Pedantry - Moved to http://pedantry.fistfulofeuros.net

Saturday, May 24, 2003
 
Eurovison

So, I'm watching the Eurovision song contest on the Beeb. This is not, in fact, the first time I've seen it. I did know how cheesy it was going to be. And yet... well, I suppose I have a soft spot for unrepentantly cheesy TV.

The big scandal this year is that Russia has sent Tatu, Russia's current effort to corrupt the minds of western youth. Usually, only obscure nobodies compete in the contest, and usually they stay that way. There are exceptions: Abba, Celine Dion (who sang for Switzerland in '88), A-ha and Israel's famous Dana International.

But, I have to wonder. If Tatu wins, will there be a temptation to send ringers to the contest in the future? I mean real pop stars? It would make the show more watchable, but much of its entertainment value is in its kitschy content.

Update: Russia is in number 2. It'll be Russia, Belgium or Turkey for sure. The UK has zero points. The Beeb commentor has been joking that they'll need to send a gunboat.

Further Update: It's all over. Turkey won. Belgium is number 2 and Russia in third place. The UK ended up with absolutely no points at all - the only country to score nil.
 

 
Liebesbriefen von Rußland

I have a question on matters of blogger etiquette. Someone has posted in appreciation of my series on my family, linking to each post in turn. Since I already link to ReachM High Cowboy Network Noose, I have little of the unofficial currency of blogging to offer. What do I do? The best I can think of is fan service.

So, for my fans, I have a pair of letters from my great-grandfather, Kornelius Peter Martens, to his girlfriend, my great-grandmother Tina Neustädter. This is nowhere near complete correspondence. Even as a child I remember hearing about other letters, letters about life in Moscow, at school, and Great-Grandpa's thoughts on WWI. But, Grandpa must not have had them or I'm sure he would have included them. This is what I have.

This first letter must be his very first letter to her. It is dated immediately after when I had understood them to have first met - Winter 1914-15 - while he was on his way to an outhouse during a family function and she was coming back from the same. They were introduced by Grandma Dick's friend Tina Martens, who was also great-grandpa's cousin. She later married Johann Loewen and moved to Ekaterinoslav, then eventually to Fiske, Saskatchewan.

This letter is in German, written from the business school in Barvenkovo that he attended before going on to the university in Moscow. I don't have the original, just a translation. Grandpa was a very capable German translator, but he seems to have had difficulty translating this letter into an unstilted English. I've fixed the most grievous stylistic errors, the moments when I can just about reconstruct the original German from his text. Nonetheless, you can still read through the translation the cheesy romanticism of a 20 year old writting a love letter from school to the cute girl he met over Christmas.

Barvenkovo, 14 January 1915

Dearest Tina!

On the designated day I received your letter. I was quite certain that you would keep your promise, and still I was a bit apprehensive because I had the feeling that you might write a day later. I have long for you so much these days. I had composed a letter to you but now I've torn it up. I thought you would laugh at me if I wrote you after a separation of only three days. I have almost buried myself in my four walls again. There are only little disturbances now and then.

A few days ago I received the news that on the 24th I am to participate in the draw. My letter requesting exemption probably got lost. I will write them again as soon as possible, but if it doesn't help, I'll be in Einlage on the 23rd. One of my friends had to go; his experience was similar to mine. [This was during WWI and young men were frequently conscripted. Since Father was not baptised until just before his wedding, this could not have concerned the forestry service which was available as an alternative to members of the Mennonite Church. Since he was not drafted, his request for exemption must have been granted in the end.]

You probably go for walks all the time? I am almost envious of you. How gladly I would like to be at your side at Tina's place. [Grandpa thinks he means Kornelius' cousin Tina, the woman who introduced them on their way back from an outhouse.] That beautiful time is a thing of the past and now those wonderful hours of the past ramble through my mind like a fog before my eyes. I can hardly believe my memory, that barely two weeks ago, I spoke with my beloved. And still it cannot be doubted. One thing is true, those blessed hours are a thing of the past, and all that is left is a beautiful memory that in the world there is one heart to whom I can entrust my heart fully and completely. How wonderful! Isn't it so, dearest? Human beings always have a lot that they wish for. I just thought it would be even nicer if I could draw you against my breast, well, even if that's not possible in reality, then I can imagine it...

Thank you for your dear letter and the little card. Y.F. always wants to cut off Tina's half. It will probably happen at the first opportunity. [Grandpa's note: The "little card" must have been a photograph of Tina Neustädter and Tina Martens, his first cousin, in whom "Y.F." was interested. His identity is not known.] We will have ourselves photographed together, and then we'll send each of you a copy.

Tell Tina not to repay evil with evil, because my brother didn't mean [what he said] that way. I think he wrote her [to say that] already. When you write, make sure that the letter does not arrive here the 23rd or 24th. I may have to leave by then. A thousand kisses by your Kornelius.

P.S. If this letter is too long for you, I'll write less next time.

P.S. Smallpox is making the rounds here. We have all been vaccinated already.

P.S. There is no thought of going for a walk here. There is as much mud on the sidewalk as at Reimers' in the middle of the street.

P.S. I am waiting for a reply very soon.

Great-Grandpa is concerned about the draft. He hasn't been baptised and therefore can't claim a conscientious objection. Mennonites had lost their all-purpose draft exemption by then, and only members of actual dissenting churches could avoid military service. As for whatever his brother said to Tina Martens, I'm sure no one alive has any idea what it was about.

This second letter is from almost a year later, and is written in Russian from Moscow University. Grandma Dick had not learned very much Russian in school. I have had the impression that she was primarily used to speaking Russian with servants and was borderline illiterate in the language. It seems that Great-Grandpa had encouraged her to improve her Russian. He, as a man with a broader education and a future in big business, had quite fluent Russian.

