Lyndon B. Johnson, March 31st 1968

I am young. I am only 30 years old. I have a broad knowledge of the outlines of history, but no depth to that understanding. That is why I had not read this speech until now, and why having read it, the Vietnam War at last makes sense - both in its glory and its tragedy.

And then I re-read it with an eye towards today, and found George W. Bush wanting. And it amazes me that any supporter of the War on Terror and the War on Iraq still supports him. A speech like the one by LBJ, even minus it's last surprise announcement, could never be given by the current President, whose rhetoric is divorced from reality and whose entire campaign ethos is founded on negative attacks rather than a positive vision.

yet conservatives remain spellbound. Their cognitive dissonance is astounding.


with apologies to Diana and Jim, the only way to do a burger right is to mash a double handful of ground beef with a huge pinch of garam masala, slap it into a patty, and throw it on the George Foreman grill. Burn that puppy to well-done, no pink. Eat with ketchup, mustard, and/or green chutney. Buns are optional if you have naan. Anything else is indeed "gussied up". shallots and marjoram? good grief!


call to prayer

The story of the mosque in Hammtrack, Michhigan desirous of broadcasting the muslim call to prayer from its mosque (as is customary in other countries) is a fascinating one. This article in the Detroit Free Press is possibly the best one I've yet seen on the topic. It's well-worth a read.

My opinion varies, but I have zero sympathy for any argument which suggests that the call to prayer somehow threatens the community in any way. Perhaps Hammtrack will be a symbolic line in the sand against the censoring power of the rising anti-muslim tide that causes muslims in American to remember that they do not need to choose between being American or Muslim, but that they should be aggressive in loving both and the revelation that these aspects of identity are in harmony, not conflict.

why I cannot hate George W. Bush

President Bush was interviewed by Christianity Today:

Do you believe there is anything inherently evil in the way some practice Islam that stands in the way of the pursuit of democracy and freedom?

I think what we’re dealing with are people — extreme, radical people — who’ve got a deep desire to spread an ideology that is anti-women, anti-free thought, anti- art and science, you know, that couch their language in religious terms. But that doesn't make them religious people. I think they conveniently use religion to kill. The religion I know is not one that encourages killing. I think that they want to drive us out of parts of the world so they’re better able to have a base from which to operate. I think it’s very much more like an... “ism” than a group with territorial ambition.

More like a what?

An “ism” like Communism that knows no boundaries, as opposed to a power that takes land for gold or land for oil or whatever it might be. I don’t see their ambition as territorial. I see their ambition as seeking safe haven. And I know they want to create power vacuums into which they are able to flow.

To what final end? The expansion of Islam?

No, I think the expansion of their view of Islam, which would be I guess a fanatical version that—you know, you’re trying to lure me down a road [where]... I’m incapable of winning the debate. But I’m smart enough to understand when I’m about to get nuanced out. No, I think they have a perverted view of what religion should be, and it is not based upon peace and love and compassion—quite the opposite. These are people that will kill at the drop of a hat, and they will kill anybody, which means there are no rules. And that is not, at least, my view of religion. And I don’t think it’s the view of any other scholar’s view of religion either.

Bush is a good man and I will never forget that immediately after 9-11, his first thought was to remind people that American muslims are not the enemy. I cannot hate a man like this. I can, however, vote against Bush in 2004 without needing to hate him, because I do hate what his weak leadership has done to my nation and the lost promise of being a uniter rather than a divider.

But you won't ever find me sneering at George W. Bush. IF you do, point me here so that I can be properly humbled.

link via LGF - I am grateful to Charles for finding this link. And it's fun watching the anti-muslim trollsscum in his comment threads squirm and seethe about how Bush must not really mean what he says.


Israel arrests, jails, expels BBC journalist

BBC journalist Peter Hounam, who first broke the Dimona nuclear weapon story by interviewing Mordechai Vanunu 20 years ago, was arrested by Israel last week. Probably solely due to the international scrutiny, he has since been released and expelled from the country.

There's not much comment to make here aside from pointing out the obvious fact that since Vannune was jailed for twenty years, there' s no information he could have given to Hounam since Vanunu's release that he didn't give to him 20 years ago.


A reply to Brian Tiemann

Granted, the following are largely facetious questions from Brian Tiemann (who I consider a decent human being and an honorable man), but given that they do outline his sincere view of "leftists" and that I am genuinely unsure of how broad a brush that word is in his estimation, I'm going to make a completely serious attempt to answer them in good faith.

Did the Bush administration incompetently ignore warnings of terrorist threats prior to 9/11—or did CIA or Mossad agents perpetrate the attacks in an act of globally-reaching calculated conspiracy for imperial conquest?

The CIA and Mossad had nothing to do with 9-11. The Bush Administration did however largely relegate the threat of terrorism to the back-burner, focusing instead on Cold-War-derived foreign policy and defense priorities instead, such as ballistic missile defense. This is largely because of the pre-existing biases of the administration's top officials, including Richard Cheney and Condoleeza Rice, whose entire careers were spent within that context, as well as the "neo-cons" such as Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, and Perle, whose nuevo-imperialist vision was cultured in think-tanks such as the Project for a New American Century and the American Enterprise Institute during the interregnum of the Clinton Administration (the famous letter to President Clinton and the infamous Powerpoint Presentation make for good background material).

Note BTW that the neocons' broad statement of principles is largely aligned with my own - where I disagree with them is in the principles left unstated - 1. whether or not promoting freedom abroad can be done through solely military and unilateral means, imposed from without rather than nurtured from within, and 2. whether a "free" country made so by our super-power should be free enough to dissent from sharing our interests.

Did we invade Iraq on information we knew was false, in order to grab Iraqi oil and contracts for Halliburton—or were we honestly but gullibly snookered into an unjust war against an innocent, defenseless country by Ahmed Chalabi's con game?

Oil is cheaper to buy than to invade for or drill for - which puts both the war-for-oil AND the ANWR-ex-machine canards to rest. The current oil market is proof - war inflates the price and draws down the global economy. And as long as Saudi Arabia controls one-fourth of the global reserves, there isn't any country, not even Iraq, that can really make a dent on oil prices. However Saudi Arabia's interest is to NOT let oil prices get too high, which is why they are cooperating with Bush and trying to bring prices down by both increasing short-term production and signaling long-term increases in capacity as well (to affect the futures market, which affects the price at the pump far more).

