter.

14 March 2009

See, i wasn't kidding about California coming to its fiscal senses.

10 March 2009

Barbie on the brain

Ok, i missed International Women's Day, but i'm down with Barbie. Happy 50th! i never realized B and i were born in the same year. This is definitely something to be taken up with the Rhinebeck Witches: she needs to be inducted soon, before she goes all botox and breast implants on us. All girls born in 1959 have known instinctively that as long as Barbie doesn't grow old, neither will we. This is what happens when children channel icons in our sleep. Our micro-generation became genetically programed - spiritually tasked - to exorcise menopausal aging from the very core of Barbie's pure yet gutsy petropolymer heart when the clock struck 50 and we all woke up knowing there is ultimately no escape from grey. That day has come. My own hair newly darkened, pliers and exacto-knife ready to go, she may fake just like a woman but she breaks just like a little girl.

09 March 2009

Banking logic and illogic

Chicken Little comes home to roost and bankers everywhere are running for cover. Among those hammered by the anti-greed squad in DC is Swiss megabank UBS, which has long served as banking haven for money lauderers, tax evaders and probably a fair number of alimony skanks. First fined $780 million for defrauding the IRS, the bank is now under pressure to release the names of american investors who have used the Swiss banking system in order to evade paying taxes at home. This could be upwards of 40,000 people; in settling their tax fraud case, the bank provided totals of investment gains on which taxes were evaded, but stood by their Swiss ethics [sic] of not revealing clients' identities. It's an interesting position, because when the bank protects individual investors from being pursued by the long arm of the law, it opens itself up to taking the hits for them. Evidently, they are taking some kind of long-term view that what they lose in penalties is more than made up for by what they hold in assets for the world's wealthy, even though they are reporting billions in losses right now. Not ratting out your clients probably functions as something of a marketing strategy in these tenuous times.

The interesting thing about this report is not what is said in hearings or narration, but the names and numbers in the ticker that runs throughout. More than half of US lawmakers received contributions from UBS, including Obama, Clinton, Emmanuel, Pelosi - all the heavies are there, along with both democratic and republican national committees. Do americans really expect these people to bite the hands that feed them? If they do, then there is illogic breeding on both sides of the great divide.

After 10 years of steering clear of the banking system, i recently felt cornered into opening an account in order to deal with online money transfers. This is a crazy, illogical act when so many people are cashing out, but it's become impossible to expand my income base without doing so. i'm thinking the trick is to remove the cash as soon as it arrives... we'll see how this goes. i do not trust banks and am not keen on the way the whole banking system is run. Yet freelancing outside the system is simply impossible. Paying with cash feels more and more like a lower form on the evolutionary scale, yet i've been accutely aware of the benefits such constraints yield. When i think about the amount of money that was extracted by my former banks every time i used an ATM, even to make a deposit, i just hang my head in shame for being such a sucker. And i know i'm going to do so again, especially when it comes to losses due to official currency exchange rates, but here the logic of UBS comes to my rescue. Excuse me now while i go crack some eggs.

06 March 2009

This is just so cool.... from Zoopy, a clip about a new piece by French choreographer Fabrice Guillot, called 'Turning in the Void." It will be showcased at South Africa's 21st annual FNB Dance Umbrella this month.

05 March 2009

Fair Trade gets a boost in Britain

It's a start. Cadbury has announced it is now going to buy fair trade chocolate from Ghanaian farmers for its Dairy Milk bars, apparently the top selling chocolate bar in the UK (according to this, that translates into 300 million bars a year in UK and Ireland). Why is this such good news? Two reasons. First, the cocoa fields of Ghana produce 40% of the country's total export revenues, yet cocoa farmers are living in abject poverty because most of the production occurs on plantations (you remember that word, right? one step below sharecropper) and individual, low volume producers are not able to get high enough prices to make their (very basic) bare essentials meet. Second, child labor on cocoa farms in West Africa is an enormous human rights problem. According to the International Institute on Tropical Agriculture, cited here:
An estimated 284,000 children are working on cocoa farms in hazardous tasks such as using machetes and applying pesticides and insecticides without the necessary protective equipment. Many of these children work on family farms, the children of cocoa farmers who are so trapped in poverty they have to make the hard choice to keep their children out of school to work. The IITA also reported that about 12,500 children working on cocoa farms had no relatives in the area, a warning sign for trafficking.
Robert Beckford has done an excellent -even highly entertaining - documentary that explores cocoa as well as rice and gold production in Ghana, The Great African Scandal. The kids working at fair trade farms do so after school, not in place of it; the difference this affects in the kids themselves is striking, on top of the fact that these farms are part of a community coop with all the atmospheric contrasts one might expect under that framework.