Grandpa didn't translate this letter himself, since he could not speak or read Russian at all. He had it translated by a former associate who was also a Russian professor at the University of Winnipeg. Once again, I am missing the original and it doesn't seem to be a very good translation. It is excessively literal, giving it a kind of bizarre tone for a love letter. I have, once again, tried to repare the worst of it.

Moscow, 1 October 1916

My dear Tina,

You will probably be wondering why I have not written for such a long time. I, too, was alarmed when my letters remained unanswered. The last news that I have from you was written on the 16th of September, but I only got it on the 28th. So for that space of two weeks I did not have the least bit of news from you, my dearest. But you are always worried if I do not respond within a few days after receiving your letter. You can't imagine what's been going through my mind during these long days. Finally I started to think I didn't know anything at all. And then, just when I reached that conclusion, your letter arrived. In a flash, all my puzzling thoughts disappeared and the next moment, in my imagination, I threw myself into your arms, kissing you a thousand times and hugging you repeatedly. The past has disappeared unnoticed, as though I only saw your likeness yesterday. That's the way I saw you in my imagination. The future will probably seem longer to us. For the time being, we have to be satisfied with waiting for letters, then eventually seeing each other again. But until then is such a long time, oh how long, almost unending.

As a comforting rule, take Nekrasov's advice: "Believe, hope and wait", and in the end we will be reunited. After a long absence I will be able to look into your dear eyes, little dove, and... and... I am unable to describe my feelings. Such feelings are unutterable, because to another person they are foreign. But we understand them, don't we my angel? But let me guess what you're thinking. You're thinking: "Now the wretched madness is galloping away with him." Maybe so, but what can one do? That is my fate, as much as I thought this fate had to adjust itself to the wishes of man.

"How firm is the man that strives
See what all he can accomplish
If only in his heart he has for patience and discernment
The freedom, and God's blessing"

This is my guiding principle. Man can do anything. There is nothing impossible in this world. But now, enough. Again I have let myself go too far.

You ask why I do not correspond with Vanya. [I have no clue who Vanya was.] I correspond with no one except you and my parents. Furthermore, he does not answer letters. I will straighten out the matter with him after the war or if he should come to Moscow.

With many kisses,
Your Kornelius

My address:

Moscow
Karetnyy ryad
Srednye-spasliy pereulok
House #3, Suite 1
K.P.M

P.S. You can continue to write to me at my old address, but it seems to me that here there aren't as many hostile hands. [Some of his mail had disappeared, and he assumed theft.]

I assume "Nekrosov" is Nikolay Alekseyevich Nekrasov (1821 - 1877), a Russian poet. He was a popular poet, and something of a favourite of social reformers and revolutionaries at the time. He is now something of an obscure writer, known more for having introduced Dostoyevski to the publishing world than for his own work. I also have no idea who "Vanya" was or what his beef might have been.

This last letter is even cheesier than the first. Great-Grandpa seems to have fallen under the influence of some highly romantic poetry. The few lines he quotes are no doubt from some Russian poet, but I can't read the language well enough to find out who the original author is.

I'm struck by the irony of the line from his first letter "The future will probably seem longer to us", for he was dead by the spring of 1920 after a sixteen month marriage. According to Grandma Dick, he learned the catechism in less than three days, so that he could get baptised immediately and marry her in a Mennonite church.

Yet, in 1916 at age 21, he seems to have put his faith elsewhere entirely: "Man can do anything. There is nothing impossible in this world." I don't doubt that he would have been quite the engineer if he had lived.
 

Friday, May 23, 2003
 
New York Turkeys, and I don't mean Mayor Bloomberg

According to today's NY Times, a wild turkey has taken up residence in Manhattan.


Caption: A female turkey visiting a 28th-floor balcony on West 70th Street on April 20. She appears to be the first of her kind to make a go of it in Manhattan's parks and airways.

From the Times article:

By all accounts, the wild turkey sightings apparently are a first in the center of Manhattan. Few species would seem less likely inhabitants of an urban core, considering the wild turkey's ungainly size, its native habitat in woods, mountains and swamps, and its diet of berries, nuts and insects.

But its arrival is not altogether surprising, given that birds and animals have been making their way into densely populated areas across the nation.

A coyote was found in Central Park in 1999, not far from where a pair of red-tailed hawks have nested on a luxury apartment building at Fifth Avenue and 74th Street. Bears, not yet spotted in Manhattan, have been spotted in the suburbs, feeding from garbage cans and lumbering across yards.

This leads me to some science-fictiony thoughts. What if this trend continues? What if we have to learn to live with wildlife larger than the average cat in our cities? I know New York has been encouraging hawks in Manhattan to keep the pigeon population under control. Perhaps we need to bring a whole ecosystem into our urban planning?

I'm just wondering what a city with a native bear population would be like. I imagine Animal Control could implant microchips into each large animal to keep track of them. And the trend in video surveillance is already towards cameras everywhere. I suppose city residents could track wildlife on the Internet through some kind of "roving bearcam" website. Or perhaps they could put alarms on every street corner to warn people when a bear is coming and make enough noise to discourage it from moving around in areas with lots of people. It would mean having to bear-proof your home and garbage cans.

It's a kind of surreal image, the city as a wildlife preserve. The interesting question, though, is how would the people have to change?
 

 
Dick Lugar wigs out

There have been a number of Republicans lately showing less than robotic loyalty to their erstwhile president, and Dick Lugar is probably the biggest so far.

Bush 'is on brink of catastrophe'

The most senior Republican authority on foreign relations in Congress has warned President Bush that the United States is on the brink of catastrophe in Iraq.

Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Washington was in danger of creating “an incubator for terrorist cells and activity” unless it increased the scope and cost of its reconstruction efforts. He said that more troops, billions more dollars and a longer commitment were needed if the US were not to throw away the peace. [...]