Let's take a tangent to point out that this speech from the OPEC secretary general (and a separate analysis here) also puts to rest the whole euro-rationale that is also somewhat fashionable.

Why did we wage war on Iraq, then? Deposing Saddam Hussein was to the self-interest of Ahmad Chalabi, and also fit with the long-term ideolgical foreign policy of the neocon policymakers, whose ideas were rejected by former President Bush, I might add. The confluence of interests, coupled with the political capital of 9-11, allowed the invasion to happen, and it was indeed a foregone conclusion. As even the President's supporters such as William Kristol are beginning to recognize, the President's role in the decision has been largely symbolic and aloof - Bush is not a strong leader and his policies are largely delivered to him as set-pieces by his inner circle of advisers. Given that said circle consists of warring factions, there is a definite aspect of schizophrenia to the Administration's policymaking as well.

Committed supporters of Bush tend to take a rosier view, ascribing the lack of leadership to the fog of war or some deeper plan yet to be revealed. Fair enough. However, Bush's the rhetoric of Bush's foreign policy speech was astoundingly divorced from reality, or even basic fact-checking - and the link I provided is not one I expect comitted supporters of Bush to really make an effort to wade through without looking for a minor tangential point to seize upon, "fisk", and declare the entire analysis invalid upon. Stalemate.

Is the Iraq war a distraction from the real War on Terror, which is still taking place in Afghanistan and elsewhere and must instead be given top priority—or is the terrorist threat a trumped-up farce so overblown that the words "al Qaeda" make you wave your hands around and put your voice into that low-pitched "duh" voice and go OoooOOooh, al Qaeda!?

The war on Iraq was a distraction, and has seriously undermined the War on Terror. In so doing, it has become a situation that should we suffer failure (like in Falluja), the War on Terror itself would be further damaged. In that sense, yes the two are linked - only because we made it so. Had we not invaded Iraq, then we would be in a better position. I do not share Bush's (flip-flopped) view that Osama bin Laden is "not a priority". Critical resources and personnel for hunting bin Laden were pulled from Afghanistan and sent to Iraq. And capturing Saddam Hussein did not make America any safer.

However, the war on Terror is indeed being used a a pretext for domestic fear-mongering. You don't hear much about the terror threat level anymore - it wasn't even raised this week despite the grave warnings of imminent potential attacks inside the US. The ultimate goal is to create a Spain-inspired narrative whereby voting against Bush is akin to voting for terrorists.

The terrorist threat is real, and 9-11 was a failure to respond to that threat. The War on Iraq is a failure to respond to the threat. The only way in which Bush seems to be acknowledging the threat is to use it cynically for re-election.

Were the dozens of countries who went to war with us in Iraq fooled and bribed and coerced—or are they in it for the imperialistic conquest like us?

Actually, we have one ally, Britain, which is sending significant troop levels. All other countries represented are largely symbolic and minor contributions and we are paying for all of it. The contrast with the coalition in the first Gulf War is a stark one - especially since Kerry's foreign policy proposals now reflect those of the former President Bush as well.

We are not in this for imperialistic conquest, but for imperialistic control - read the PNAC's statement of goals and letters on their website to see exactly why we are in this. They have a better understanding of why we are in Iraq than Bush does.

Are Muslims in the US the targets of hysterical, McCarthyist-style witch-hunts, complete with pogroms and lynchings—or is the government being so reluctant to pursue an effective, targeted antiterrorism campaign within our borders as to cast doubt on its desire to fight terror at all?

Muslims are not the target of witch-hunts, and the situation is far from dire. But there is a rising tide of hate against muslims that Brian, who loaded his gun the day after 9-11 in case it was needed to protect his muslim neighbor, should recognize. It will get worse before it gets better. I think the example of the Jews suggests that a rising tide of hatred should be alarming well before it reaches actual systematic status.

I have no idea what Brian is getting at with the domestic campaign thing with regard to the Muslim comunity. Perhaps he thinks it was wrong for the FBI to apologize to Mr. Mayfield? I think that with the Patriot Act in place, and the executive branch asserting the power to detain non-citizens indefinitely and revoking the rights of citizens without trial, that it's ridiculous for anyone to claim that the Administration is hamstrung in its ability to fight terror domestically. If anything the government has used the opportunity afforded it by the need for domestic counter-terrorism to make a grab for more discretion than it should be allowed. And it wants to keep that power rather than let it expire.

Was the 2000 election rigged to produce a Bush win (somehow, after a clear dead heat everywhere but Florida)—or is the American populace too stupid and/or evil not to vote for Bush through honest polling?

The 2000 election was decided in Florida, where the voter rolls had been purged of supposed felons but were later found to have been innocent. Since the targets of these purges were largely black, statistically the impact affected Gore worse than Bush. Also, counting the overvotes later, it's clear that Gore carried the state handily. However, by teh rules of the election, Bush won, and I have priased Election 2000 and it's outcome. The real argument is whether Bush united the country under his leadership given the tenous legal margin by which he derived victory. He failed to do so, until 9-11. Afer 9-11, he had many of us "leftists" on board, and eager to be inspired. Since then we have been let down. This is the one thing I fault Bush for the most.

Is the fact that Bush didn't scramble fighter jets as soon as he heard that the 9/11 planes were in the air indicative that he was in on it all along—or was he just too stupid to realize something big was happening, and thought the book he was reading to those third-graders was more fun anyway?

Bush was not in on it all along, the very idea is ludicrous. However, he did not really understand what was happenning and did not really take effective charge that day. The official records and accounts of that day reveal disturbing delays and decisions - as well as contradictions - which reflect poorly on Bush's resolve that day. However, that day is not relevant to this day - 9-11 is over and I do not fault Bush in any way for it, I fault Bush for what he has done since.

Is bringing our troops home the only way to "support" the poor dears—or is it "patriotic" to "support the troops when they frag their commanding officers"?