The fair trade farmers Beckford visits say that by the time it gets to the market, only 3-4% of all fair trade cocoa is actually sold at fair trade prices. The rest gets dumped together with 'regular' cocoa, sold at typical slave trade prices. Another victory for SAP (the IMF's Structural Adjustment Programs): liberalize the market but don't regulate the price structure. However, opening things up did create a situation in which daring farmers could take more control of their fate, which led eventually to the establishment of Divine Ltd in the UK, Ghana's first fair trade, coop-owned, cocoa company. Their products look a lot more appealing than Cadbury's, and the company now has a US section as well, but the idea here isn't that fair trade companies outcompete each other. The point is that ALL cocoa should be sold at fair trade prices, so kudos to Cadbury for taking this step and let's hope that more chocolatiers follow suit.

04 March 2009

Carbon trading made easy

Excellent article here on carbon trading and the fast pace with which it's been growing in Turkey. If you need the carbon market demystified/clarified, definitely recommended reading. The writer also points out, however, that there are justifiable concerns about regulating the carbon market. Given the financial implosion we've all been watching (and feeling), i think it's clear the obvious concern is that large carbon-spewing operations, e.g. electric utilities, which are tied to shady investment portfolios that go bust will seriously threaten the viability - let alone growth - of carbon free energy projects. Anyone out there remember Enron?

02 March 2009

API demeans Rastas, stimulates Alaskan fantasies

The newest Onion news video, Are Violent Video Games Adequately Preparing Children for the Apocalypse? was below their usual standard, too tongue-in-cheek to generate even a smile. Yet it does raise the question of what options are out there online for young game players interested in whether they will actually have a future. Considering the range of apocalyptic pathways in the 21st century, i turned to the American Petroleum Institute to see what their crystal ball has to offer today's youth. Disappointed? Not!

API's educational arm offers ages 6-12 a two-part game called Drilling Ace, in which kids direct both offshore and bedrock drilling rigs to hit the oil deposits. The bedrock option is very clever, as the oil deposits (in green) are combined with gas deposits (in yellow) at each site: go for the green, avoid the yellow and you, too, can feel like a member of the ecologically aware Rockerfeller family! Ok, the color scheme does (kindasorta) commit heresy in the not-for-profit, one love church of Rasta, but the Indian Jones' soundtrack helps keeps the player focused on adventure and functionality - everything in life is a trade off, that's just a fact.

It's a big climate action day over in the US with Powershift09 planning the largest CD in US history against continued dependence on fossil fuels. Anything that pressures the govt in DC to take the rest of the world seriously on this issue has got to be good. Go team! And when you're too burnt out to expound on the utopian qualities of wind power, there's always to API to fall back on for stupid, childish entertainment.

The grass is never greener

Cynicism about the political present and future of Hungary is probably at an all-time high (at least since 1989), in no small part because of fiscal mismanagement/budgetary woes, recently highlighted by a huge IMF infusion to bolster the rapidly sinking forint. The other day, i was talking with someone about the economy here and he compared Hungary in very unfavorable terms to the Czech Republic: "at least they have a reasonable political situation there." So, it's been interesting to read this interview with former Czech spy Karl Koecher, who seems to view most developments in CZ through a lens of historical corruption. At one point, he cites Transparency International recently listing CZ as being equal in corruption practices as Nigeria, although i personally could not locate that source on their site. Hungarians, however, might take note that CZ is only slightly higher in the Corruptions Perception Index (CZ 45, HU 47) and so even if from the outside, Prague may seem more functional - if not rational - than Budapest, the Czechs themselves are nearly on par with the Hungarian cynics. Both countries are now struggling with the east-west EU divide, hoping that inclusion in the Eurozone will be speeded up in order to reduce protectionist measures by the Western bloc (seems unlikely).

When asked his view on the Czech EU presidency, Koecher replied, "Not to appear as incompetent parochial dummies, but I am afraid that this is a task well above the head of the current Czech government." Comments from any Praguites in the room???

Koecher also had this to say about the US missile defense radar system which continues to be strongly lobbied AGAINST by an alliance of Czech mayors and 70% of its citizens:
In my opinion, the primary motive behind the plans to build it had been the now defunct desire to provide lucrative business deals to firms supporting President Bush. If the US still discusses the plan with the Russians, it is, in my opinion, only to negotiate the price for which it will be willing to formally bury it.
Let's hope his crystal ball is coughing up a reality, even though diminishing US military investments in the East are not going to help the economies in the short term.