Mr Lugar also took a swipe at Mr Bush’s victory speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln earlier this month, delivered under a banner that read: “Mission Accomplished”. He said: “President Bush should make clear to one and all that he will declare ‘Mission Accomplished’ in Iraq not on the basis of our military victory or the date of our withdrawal, but on what kind of country we leave behind.”

It would be irresponsible, and contrary to USinterests, to walk away before Iraq was a dependable member of the world community.

Mr Lugar’s remarks are likely to infuriate the White House and the Pentagon. He criticised Pentagon officials for talking about “quick exit strategies”, saying: “The days when Americans could win battles and then come home quickly for a parade are over.”

The ability of the White House to fire back at Mr Lugar is limited. Mr Bush described him last week as “a fine, fine man”, after being introduced by him at a speech in Indiana. [...]

“I want to see evidence that the Administration is in this for the long haul to create a stable, democratic Iraq, and to acknowledge that this will place a significant burden on the American people,” Mr Lugar said. He referred to estimates that the reconstruction of Iraq may cost $100 billion, compared to the $2.5 billion approved by Congress so far.


Thursday, May 22, 2003
 
Chicken Run

I'm watching Panorama right now on the Beeb. Panorama is a bit overdramatic as news programmes go, but it's usually interesting.

They have a rather disturbing programme this week on how chicken is processed in Europe. It's an excellent example of why people become food activists. They haven't shown anything that's actually a risk to your health - essentially, many Dutch chicken processors use water and generic proteins to get chicken meat to weigh more. It's not illegal if it's on the label, and the worst thing they've managed to accuse the chicken processors of is probably pumping more water into the chicken than the label says. It's not going to kill anyone. At worst, it's got denatured pork protein in it and therefor in one case there may be some lying about halal labeling.

But people don't like mystery meat. I don't. I hated the moment when they started showing the colour and texture of the chicken that's pumped full of water, I realised that the chicken I buy looks like that. And I pay €9 per kilo for those chicken breasts.

There's a post coming soon one of these days on the American nightmare - especially as portrayed in American film and TV and how it relates to American politics. This is a good example of the American nightmare in action: the fear that everything is somehow fake, including fake chicken that just appears in supermarkets like magic.
 

 
Testing RSS

Patrick Nielsen Hayden points out that this is a worthy, and yet regrettably RSS-inaccessible blog. I am attempting to remedy this oversight. However, this means messing with the template. If you start to see funky things, that's why.

Update: Okay, in theory I ought to have an RSS feed through Blogmatrix, but their spider hasn't reached me yet. You ought to see it at the bottom of the sidebar something like:



Once Blogmatrix' spider gets to me, I ought to be properly RSS accessible.

Further Update Blogmatrix' spider must have got to me overnight. We now have RSS, although I can't vouch for the actual update frequency, and it tends to take the beginning of every post as its title, so it may look a little awkward.
 

 
Het is voorbij!

Just had my oral exam. I think it went well. The most bizarre exercise was: Here are two photos, one from the wedding of Prince Philip to Mathilde and the other of Prince Alexander to Maxima. Compare the men and women in these two photos.

So, I am now temporarily between schools and need to start looking for a third year Dutch programme before my job starts to get on my nerves.
 

 
Computing's Lost Allure

The NY Times has this piece up today on the sudden decline in undergraduate Computer Science enrollment, something it attributes - probably correctly - to the dot-crash. The end of easy money has certainly dimmed some of the field's allure.

At Carnegie Mellon University, applications to the School of Computer Science for next fall are down 36 percent from their peak in 2001; applications to Virginia Tech's computer science department have declined 40 percent since 2001. At M.I.T., renowned for its computer science curriculum, 20 percent fewer freshmen declared electrical engineering and computer science as their central focus this spring than did in 2001 or 2002.

"People aren't seeing the glory in computer science that they used to," said Nirav Dave, 20, a senior and an electrical and computer engineering major at Carnegie Mellon who has seen the ranks of his fellow majors decline. "It used to be that you would do this and you would be a millionaire."

Shaun McCormick, 19, who will be a sophomore next fall at the University of Texas at Austin, started out in computer science but switched at midyear to communications and plans to focus on advertising.

Not only was he daunted by the difficulty of the coursework, Mr. McCormick said, but his job prospects also worried him.

"You have to be a very good programmer with lots of experience under your belt," he said. "Even if you have a good G.P.A., it's hard to get a good job."

It's true - it's a lot harder to get an IT job than it used to be. The wife and I can only attribute our jobs to a truely extraordinary run of luck this last year. Our jobs really did just fall into our laps, and we were doubly lucky to get them in a country where, at the time, neither of us had work papers.

Still, in the absence of a recovery, opportunities in the computer field are contracting. In 2000 Intel hired 2,378 recent college graduates. Last year it hired 566, one-fourth that number.

On the other hand, there is fear that a long run fall in CS enrollment might have other negative effects:

"Our department will be hurt," said J Strother Moore, chairman of the department of computer sciences at the University of Texas, where interest in the field has also diminished. "But more importantly, when the economy recovers, we're going to need computer programmers, and many more of them than we'll be producing at the current rate of input. It's a serious problem for the national economy."

Personally, I find this unlikely. Forcasts of labour market needs, especially in an area like computer science where demand is so contingent on the investment climate, are not to be believed. As a veteran of the dot-com era, I saw so much labour wasted in the IT industry in the 90's (especially my own) that I'm not at all convinced there needs to be any fear of a tech shortage in the foreseeable future.