You can support our troops by demanding that their sacrifice be recognized and honored rather than hidden away and papered over, you can support our troops by expecting that the Republican majority in Congress sacrifice some of their beloved tax cust for the rich in order to properly supply the troops with body armor and equipment they need, you can support our troops by insisting that their sacrifice be invoked for just causes and not at the whim of a small cabal of civilian advisors and an Iraqi con-man with ties to Iran.

The frag-commanding-officers comment is really too mean-spirited and defamatory to even warrant a response.

Is the June 30th sovereignty turnover date a sham that we have no intention of sticking to—or is the war's leadership so incompetent that it doesn't even realize the date is unrealistic?

Yes, it is a sham. The war's leadership is well-aware of this fact, but most of the media is so incompetent that they don't bother to report the truth of the matter. The date is not unrealistic - Sistani and Brahimi both have offerred true proposals for sovereignity that could be achieved, but the decisions ultimately rest with the Administration which is opposed to giving true financial or electoral control to the will of the Iraqi people, preferring the smaller and more-influenceable pool of the Iraqi unelected council.

Is Bush a devious, mad liar with designs on global dictatorship—or a bumbling, babbling idiot who can't tie his shoelaces?

neither. He is a weak leader who is not in control of his Administration, who is largely a symbolic leader with no attention to the neccessary detail of administration and policy that his father and his predecessor did and that President John Kerry will demonstrate.


Bohras: the Last Frontier?

Here's a fascinating peek into the worldview of the prosletyzing Christian worldview - a fact-sheet about my comunity discussing we Bohras as a target group for salvation and the challenges in bringing the Gospels to us. What's remarkable is the confluence of valid observation with false stereotype, such as this:

Unlike other South Asian Muslims, Bohra women may own property and receive an inheritance. They are encouraged to pursue education and business.

The role of the Bohras as a business class has created a people whose primary passion is business—a threat to their strict orthodox obedience to their religious leader, the Syedna Muhammad Burhanuddin.

The truth is that the promotion of women's education - with an emphasis on professional classes such as physicians - is by direct edict of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin TUS, not in opposition to his wishes. The way that this essay simply ascribes the embrace of modernism within my comunity as a non-Islamic-derived impetus reveals a basic unwillingness to part with their a-priori notions in favor of a straw-man characterization that justifies their attempts at conversion. I daresay that if they were to make an honest appraisal, it would be they who might be swayed away from their Christ rather than the other way around :)

Yes, we are the Last Frontier and such we will always remain to such as these.

below the belt

Unacceptable selective quotation of Steven den Beste from the usually-better-than-this gang at Crooked Timber:

And over at USS Clueless:

When I�ve read news reports lately about some kinds of obnoxious protests, I have mused to myself, �Perhaps it�s time to issue shoot-to-kill orders to security guards.� Perhaps if some people who made grandstanding protests ended up dead, it might cause others to start really thinking about the consequences of their behavior.

Here's the part immediately following the quote from Steven's actual post:

Obviously I don't think this should really happen. But it does seem to me that a lot of protesters are willing to do the things they do, and say the things they say, and advocate the things they advocate, because they suffer no consequences for it. They have license, but feel no responsibility. There are negative consequences, but someone else suffers the consequences, not the protesters. If such protests had negative consequences for the protesters then protest might become more responsible.

Shameful behavior, and quite damaging to the credibility of the larger point.

However, Steven's actual point in that paragrpah about teh responsibility of protestors is I think founded on the incorrect assumption that disagreement with your government's policies amounts to tangible and material support for your government's enemies. In this case, if you were against teh war on Iraq, and protested, you somehow helped theinsurgents kill US troops and share some of the responsibility for their deaths.

That's a terrible and deeply unamerican attitude towards dissent, and I sincerely hope I have misunderstood Steven's point here. The truth is that dissent is essential - even crazy, over the top, insensitive Ted Rall type dissent - because if the government's policies are sound, then they can withstand the critique. If not, then they won't - and the supporters of the government's policy can cry about media bias if they choose, as means of rationalizing the simple truth that their support was not enough to transform a bad course of action into a good one solely by the strength of their conviction.

The government is losing the support of the people, and it's not because the media has deceived them, it's because the media has informed them of things the Administration has been desperate to hide, such as teh true cost of war in both fiscal and blood terms.

I don't hate Bush, I hate his policies, yet actually feel a strong reservoir of goodwill and gratitude towards him for certain reasons I have previously stated. The terrible attitude towards dissent that SDB is hinting at here stems from the fact that he is a Bush-lover, ie has the same blind appraisal of all of Bush's actions as good, motivated by honest principle, part of some invisible larger plan, etc. that the bush-haters do - except flipped in polarity.

Yes, my blog is labeled UNMEDIA - not as a blind hatred of it, but as a statement that it serves a function quite opposite to it. This blog is opinion and analysis, not journalism. The press, not the media, is doing yeomans' work in bringing facts to the table, and the subtle inferences which analysts like Steven and Glenn tease out of their reports do not have any bearing on teh factual information that is provided to the public to make them informed.

A just war - such as World War II - would stand the strength of media scrutiny. ALL wars except for WWII have endured far worse media scrutiny than this one. Far mroe hostile attacks upon the President, overtly and not subtly biased, and completely unprofessional in comparison to today. Wishing away the failures of the Administration to sell the war despite it's flawed management is shooting the messenger, not the author, to kill.


congratulations to Dan Darling

of Regnum Crucis blog, who has been accepted for an internship at the American Enterprise Institute for the summer. That's neo-con central, and I am confident that he will bring a dose of breadth to that institution. Dan and mine's worldviews differ but I like to think that our principles are in tune. Kudos to you and mubarak as well, Dan :)

UPDATE: No word from Dan yet on whether he will be sent to manage Iraq's finances...


In Japan, news of the Western imperialist adventurism is rather filtered. As I mentioned earlier, the big news was the secret summit between the Japanese PM and Kim Jong-il, with barely any focus on the middle east aside from highly detached news summaries from the wires. Of course I was limited to seeing front pages of english media and the evening english broadcast of news, wo it was a filtered sample. For all I know the Japanese are left moonbats or jingo chickenhawks in kanji.

But the news of the Rafah incursion did break through, as passing mention. But only today after checking out the web did I find that there was serious tragedy involved, above the usual level of collateral damage. Imshin says it best:

I am so sorry that an Israeli tank killed those children in Rafiah, even if it was by mistake. I think of their mothers. My worst nightmare has come true for them. I can hardly begin to imagine their terrible anguish.

In the Intifada in the late 80’s, friends fresh back from reserve duty told that in some Palestinian homes that they had entered to conduct searches, they had come across little kids chained to their beds, to keep them from going out to throw stones, and maybe get shot or arrested. Can you imagine trying to bring up kids in such conditions?

Today’s Palestinian mothers must be the sisters of those kids. I wonder if they still chain them to their beds or if they’ve just given up.

(Note that Imshin has effectively answered Diana's question). Jonathan wonders if this is Israel's "Algeria moment", pointing out that what is really at stake is Israel's soul. What worries me even more, is the fate of my own nation's soul in our own occupation experiment. The parallels, and anti-parallels, between the occupation of Gaza and the occupation of Iraq are too radioactive for me to want to dwell on. But the boundaries of what do distinguish the two cases seem sometimes to be actively blurred by the present Administration, or at least their ideological foot soldiers - which is what worries me most of all.

UPDATE: via Diana, this article by Meron Benevisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, who echoes the concern over the effect of occupation on Israel's collective identity:

Something basic has gone awry. If commanders, the sons of the fighters of 1948, send the grandchildren of the fighters for independence to "widen the route" - which means the expulsion of the grandchildren of the refugees of 1948 - on the pretext of existential threat, then there was something defective in the founding fathers' vision.

If, after half a century, their enterprise still faces existential threat, this can only mean that they condemned it to eternal enmity, and there is no community that can for years on end survive a violent war for its existence.

And if this is merely a pretext (and Operation Rainbow in Rafah was an instinctive reaction that evolved into second nature), we must reflect deeply and sadly on our responsibility for the enterprise that at its start embodied so many exalted ideals.

Is there some "original sin" that lies at the foundation of the Zionist enterprise?

While the concerns are well-founded, the answer to the last question is probably "No." I think it's a mistake to ask whether Zionism - defined as the vision of a Jewish homeland - is a flawed concept. Rather, the flaw lies in the execution, and there is a liberal, progressive Zionism whose architects have yet to assert themselves (or in the case of Rabin, perhaps paid the ultimate price for asserting it).

The lens by which I view the conflict has been forever altered by the Iraq War - so this is no longer an academic issue to me of an abstract conflict in a distant land, it's now a canary in the coal mine of our foreign policy. America is not Israel; I believe it is something better because it can be a homeland for Jews, as well as any other ethnic or religious group, without recourse to legal exclusions or preferences or defining values in a proprietary sense. The basic values upon which a successful society is built are not "Jewish" or "Christian" or "Muslim" or "Eastern" - they are universal to mankind. If there is an original sin to Israel's founding, it is in the assumption that for a homeland for Jews to prosper, it must reflect "Jewish values" to the exclusion of others - which is a false dichotomy under whose moral ambiguity the Occupation has been allowed to drift in purpose.


airport blogging

Not Narita, where I paid 500 yen for a supposed one-day pass, but could never find an unencrypted network to connect to in teh terminal proper. Actually, I am blogging from Houston IAH, waiting for my ride to pick me up. I am leeching off the signal from the Continental business lounge :)

The trip is over. In an hour I will see my daughter again after a whole week! Much to exhausted and ready to be home rather than blog or write about the trip, or even to publish the still-requiring-editing posts I drafted offline. I have many, many photos as well which require some commentary.

Still, it was a good trip, my still-unblogged food travails aside. I spent the rest of Friday in Kyoto (and made it to Rakusho for the warabi mochi) and Saturday in Tokyo, and covered quite a lot of ground. The world events I am up on are PM Kozumi's secret one-day summit with Kim Jong il and my lucky escape from Typhoon Nida.

The trip back was uneventful and I am heartily glad to almost be home. Expect some additional post-trip blog entries as I slowly work my way through my material and finish writing the entries. But normal political blogging and such will hopefully commence soon as well :)


Kyoto-blogging: satanic wind

The kamikaze, or divine wind, was a series of fortuitous typhoons that saved Japan from the Mongol horde's attempted naval invasion. I'm no Mongol, but I hae to wonder if I should take this personally:

Strong Typhoon May Approach Tokyo Area Tomorrow Morning

May 20 (Bloomberg) -- A powerful typhoon with a maximum wind of 144 kilometers (89 miles) an hour is moving northward and may approach the Tokyo area tomorrow morning, the Japan Meteorological Agency said.

Typhoon Nida, the second tropical storm this year, was centered about 90 kilometers south of Minami Oshima, near Okinawa, as of 8 a.m. The typhoon is moving northeast at 40 kilometers an hour, the agency said on its Web site.

The storm will probably reach 210 kilometers south of Choshi City, near Tokyo, at 6 a.m. tomorrow.

UPDATE: Image courtesy of NOAA. Yikes.

Kyoto-blogging: conference end

I'll be updating the food post with more photos and some narrative on that whole aspect of the trip, which has been an experience all its own.

Last night (Thursday evening) was the closing reception for the conference, starting just after the last session at 6:15pm. In additon to eating dinner well for the first time on the trip, it was also nice to be able to finally talk to some of the leading people in my field on a more casual basis, kind of raise my profile a bit :)

Today Friday morning there are the usual educational sessions which I am typing furiously so as not to be late to, and then the plenaries and the regular sessions. The conf is over at noon though, after which I am mostly free (but also bereft of regular internet access). I am thinking of taking the bullet train to Hiroshima, which is about two hours away, to both come away with something larger on this trip as well as see more of the Japanese countryside. If I have time, I will stop at Himeji to see the White Egret castle on the way back. My plan for tonight is to try and find Rakyusho, a tea cafe suggested by TP, and maybe some tempura (fried vegetables). I hope it doesn't rain, today I did see some actual sunlight and blue sky on the way to the conf at 5am, so let's hope the pattern holds. There appears to be a typhoon in the Asian Sea which could be a real downer over the next 48 hours, pun intended. I'll probably be back at my hotel by 9pm tonight and will do some work on my manuscript.