The grad school enrollment picture, on the other hand, looks quite different. If we assume that people with graduate educations are more productive than those with only undergraduate educations (a bit of a stretch, I know) then this paragraph suggests that there is little to fear:

The number of graduate students entering Ph.D. programs in computer science rose 21 percent last year, according to the Taulbee Survey, an annual report compiled by the Computing Research Association, a nonprofit research group. M.I.T. officials said that the graduate program in computer science had received about 3,000 applications for next fall for 120 places, up from 2,000 applications four years ago.

Now, being a contrarian, let me offer some advice to those facing career choices at any level and considering IT. Now is a good time to be a CS/EE undergrad and a bad time to get a graduate degree in CS or EE. This is a good time to look at other kinds of advanced education that can complement a computer science background.

Why is it a good time to be an undergrad? Well, because moldable early 20-something minds are an important industrial commodity - they don't cost as much as grown-ups, they have the latest and most up-to-date training and they don't realise yet that employers are not to be trusted.

There is another reason though. It was one of the reasons why I didn't get a CS degree, and it's something that's changed:


Caption: IMPROVING THE RATIO - Jennifer Li, left, and Tiffany Chang, computer science majors at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Yes, they have cute girls in CS departments now. This is a huge improvement over the days of yore, when the ratio was one woman per fifty awkward geeks. But, things are different now.

If you're middle class and between the ages of 15 to 25, now is the time get used to women making more money than you do, because among professionals it is increasingly the normal situation. Although the overall pay gap has not disappeared, in the technical trades it has come closer than elsewhere. Now is the time to deal with the idea that the right woman can set you in up in the lifestyle to which you would like to become accustomed. You too can take advantage of your university as marriage mill, just as women have for decades.

Yes, now is the time to find yourself a techno-babe.

(*ouch* No honey, I didn't marry you for your money. *ouch* You were living in your Pinto when I met you, remember? *ouch* Stop hitting me with your iPod! *ouch*)

Anyway, for those who already have degrees and are contemplating CS grad school to avoid unemployment, this is not the time to go get a Master's or PhD. First, because if you do you will be competing with me for jobs, and I take a dim view of that sort of thing. Second, with so many people trying to stay in school, you risk finding yourself overqualified for entry level jobs and in a market flooded with CS/EE PhD's.

Now is the time to consider changing tracks and doing a graduate degree in the humanities.

Yes, I know, if you have a degree in tech, you think the humanities are a synonym for unemployment. However, tech in conjunction with a background in the humanities can be a killer combination. It pays, often well, to be the engineer who actually knows how to write. It pays to be the competent programmer who also speaks Chinese. It pays to be the guy who both knows technology and psychology, or sociology, or history, or even modern lit, or any of those fields that don't pay off so well by themselves. Computing for the humanities is a growing field while pure tech is slowing down markedly.

Now, the other thing you're likely to tell yourself is that you need a Bachelor's in something in the humanities to do a Master's in it. The truly funny thing is that this isn't true except at the most elite American universities. In Quebec, you can enroll in a Master's in a subject you've never studied before, subject to the condition that you spend your first year taking the 30 credit undergraduate coursework that would have been required to major in that subject. It's only a year's extra work to do. In Europe, they offer complimentary degrees, many only one or two years long, which are intended to enable you to enter PhD level programmes in fields you may have little or no previous experience in. Even in the States, good GRE's and an earnest expression of interest will do wonders.

In a field like foreign language education, there may not be any special prerequisites at all to continue studying, although it won't necessarily lead to a graduate degree. Do you think the war on terrorism is on the wane, or will be any time soon? If not, don't you think born Americans with tech backgrounds and fluent Arabic are doing pretty well for themselves right now? There are excellent Arabic language schools in many countries in the Middle East, many of them quite inexpensive, especially now. Yes, I suppose there is some chance you'll get yourself blown up, but the odds are on your side and the rewards are considerable. In the same way, I've been wondering what SARS will do for the cost of an education in the Far East. What do you want to bet that no one wants to live in Beijing or Shanghai right now?

Anyway, it's something to think about.
 

Wednesday, May 21, 2003
 
Dammit

The last Buffy ever was on last night, and I haven't even seen the begining of the last season. Kanaal Twee doesn't have it on, and God only knows when BBC2 is going to get it back since it's on Sky in the UK this season. RTL and La Deux are showing, like, season five, but only in French. I don't want to see it dubbed in a couple years (Fait gaffe, Bewffy! - please!) and I don't want to wait for DVD.

Somebody, please tell me the final show was worthy.
 

 
From my cold, dead hands

I wonder when the NRA is going to start holding rallies to defend Iraqis' right to own guns. It looks like what some folks consider human rights in Idaho don't apply in Iraq.

Allies to Begin Seizing Weapons From Most Iraqis

Iraqi citizens will be required to turn over automatic weapons and heavy weapons under a proclamation that allied authorities plan to issue this week, allied officials said today.

The aim of the proclamation is to help stabilize Iraq by confiscating the huge supply of AK-47's, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons that are used by criminal gangs, paramilitary groups and remnants of the Saddam Hussein government.

Iraqis who refuse to comply with the edict will be subject to arrest. Only Iraqis authorized to use military-type weapons because of their police or military duties will be exempt.

"We are in the final stages of formulating a weapons policy to put rules on who can and cannot possess a weapon," Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, the chief allied land commander said in an interview. "We want to get explosives and AK's out of the wrong hands."

I want to see the anti-gun control people defend this one, especially the ones who both supported the war and believe that gun ownership is a guarantee of good government.

I especially like the picture that accompanied it:



Caption: U.S. soldiers guarded Baath Party members while their house was searched in Baghdad. Four pistols, two Kalashnikov rifles, ammunition and six pounds of the explosive Semtex were found.

Looks like some paranoid fantasy of the black helicopter set doesn't it?

Will this be ignored by the right wing press or is the weaseling about to begin? We report, you decide.
 

 
Colombia Searches for Real Soldiers of Fortune

Is it just me, or does this sound like a very cheesy summer action movie?

BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) - More than 100 elite Colombian troops were on the run on Tuesday after stealing at least $14 million from a Marxist rebel war chest.

Dozens of officers and men abruptly resigned or just were absent without leave after the counter-guerrilla force stumbled upon a huge stash of bank notes buried in a jungle minefield in Caqueta Province on Good Friday, embarrassed officials said.

The fugitives, who never reported finding what appear to be massive proceeds from kidnapping and cocaine, were hiding from a joint army and police manhunt.

"These people didn't commit embezzlement, but the crime of treason, betraying their army, betraying the faith of Colombians, betraying the honor of Colombia," an angry Interior Minister Fernando Londono told local radio.

Three officers, 16 noncommissioned officers and 21 enlisted men have been arrested and another 107 are on the lam, according to armed forces commander Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina.

He came clean on the scandal late on Monday, explaining the details of what national newspaper El Tiempo dubbed: "The robbery of the century."

"A sergeant with the patrol stepped on a land mine. Then they started looking for more mines and accidentally found the cache," Ospina said.

DRUG MONEY

Officials said the money was hidden by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials FARC, which funds its four-decade-old war with proceeds of abduction and by "taxing" the world's largest cocaine industry.

They've stolen $14 million from narcoguerillas. Now the Columbian army, the US army, Marxist guerillas and the drug traffickers are all out to get them.

This summer, Columbia entertainment presents... Sylvester Stalone, Bruce WIllis, Kiefer Sutherland, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in the summer thriller of 2003...

The robbery of the century

Coming soon to a theatre near you.
 

Tuesday, May 20, 2003
 
The Belgian Blogger Blues

Both Enetation and Blogger were on the fritz last night and haven't been too reliable this morning either. That's why there's new post up dated yesterday. I wrote it, I posted it, but I couldn't publish.

Looks like everything's back up for the moment though. Of course, it's the middle of the night in the States, so no one is reading this anyway. My new blog implementation isn't quite ready to go yet, and the wife is back at work, so who knows when I'll finally be able to migrate.

In the mean time, let me direct you to the latest from George Monbiot in today's Guardian:

Let's hear it for Belgium

Belgium is becoming an interesting country. In the course of a week, it has managed to upset both liberal opinion in Europe - by granting the far-right Vlaams Blok 18 parliamentary seats - and illiberal opinion in the US. On Wednesday, a human rights lawyer filed a case with the federal prosecutors whose purpose is to arraign Thomas Franks, the commander of the American troops in Iraq, for crimes against humanity. This may be the only judicial means, anywhere on earth, of holding the US government to account for its actions.

The case has been filed in Belgium, on behalf of 17 Iraqis and two Jordanians, because Belgium has a law permitting foreigners to be tried for war crimes, irrespective of where they were committed. The suit has little chance of success, for the law was hastily amended by the government at the beginning of this month. But the fact that the plaintiffs had no choice but to seek redress in Belgium speaks volumes about the realities of Tony Blair's vision for a world order led by the US, built on democracy and justice.

Franks appears to have a case to answer. The charges fall into four categories: the use of cluster bombs; the killing of civilians by other means; attacks on the infrastructure essential for public health; and the failure to prevent the looting of hospitals. There is plenty of supporting evidence.

US forces dropped around 1,500 cluster bombs from the air and fired an unknown quantity from artillery pieces. [...] The effects of their deployment in residential areas were both predictable and predicted. This suggests that their use there breached protocol II to the Geneva conventions, which prohibits "violence to the life, health and physical or mental well-being" of non-combatants.

On several occasions, US troops appear to have opened fire on unarmed civilians. [...]

The armed forces also deliberately destroyed civilian infrastructure, bombing the electricity lines upon which water treatment plants depended, with the result that cholera and dysentery have spread. Protocol II prohibits troops from attacking "objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population such as ... drinking water installations and supplies".

The fourth convention also insists that an occupying power is responsible for "ensuring and maintaining ... the medical and hospital establishments and services, public health and hygiene in the occupied territory". [...]

The armed forces of the US, in other words, appear to have taken short cuts while prosecuting their war with Iraq. Some of these may have permitted them to conclude their war more swiftly, but at the expense of the civilian population. Repeatedly, in some cases systematically, US soldiers appear to have broken the laws of war. [...]

The Bush government's response would doubtless be explained by its apologists as a measure of its insistence upon and respect for national sovereignty. But while the US forbids other nations to proscribe the actions of its citizens, it also insists that its own laws should apply abroad. The foreign sovereignty immunities act, for example, permits the US courts to prosecute foreigners for harming commercial interests in the US, even if they are breaking no laws within their own countries. The Helms-Burton Act allows the courts in America to confiscate the property of foreign companies which do business with Cuba. The Iran-Libya Sanctions Act instructs the government to punish foreign firms investing in the oil or gas sectors in those countries. The message these laws send is this: you can't prosecute us, but we can prosecute you. [...]

To ensure that there was not the slightest possibility that his servicemen need fear the rule of law, George W Bush signed a new piece of extra-territorial legislation last year, which permits the US "to use all means necessary and appropriate to bring about the release" of US citizens being tried in the court. This appears to include the invasion of the capital of the Netherlands. [...]

All this serves to illustrate the grand mistake Tony Blair is making. The empire he claims to influence entertains no interest in his moral posturing. Its vision of justice between nations is the judicial oubliette of Guantanamo Bay. The idea that it might be subject to the international rule of law, and therefore belong to a world order in which other nations can participate, is as unthinkable in Washington as a six-month public holiday. If Blair does not understand this, he has missed the entire point of US foreign policy. If he does understand it, he has misled us as to the purpose of his own diplomacy. The US government does not respect the law between nations. It is the law.