Tomorrow I will take the train to Tokyo in the morning, drop my bags at my hotel, and try to see a little bit of the city. Sunday my flight is at 3pm from Narita so I will have to leave my hotel by 11am maximum. I hope to at the very least get access via wifi from the airport to update my blog then.


Kyoto-blogging: food

(this post is in draft)

Kitsune don

airline grub - this was my last meal before arriving in Japan.

Kitsune don

kitsune-don - sweet fried tofu and noodle soup. My mainstay every day for lunch. I actually really really enjoy eating this. I even use chopsticks.

Land of the Golden Arches

This is why i haven't died of starvation yet. Sosumi.


Kyoto-blogging: stations and trains and shinkansen, oh my!

Kyoto station exterior
Sorry for the lack of posts - there's an actual conference to attend, you know :) I am writing off-line and uploading when I get a chance, but there are several thousand wireless users competing for the same poor DSL line here, so its rare to get a connection even when the 802.11b signal is strong.

Kyoto station is a marvel. There's apparently some controversy about its architecture among the natives but frankly I think it's a brilliant complex. It was pretty intimidating when I arrived in Kyoto that first night but with experience I've found it to be a pretty interesting and elegant place. The vast interior space has multiple terraces for restaurants and shops, and the station includes a movie theater, hotel, and subway station in addition to the normal train lines and shinkansen.

Some photos of Kyoto station manage to convey its enormity, both inside and out.

Kyoto station interior, facing westOn Tuesday evening, I went to visit some friends of the family in Kobe. Leaving the conference, I took the subway to Kyoto station and the JR line to Kobe-Sannomiya, the latter takiung about an hour including multiple stops. On the way we passed through Osaka, whose skyline was dominated by the Umeda tower (I didn't get a photo, unfortunately) which Lonely Planet accurately described as a high-rise, ultramodern glass version of the Arc de Triomphe.

The Japanese countryside between Kyoto and Osaka was much more interesting, however, far more so than the brief glimpse I had on Sunday between Narita and Tokyo. This time it was mostly village and town landscapes, providing a peek into the routine. Several entreprenurial home owners with walls facing teh train tracks elected to advertise cars, drinks, and even websites (one notable one was http://www.ever-best.com). Almost every house, even those tightly packed together in little rows, still had a walled compound for privacy, in some cases providing a courtyard only a few feet wide. The cars were either cute little European-style mini-cars or normal sized Toyota corolla/camry analouges.

Kyoto station interior, facing eastThe interesting thing about rail service in Japan is the sheer profusion - including multiple competing lines between the same cities. To get to Kobe from Kyoto I had the choice of JR line or JR shinkansen as well as the private Hankyu line. At one point all three lines were parallel leaving Kyoto, bu teh shinkansen detoured off on its own path and quickly vanished from view. The Hankyu remained largely parallel with the JR most of the way, though there were some differences in stations. All three re-converged at shin-Osaka, though the shinkansen went to shin-Kobe and the JR and Hankyu only served Kobe-Sannomiya. The infrastructure investment for all of this is enormous, though I confess to ignorance about similar density metropolises in the United States (New York comes to mind).

I arrived at Kobe-Sannomiya station, one of the two that serve the city. An expensive taxi ride brouhgt me to my hosts' home, and after dinner they dropped me at shin-Kobe station instead of Sannomiya so I could catch the shinkansen back to Kyoto. This time the trip only took 20 minutes. This was my first ride on shinkansen since the arrival in Kyoto, and it was a much more enjoyable experience - these are truly amazing vehicles and I have an almost child-like fascination with them. I will have photos later...


Kyoto-blogging: arrival in Japan

Sunday, May 16th, 3:30pm local time

Japan lay wreathed in cloud as we approached. For most of our descent, there was no visibility whatsoever, though we did finally break through on final approach to reveal a drab green, rainy landscape that quite reminded me of Britain. At least until I realized that the squares dotting the countryside were rice paddies, not fields.

My arrival at Narita airport was fairly routine. The airport was impeccably decorated in modern zen chic, complete with rock gardens, bamboo art, and anime characters on wayfinding signs. A cool but kind of superflous electric tram whisked us from gate concourses to the main terminal and the customs/baggage claim areas. The plane had landed around 3:30pm, but it was 4:30 before I was through customs and had my checked luggage. The diversity in the customs queue was astonishing - representative of the entire Pacific rim, including Americas north and south. I kept hearing what sounded like a plaintive child's cry, which caused me to miss my daughter terribly, until I saw it was really a whining cat in some chinese goth chick's hand luggage.

I was pretty sick of being in transit and my enthusiasm for the bullet train had waned considerably. Therefore I was pretty focused on finding the Japan Rail Pass office to redeem my voucher, and didn't even try to find a wi-fi hotspot to blog from as originally intended. I did pause for one photo, though (see at right) - it was oddly reassuring to see at least one stereotype validated.

The staff at the rail pass office arranged my reservations for both the Narita Express (NEX) and shinkansen, and issued me tockets for each (with seat assignments). The ride took an hour, but I was so exhausted that I dozed on and off the whole way. The scenery was not inspiring - mostly industrial buildings, electrical towers, rail overpasses and yards, and of course omnipresent rice paddies competing for every spare scrap of ground.

By the time we reached Tokyo station, I was groggy and ravenous. I only had twenty minutes to catch my bullet train reservation, so there still wasn't time to grab a snack. Traversing Tokyo station to get to the shinkansen platform was my first real challenge - the physical distance was not long but highly tortuous, and the station was insanely crowded. Identically-dressed yuppie suits marched in formation, barking into cellphones, while schools of women fliitted about in a mass of bright neon shopping bags. The occassional elderly woman or man meticulously made their deliberate way across the grain of foot traffic, oblivious to the presence of the gaijin, but adorable small children eyed me with either amusement or alarm, I was too fried to discern. Vendors of every possible trinket and snack hemmed the precious remaining floor space, a gauntlet of blinking lights and signs. The spatial and visual complexity of the scene was disorienting enough without the fatigue and hunger - it was almost a psychedlic experience.

Oddly, the station's floor was not a smooth unbroken expanse of tile, but was punctuated by patches and even long stripes of small yellow bumps. These made dragging my wheeled suitcase in a straight line essentially impossible. Worse, there were stairs everywhere but almost no ramps, so I had to carry the suitcase up and down a number of stairs. All of this conspired to delay my progress, so that when I finally got to the platform, the bullet train had already arrived! I ran towards my assigned car (#4) and sat down in my assigned seat with a sigh of relief. I had hoped to grab a snack from a vendor on the platform, but was suficiently nervous about missing the train that I decided against it, and about five minutes later with a nearly imperceptible jerk the train accelerated smoothly out of Tokyo Station.

Riding the shinkansen is like no other train I have ever ridden. The ride is smoother than most, but teh real difference is the way the scenery moves outside the window. There's no sensation of speed when you're not looking out, but the window reveals an almost disconcerting movement past the scenery. There are the usual train noises but heavily muted. By this time, about 6:30pm, it was already getting dark and there was still ample rain, so I had to give up on my hope to glimpse Mount Fuji. I did manage to buy a bottle of water from the drink cart that came down the aisle later, thankfully.

The bullet train was the Hikari service, meaning that it did stop at a few stations between Tokyo and Osaka (including Kyoto, my stop). The announcer confused me by saying we should transfer to a different train at one station if we wanted to continue travel on the Tokkaido line, which I thought I was on. But I stayed put since I didn't have any other ticketed seat assignments for other trains, and it worked out fine.

I napped most of the way, but not continously. By the time we reached Kyoto station I was feeling quite beaten down from the lack of food and incoherent sleep. Exiting the shinkansen platform, Kyoto station was very large an open, almost the opposite of Tokyo - but equally confusing. It took me some time to navigate to the main exit, and then had some confusion about how best to travel to my hotel due to a discrepancy between the map in the conference literature and my Lonely Planet guide. I ended up catching a taxi which was expensive at 750 yen but saved me from walking a mile and a half. After getting my room, I called home for 30sec to inform my family I had arrived (they were just waking up to Sunday morning), and then changed my clothes and went out to find something to eat. The first, nearest restaurant was a McDonald's. Do NOT try the teriyaki burger, it was horrendous, but at least the fries were good. I returned back to my hotel and pretty much collapsed into bed.

All in all, the transit was pretty rough. I was pretty down on Japan by the time I reached the hotel, but that was understandable given that I'd been exhausted and starving the whole way. I figured things would be better in the morning.


Kyoto-blogging: flight path

Saturday evening, 7:45 PM Houston time - but bright daylight over the Bering Sea

over the Bering Sea Having a digital camera to take window seat photos is quite liberating :) Rather than husband my shots on film, and settle for a poor quality/discard ratio, I've able to impulsively snap every shot that took my fancy - including multiple series over the same terrain to capture just the right angle.

Our flight path went due west from Houston, took a northwestern turn around Austin, and passed just south of Denver and Colorado Springs. We crossed the Rockies via Colorado, Utah, and Idaho, including what I think was the Grand Escalante National Monument. As we approached Seattle the cloud cover increased and remained so all along Vancouver, the Canadian coast, and the entire length of Alaska, so I have no photos from that part. We are now passing over the Bering Sea and the clouds have somewhat opened, allowing one good shot, though the ice crystals on the window might have ruined the shot. With an air temperature outside of -41 degrees C (and F, the scales cross) I'm grateful that the entire window hasn't become impenetrable.

There are still 5 hours left and the entire Siberian coastline left to pass. I'll probably not be able to see any land masses from my window, on the left side of the plane (seat 44A) since we will probably fly well east until we approach near Japan, so my Kamchatka photos will have to wait until the retturn flight.

Upon arrival I have actually quite a hectic to do list - after collecting my bags, I need to redeem my rail pass voucher, then catch the Narita Express to Tokyo station, and the shinkansen from there to Kyoto. That's going to be another 5 hours at least until I even get to Kyoto - let's be conservative and say six before I actually get to my hotel (the Kyoto Park Hotel). Still, I definitely will upload the blog entries I've written so far before I leave Narita, given the rumored ubiquitous wi-fi access there. So by the time my family in Houston and Chicago is waking up in the morning, I should just be completing my journey.

Kyoto-blogging: Japan Rail Pass

Never plan in advance when last-minute panic will suffice. I hadn't really paid any attention to the Japan Rail Pass; I figured the only trains I was going to ride were from Narita airport to Tokyo station, and the Tokkaido line shinkansen to Kyoto and back. However, on Friday at about 4:30 PM it became apparent via casual last-minute browsing on Japan-Guide.com that all of these services qualified - and that the pass was actually cheaper. At about $28,000 yen for a seven-day coach-class pass, I am saving a few thousand yen over the cost of separate round-trip Nozumi and Narita Express tickets.

The only caveat is that the JRP is not valid on the Nozumi "super-express" (ie, nonstop) service - I have to take the Hikari "limited express" service instead[1]. The Hikari only stops at a few intermediate stations (whereas the Kodoma is full-service). The Hikari actually used to be the express line, and travels at a slower speed than the newer Nozumi because the latter doesn't have to slow down as often. Despite using the same train equipment (the 700 series), the Nozumi maximum speed is 270 km/h, and the Hikari is 220 km/h (average speeds are somewhat lower). Kyoto is 476 kilometers from Tokyo, and the Hikari service will take about three hours compared to two on the Nozumi.

The rail pass savings - and the extra flexibility that it will give me in exploring the surrounding Kyoto/Kansai region - are well worth the time disadvantage. I plan to visit a friend of my family (also Bohra) in nearby Kobe, about an hour away from Kyoto. I may skip part of the conference on day to try a longer-range day trip, but it really depends on the schedule (the conference takes top priority, after all). I obtained a number of maps and tourist information from the JALPAK office as well which I need to peruse, along with my copy of Lonely Planet Japan, to see what my options are.

The rail pass is not available for purchase inside Japan, you must purchase it from an authorized reseller outside the country. In Houston, that would be the JAlPAK offices, which closed at 5:30 PM. Did I mention what time my realization dawned?