Monday, May 19, 2003
 
Arundhati Roy tells us what she really thinks

[via ReachM High Cowboy Network Noose]

I'm only halfway through this speech transcript from the subcontinent's most attractive famous leftist intellectual, titled Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy. Buy One, Get One Free. Man, she is not into the Bush way of doing things.

So far:

[...] The point is, if Saddam Hussein was evil enough to merit the most elaborate, openly declared assassination attempt in history (the opening move of Operation Shock and Awe), then surely those who supported him ought at least to be tried for war crimes? Why aren’t the faces of US and UK government officials on the infamous pack of cards of wanted men and women? [...]

TV commentators, army and government spokespersons portrayed [the looting in Iraq] as a ‘liberated people’ venting their rage at a despotic regime. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: "It’s untidy. Freedom’s untidy and free people are free to commit crimes and make mistakes and do bad things." Did anybody know that Donald Rumsfeld was an anarchist? I wonder—did he hold the same view during the riots in Los Angeles following the beating of Rodney King? Would he care to share his thesis about the Untidiness of Freedom with the two million people being held in US prisons right now? (The world’s ‘freest’ country has the highest number of prisoners in the world.) Would he discuss its merits with young African-American men, 28 per cent of whom will spend some part of their adult lives in jail? Could he explain why he serves under a president who oversaw 152 executions when he was governor of Texas? [...]

At a Pentagon briefing during the days of looting, Secretary Rumsfeld, Prince of Darkness, turned on his media cohorts who had served him so loyally through the war. "The images you are seeing on television, you are seeing over and over and over, and it’s the same picture, of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it twenty times and you say, ‘My god, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?’."

Laughter rippled through the press room. Would it be alright for the poor of Harlem to loot the Metropolitan Museum? Would it be greeted with similar mirth? [...]

Operation Iraqi Freedom? I don’t think so. It was more like Operation Let’s Run a Race, but First Let Me Break Your Knees. [...]


 
Tina rennt...

I have promised the rest of Grandma Dick's story for some two weeks now. The first part is here, and there is a link from there that lets you go back to the rest of Grandpa's memoirs. This story should be contrasted with my grandfather's memory of the same events, which were not the same.

We pick up Grandma Dick's story again in 1927 - she says almost nothing about the years between her parents murder and her exit from the Soviet Union, except a series of dates for her baptism, her marriage and my grandfather's birth. For her, Russia symbolised a misery that I don't think she was ever comfortable talking about, while Canada was her liberation. Russia was where her parents were murdered, where she spent her teen years in misery with her foster parents, and where her husband died less than eighteen months after her marriage.

I suspect she rationalised some of her hatred of Russia as hatred of communists. Anti-communism was far from unusual among people who had lost their property to nationalisation, long before Stalin started to make people's lives extra difficult for their class and ethnic origins. Although there were many Mennonites exiled under Stalin - something she fears would have happened to her - this did not happen to everyone, and it did not happen to her foster parents as far as I know. It would, however, likely have happened to her in-laws, and she might well have been taken away with them. It's hard to know.

Nonetheless, her desire to flee Russia, to get as far from it as she could, was real enough. She wanted out and she never looked back. But, there were obstacles she would have to overcome first.

How often I have thanked the Lord that He lead me out of Russia with Theodor. It was His hand, and He is a Father the widows and orphans. Together with Theodor He lead me out of the land of misery.

In May 1927, I had a serious operation. I was in the Muntau Hospital, adjacent to Halbstadt in the Molotschna Colony. [Muntau is, along with Halbstadt, now a part of the city of Molochansk, Ukraine.] The wound festered and the whole incision tore open after my abdomen was highly swollen. The doctors did not know what it was and had given up on me, although I did not know it at the time.

It was there that I was born again through the ministry of Rev. Gerhard Harder of Halbstadt. Because I stayed there such a long time, I frequently had occasion to see Rev. Harder walking past the door of my room, but he never came in. When I enquired why he did not come to see me, he did come visit me even though I was a stranger from the old colony. Through him I accepted Jesus Christ as my Saviour and found peace for my soul. The scripture that caused me to turn to Christ was Isaiah 38 verse 17.

Indeed it was for my own peace that I had great bitterness; but You have lovingly delivered my soul from the pit of corruption, for You have cast all my sins behind Your back. - Isaiah 38:17

I had no one whom I could ask for advice, no relatives, no brothers or sisters. Mother-in-law, together with sisters-in-law and brother-in-law, left during the time I was ill in the hospital. We - my sister-in-law Njuta (Anna Martens) and I - had obtained passports with much difficulty. Numerous times we had to walk to Aleksandrovsk to procure the passports. When the time approached where the validity of the passports expired, my in-laws left because there was no hope for my health to improve in time. Our foster parents were only too glad to keep us there because they loved Theodor so dearly. When I thought that Theodor was to grow up in that Godless land, I was afraid. How was I to train him alone?

I remained for two months in the Muntau hospital. The wound had not healed completely, but on the 24th of July I was allowed to go home. So, I thought that it was not the Lord's will that I leave. But, since the wound healed in two weeks and the passport was still valid, I took it to be the Lord's will that we should go anyway. It was terribly difficult for our foster parents to part from Theodor.

When I left for Canada, my sister Mika remained with our foster parents. She did not want to leave yet. After the Second World War, she was in the no-man's-land from which so many people were sent back to Russia. No doubt she was one of them, and since she was in poor health, she probably died. There has been no word from her since.

My foster parents put a tag around Theodor's neck, next to his body, with their address and the address of my sister in Canada. They did not believe that I could survive the trip. I was so weak that I could not even say farewell to my friends before our departure. However, I did have an auction sale where I sold the few things I owned.

On the 13th of August I left our home in Russia with Theodor bound for Canada. First we went to Moscow, where I paid for the trip which cost 471 roubles and 22 kopeks for the two of us. In Moscow, we stayed with some German people. A man by the name of Fröse looked after immigrants who were travelling through Moscow. [Peter Fröse was president of the Allrussischer Landwirtschaftlicher Verein - the All-Russia Agricultural Society. This organisation doubled as a Mennonite relief society.] I had hoped to meet a travelling companion in Moscow, and then in Riga, but no one was there. Most of those who travelled with us were Jews.

On the 19th of August, we came to Riga. There, the bottom of my wound opened half an inch. We were put in into a room with a man. For some reason, not all the rooms were available since some must have been repainted or redecorated. It was not a hotel, so it must have been some kind of boarding house. The man had a number of pictures that he thought he would not be able to take through customs, so he asked me to take some of them. [Grandpa's note: My recollection is that this took place in Moscow. If he got through Russian customs, why would he fear the customs in Riga?]

At Riga, we boarded a little ship and landed in London on August 29th. We went by train to Southampton on the 31st of August. There we thoroughly inspected by the doctor. They did not want to let us continue on our trip. I could not speak English, but I remembered the Latin name for my operation: Recto Versio. [I have not been able to determine what Recto Versio is or what it is intended to treat.] We were allowed to proceed.

In Southampton there were two children with us, a boy and girl of about 11 and 13 years of age. They were Mennonite children that had had to remain behind until their medical problems, probably with their eyes, were cleared.

From Southampton, we had passage on the large ship "Montroyal." The trip across the ocean was terribly stormy and I was alone with three children. But the Lord helped, he brought us safely to Canada. We landed in Quebec City on September 7th. There I was thoroughly inspected because I was only skin and bones. They thought I had TB.

Where would my Theodor have ended if I had not obeyed my inner voice to leave? No doubt I would have been imprisoned as were my friends soon after we left. They were tortured and murdered. And Theodor would have been put in a children's home where he would have become a communist. How often I have thanked God when I see him standing in the pulpit.

After nine years of difficult widowhood, the Lord led my David to me, and Theodor could be raised by a believing father. How much cause we have to be thankful.

Your Mother, Tina Dick

In 1928, Stalin ordered foreign relief offices shut down. In 1929, thousands of Mennonites who were trying to leave the Soviet Union were stranded in Moscow for weeks until they were either given permission to leave, or were forcibly returned to their homes, or, in some cases, sent into exile in SIberia. Grandma Dick and my grandfather got out a little more than a year before it became impossible to emigrate.

Next: Grandpa Dick's history.
 

 
While I'm on the subject of The Matrix Reloaded...

One second thought, I'm not going to write a real post on The Matrix Reloaded. All the good lines have clearly been taken by Andrew O'Hehir in today's Salon, who I now intend to quote more extensively than fair use rules usually allow:

[...] But in "The Matrix Reloaded" they take the time to show us what Neo and his tough-babe squeeze Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and über-cool guide/guru Morpheus and the rest of the human rebels battling against the technocratic enslavement of the Matrix are fighting for. It's not the awesome designer leathers and sunglasses, the Porsches and Ducati bikes; as cool as those things may seem, they exist in the Matrix, which is to say they don't really exist at all. [...]

One of the marks of genuine genius in the Matrix films, I think, is the way the Wachowskis manage to have it both ways so much of the time: They can make a box-office-busting action spectacular that is also an explicit critique of media-age capitalism and a lefty-Christian parable. [...]

Hey, as political visions of the human future go, half-naked bodies of many races movin' and groovin' together is a hell of a lot better than most. As anarchist foremother Emma Goldman reputedly said -- and I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Wachowskis had this in mind -- "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." [...]

The apparently contradictory fact that this same big-budget action movie, distributed by a gigantic infotainment conglomerate, suggested that our entire culture was an illusion and that we had been hopelessly enslaved and cut off from real life by our own technology was conveniently overlooked.

In "The Matrix Reloaded," with its affectionate but faintly satirical portrait of the ruling council of Zion -- a collection of robe-wearing crones and stately older men and nattily attired people of color that reminded me of a school board meeting in Berkeley, Calif., where I grew up -- the Wachowskis come ever closer to outing themselves as lefties. OK, they're lefties with a sense of humor and a capacity for self-criticism and an intellectual bent that sometimes gets them tied in knots. But, hey, those are the best kind.

One of the most striking aspects of this film's depiction of Zion is its racial composition; more than half the population seems to be black or brown, and the community's leaders are predominantly black men. (Don't miss radical African-American scholar Cornel West, in a brief role as a member of the council! Or boxer Roy Jones Jr., as a hovercraft captain!) No one ever mentions the racial dynamics of Matrix-resistance, and it's not directly germane to the plot in any way, but it makes the standard "integration" of the science-fiction future, as pioneered by "Star Trek," look like the tokenism it really is. Inside the world of the Matrix, on the other hand -- which is to say our world -- we hardly ever see nonwhite people, except for Morpheus himself and the cryptic Oracle (the late Gloria Foster), whose Matrix identity is that of an older woman in an inner-city housing project. The "agents" of the Matrix, of course, are all white men in narrow-lapel suits with little earphones and sunglasses; they look like LBJ's Secret Service detail, with a dash of Blues Brothers. [...]

What we don't know -- and aren't likely to figure out, at least not until the final chapter of this trilogy, "The Matrix Revolutions," reaches theaters in November -- is whether the crunchy, liberated, polysexual and anti-racist society of Zion is really as free from the all-consuming software code of the Matrix as it thinks it is. [...]