So, a phone call, some faxes, and a mad rush through Houston traffic (including a truly inspired, if I say so myself, solution to the Westheimer/Galleria traffic snarl) at peak rush hour later, I paid $260 in cash for my JRP voucher (which, by the way, was a much better exchange rate than I got from my bank for cash and checks earlier). When I land in Tokyo I will exchange the voucher for my seven-day pass, which I will use immediately, and throughout the trip.

[1] Hikari means "light" and Nozumi means "hope" - which is quite poetic. Hope does indeed travel faster than light; I imagine that the Japanese word for "bad news" did not test well with focus groups.

Kyoto-blogging: departing Houston

statue of George H.W. Bush, commemorating his service to our nation in the Air ForceI had forgoten how empty international terminals are most of the time. It took me a few minutes, but I managed to find a seat next to a power outlet. I am on Continental flight 7, departing at 10:50 AM, and boarding begins in about an hour, whic is enough time to top up the battery charge on the laptop. This should suffice for the duration of the flight.

That's a statue of the former President, for whom the Bush Intercontinental Airport is named. President Bush served his country well, and in my opinion deserves the recognition. The contrast between father and son, however, is best left unsaid.

I am looking forward to this flight - my dad, addicted to real-time flight monitoring online, told me that the flight path will pass far north, crossing Alaska at about 5pm Houston time, crossing the Bering Sea, and then coming down the full length of the Siberian coast (Kamchatka) and northern Japan to Tokyo. Arrival should be about 1:30 AM or so Houston time. With my window seat (thanks, Seat Guru!) I hope to get some decent photos during the daylight part.

I'll update this post after I board the flight and have something worth mentioning :) But internet access to actually publish the post to the site will have to wait until I reach wi-fi-enabled Narita International.

Boarding call! Time to phone home one last time...


SpaceShipOne at 65km

For anyone who hasn't heard of the Ansari X-Prize, it's a $10 million dollar award that will be given to the first independent, private group that successfully launches two people to 100 km altitude, returns them safely, and repeats the feat within two weeks, before Jan 1st 2005. The prize is modeled after the Orteig competition won by Charles Lindberg in his record-setting flight across the country in the Spirit of St. Louis. The X-Prize is designed to spur space pioneers in much the same way that the era of general aviation was spurred at the turn of the (prior) century. The future of space travel lies in private industry, not government agencies, and the X-Prize is part of making that dream come alive.

Aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, founder of Scaled Composites Inc., may well see his SpaceShipOne craft alongside the Spirit in the Smithsonian one day if he wins - which by all accounts he is on course to do.

Yesterday, May 13th 2004, SpaceShipOne reached 65km in altitude, a new record for private spacecraft. Flight data is now online. NASA awards astronaut status to anyone who reaches an altitude of 50 miles (80,500 metres), meaning that Rutan's group will soon boast the world's first non-government astronauts. But 65km is the threshold of space - as the photo at right demonstrates (click the thumbnmail to see a larger version, or the original here).

This is a new era in space travel and I am tremendously excited to see it happen in my lifetime. Keep an eye on Scaled's news page for further developments...


Congress Party wins Indian elections in upset

The general election results are in from India - and Sonia Ghandi has restored the Congress Party to power in a surprise upset victory:

NEW DELHI, May 13 — Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee will resign this evening after his ruling coalition suffered a resounding defeat in parliamentary elections, party officials said today.

The Indian National Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, emerged as the single largest party in the poll results announced today. It appeared poised to form the country's next government with the likely support of its electoral allies and the country's Communist parties.

It is not yet certain — although it seems likely — that Mrs. Gandhi herself will stake claim to be prime minister, since even some of the party's allies have questioned whether a woman of non-Indian origin should lead this nation of more than 1 billion people.

Still, the verdict represents a totally unexpected resurrection for the Congress Party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, which ruled India for 45 of the 57 years since independence but had floundered so badly in recent years that it was being written off as an historical relic.

Early returns showed the Congress and its allies with 220 seats to the 189 of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., and its coalition partners, a result that no pundit or exit poll had come close to predicting.

The main reason for the win was the cognitive dissonance between the ruling ultranationalist/anti-muslim BJP's campaign platform of Shining India - touting India's economic growth - with the abject and worsening poverty of India's vast lower classes:

Failure to address the core issue of development and overconfidence on the "false campaign" of 'India Shining' led to the debacle of the BJP led NDA in the elections, leading economists said today.

They said the new Government should bring about balance in economic policies.

"They (NDA) went all out to prove India Shining whereas the reality was much different in rural belt and small towns," Prof. B B Bhattacharya of the Indian Institute of Economic Growth said, adding that "people who benefited from India Shining did not go out to vote".

Echoing similar views, Jayati Ghosh of Jawaharlal Nehru University said the new Government will have to redirect the economic policy and make adjustments to address the concerns of farmers and unemployed.

The verdict was against the BJP which failed to read the voters' mind who were throughly dissatisfied with its performance, she said, adding "the new Government will have to undertake genuine reforms, put off mindless privatisation like selling profit making PSUs and focus on employment".

It was intriguing to see the BJP reaching out to muslim voters in a bid to win support during the election - but the memories of Gujarat were likely too strong to woo muslim voters to the party that was proven complicit in the horrific pogrom - including systematic rape and burning of underage girls - against them. I shed no tears for the BJP, a party which had played on sectarian and ethnic divisions and prejudice to maintain its grip. In a democratic, pluralistic nation like India, there is no place for the discredited politics of exclusion.

And I can think of no better leader than Sonia Ghandi to bring India out of the taint of the BJP's rule - a woman whose foreign birth is of no consequence to her identity as an Indian. She personifies the face of India as a nation based on ideals rather racial or religious identity.

However, significant challenges remain. Sonia Ghandi is still untested as a ruling politican. The victory of the Congress Party was essentially delivered by the poor - and there's a fine balance between charting an economic course that addresses their needs with one that irresponsibly tries to pander to their wants. India's economic recovery is fragile and the nation may need to swallow some bitter medicine in terms of economic policy for it to stay on course. If the Congress succeeds then the economy will become a rising tide that floats all boats - rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim, alike.