(Is now a good time to bring up the fact that a line spoken by Morpheus to Neo in the first film -- "Welcome to the desert of the real," which itself draws on a trademark Baudrillard phrase -- was borrowed by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek for the title of a brilliant, troubling essay about Sept. 11 and its aftermath? And the fact that, in the scene where Morpheus speaks the line, as he shows Neo the all-too-real ruins of 21st century civilization, destroyed in the losing war against the machines, the burned-out hulks of the twin towers are clearly visible in the background? There is no spoon.) [...]

It seems the Merovingian -- and I promise I'll stop short of giving away anything major here -- has under his control a guy called the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), who can offer Neo and friends access to secret back passages that lead outside the Matrix but aren't in the so-called real world either. (I was reminded, perhaps inevitably, of the institutional-looking corridors beneath and behind Disneyland.) [...]

No, I'm not sure where they're going or quite how they're going to get there, but I know I want to take the ride. I've lost all sympathy for the flocks of chicken-robots who will gather around this franchise trying to peck holes in it, complaining about this or that problematic stunt scene or red-herring character. They are the agents of the Matrix; ignore them. [...]

I was struck by the scenes in Zion, just as O'Hehir and many others were. The neologism technegro leapt to mind, although somehow I doubt the word would ever catch on. We're used to a vision of the future where blacks, Asians, Hispanics and other people with off-white skin get to be captains of starships, Nobel-prize winning scientists, engineers and the like. It's the vision those of us growing up in white middle America after the civil rights movement absorbed with our breakfast cereals while watching Sesame Street on PBS.

A lot of people look at people of colour, Latin Americans, Arabs, Africans, and God knows who else and say that they can never have what we have unless they become culturally more like us. Look at Star Trek, or other contemporary SF, and how it reinforces this belief. Jordi LaForge has dark skin and dates interracially (a little), but there is never the slightest indication that he is in any way culturally different from the rest of the crew on the Enterprise. This was even more heavily reinforced with Sulu on the original Trek. If you closed your eyes, you would never know that he was Asian at all.

Yes, it's a real improvement just to have convinced people that you can be morally equal no matter what your skin colour is. But that's not enough.

Take a look at the way Asians are routinely portrayed in American fiction in the 80's and later. Modern, intelligent, capable, high-tech Asian characters are still very Asian, often in ways so stereotyped that they're offensive. No one has the slightest difficulty imagining Asian characters as having what we have - wealth, power and loads of cool stuff - just as they are, quite independently of whatever we think about their culture as such.

Now, imagine Jordi LaForge from Star Trek speaking like some kid from the bad part of Oakland, or with a thick Mississippi black accent, or playing his collection of Tupac CD's on the engineering deck, or wearing massively baggy pants and a tuque, or whatever other stereotype you care to indulge. You can't do it, or if you can, the image is probably pretty uncomfortable.

Well, the Wachowski brothers seem able to go there. Zion isn't quite so stereotyped as all that, but it is definitely somebody's idea of the 'hood. You can tell from its crowds (Zion looks pretty packed), its architecture (old and rusted), its music (big on rhythm and bongo-looking drums), and its sensuality (a myth about dark people to be sure, but a myth us white folk seem all too willing to indulge when we're feeling horny.) Zion isn't an interracial neighbourhood. It's a black and Hispanic inner-city neighbourhood with some white people who've decided they like it there. And, despite being culturally quite remote from the mainsteam culture of the Matrix, they still have all the cool stuff you could ask for. They have mecha that any fan of Japanese anime would recognise in a second. They have cool virtual keyboards, hovercraft, lasers and all the high tech stuff you could want.

And - in a turn that really deserves an award for audacity - the 'hood is the salvation of humanity, the one place free of the Matrix. It's those white folk back in the Matrix, with their big houses and office jobs, who are all screwed up. Or is it so simple? At the end of the movie, we are led to believe that Zion is not so free of the Matrix after all, just like the ghettos, where rap CD sales and Nike shoes send corporate bosses' kids to prep school and fund Republican presidential candidates.

I like that symbolism. It makes me want to reread Guy Debord's La Société du Spectacle. It's daring and honest about our world in a way that few big Hollywood names are able to manage these days. I'm sure if somebody hasn't decided that it's racist by now, they no doubt will in the next few days. But I don't care. It's a hell of a lot more interesting than the bridge of the Enterprise, where diversity means different skin colours instead of different kinds of lives.
 

 
Slow Blogging

I know I haven't blogged much the last couple of weeks, after promising several provocative essays and some more stuff from Russia. Real life sometimes interferes with my web time.

I did just finish a wonderful essay on what I'm trying to accomplish here at work - complete with a short and highly abridged history of machine translation, computer-aided translation and controlled language engineering - and I'd love to post it and get feedback, except that I think it would breech my non-disclosures and be somewhat legally troubling anyay. It would offer up a nice picture of what I do for a living, but it would also disclose to anyone with a browser the corporate strategy I'm trying to sell my boss on.

And, there's all kinds of things I'd like to comment on going around the blogs and the news: the "indefinite postponement" of an Iraqi interim government, the British Tories' new plan (according to today's Guardian) to be the "party of the poor", last night's Belgian election returns, and I note that I'm not the only one with thoughts about The Matrix Reloaded's portrayal of race. But I just haven't the time.

So, let me leave you with a few pictures from my summer 2001 trip through Asia, to give the impression that I've actually posted lately.



One of the Three Gorges - I can't remember which
 



A city next to the Yangtze - I think one of the ones due for demolition
 



Sign along the river - I think it reads Witch Mountain Highlands Conservation Works. I can't read the third character and I don't have a simplified character dictionary on hand.

Update: Found the character. It's "xiàn" - in traditional characters it looks like:


"Xiàntian" literally means something like "sky country", so I figure highlands is probably a good translation.
 



Another Gorge
 



The last Gorge - I think
 



The Three Gorges Dam works, enshrouded, like so much in China, in smog
 



On-site signage
 



The scale model at the Dam's adjacent tourist trap