Commentator Mike leaves this comment in my Arab reaction post below:

The silence of American Muslim organizations, CAIR and the rest of the Saudi fundeded cliques is deafening! and right after the thunderous comdemnations only a few days earlier coming from the same organizations.

This is exactly the kind of rote-response that is so typical of pro-war conservatives. Mike hasn't even bothered to do a cursory check as to what CAIR actually had to say about the murder of Nick Berg.

CAIR condemns murder of American in Iraq

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) today condemned the murder of an American civilian in Iraq by a group claiming links to Al-Qaeda.
In its statement, the Washington-based Islamic civil rights and advocacy group said:

"We condemn this cold-blooded murder and repudiate all those who commit such acts of mindless violence in the name of religion. We call on people of all faiths and cultures to work together for peace and reconciliation, not war and destruction."

People like Mike are not interested in little details like this that happen to completely discredit their arguments. The reason is that their hatred for muslims far outweighs any real comitment to truth and humanistic principles. The silence of people like Mike to the rhetoric of those who advocate genocide against muslims is telling and speaks volumes.

Mike has registered with Blogspot in order to leave comments at UNMEDIA. But, unlike me, he lacks the courage to write his own beliefs on his own blog. That silence also speaks volumes - about the essential emptiness of his moral outrage. The sad truth is that Mike genuinely believes his raguments have merit and that he is owed a response - though by his own behavior, it is clear that engaging in any debate with him is as pointless as trying to convince a Chomskyite that America is a force for good in the world. Like the true believers on teh far left, Mike and his ilk do not seek true dialog, they seek submission - they are verbal terrorists who scream censorship at the slightest imposition of civility. They feel that they are owed a platform by others to engage in their smear campaigns and propaganda, rather than having the integrity to actually build their own. And hilariously, they are so utterly convinced of the merit of their positions, as righteous in their convictions as the most pious ISM-er, that they interpret a refusal to engage them at their level as a fear of debate.

I have repeatedly defended the innocent. I have repeatedly denounced terror. And still I have been condemned as "silent" - not to mention receiving threats from those I condemned. Now it's my turn to demand a repudiation. Will Mike venture to LGF and denounce the calls for nuking Mecca and deporting all muslims? Who will denounce Senator Inhofe's assertion that the detainees at Abu Ghraib deserved their treatment? Who will condemn the rising tide of anti-muslim hate in America?

Your silence is deafening, and speaks volumes.


Kyoto-blogging: shinkansen punctuality

From a Shinkansen FAQ, found while trying to arrange my Nozumi reservations:

Q: What is the minimum interval between shinkansen trains?
A: On the Sanyo Shinkansen, trains running at 300km/h require a minimum interval of 3 minutes 45 seconds between the train in front. On the Tokaido Shinkansen, where the maximum speed is 270km/h, this is 3 minutes 30 seconds.

Q: What is the minimum unit of time used in official working timetables?
A: 15 seconds.

Q: What is the official definition of "lateness" used on shinkansen trains?
A: A train is officially recorded as "late" if it does not arrive at the specified time. The average lateness per train on the Tokaido Shinkansen in 1999 was 24 seconds.


Arabs react to murder of Nick Berg

In addition to a good piece on NPR this morning, here are some roundups of opinion from the Arab street about the barbarous murder of Nick Berg by Al-Qaeda militants:

source: Islam Online - Iraqis condemn beheading of American civilian

BAGHDAD, May 12 (IslamOnline.net) - Iraqis strongly condemned Wednesday, May13 , the beheading of an American citizen in Iraq by unknown people, saying it is against the true essence of Islam.

Dr Muthana Harith al-Dhari, Secretary General of Muslim Scholars Association, strongly denounced the killing, saying it runs counter to the teachings of Islam and "does disservice to our religion and our cause."
Deputy Head of the Islamic Party Iyaad Samarrai said the abhorrent treatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers should never give an excuse for treating U.S. prisoners the same way.

"This is absolutely wrong," he told IOL, asserting that "Islam does prohibit the killing or the maltreatment of prisoners."
Al-Dawa Party, led by Shiite Interim Governing Council member Ibrahim Al-Jafari, also condemned the decapitation of the American citizen in the strongest possible terms.

"Undoubtedly, we reject these acts, which run counter to the true essence of Islam and are totally unjustified," said Jawad Al-Malki, a member of the party's politburo.

He said such acts tarnish the image of Islam and play into the hands of subjective media.

"The beheading of Berg is shocking, grisly, unjustified violence and an act of terrorism," he told IOL.

"By the same token, we condemn the barbaric and terrorist practices of U.S. soldiers against Iraqi prisoners, but as we don't want this to befall our people, we don't want it to befall others as well."
William Warda, an Iraqi rights activist, criticized the beheading as "imprudent".

He said the Iraqi Human Rights Organization denounces the killing of any foreigner in such a gruesome way as it has condemned the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by occupation forces.

"We place all human beings on an equal footing irrespective of their race, religion and color," he told IOL.

source: The Age - Iraqis condemn beheading, blame US

"As Muslims we can't accept it, but we don't blame them. It was a natural reaction to the human rights violations we have seen at Abu Ghraib. What the Americans are doing now is terrible," said a 45-year-old woman dentist who refused to give her name.
"Since the man came here to do something good for Iraq, it was shameful. Whoever comes to serve this country will be treated kindly by Iraqis, but I blame the Americans for being behind such activities," said restaurant worker Falah Faisal, 30.
But Muaid Louis Abdullah Ahhad, a Christian who owns a photo shop, denounced the execution and blamed followers of wanted al-Qaeda militant Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi for the beheading.

Zarqawi, who has a bounty of $US10 million ($A14.39 million) on his head, is accused by Washington of leading a network in Iraq that has carried out attacks against the US-led coalition and civilians aimed at fanning civil conflict.

The video of Berg's killing was entitled "Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi slaughtering an American", though it was not clear if he was involved.

"These people aren't Muslims. They are just using Islam as a cover and are harming the reputation of this religion," said a 50-year-old Shi'ite engineer for Iraqi Airways who also refused to give his name.

"I didn't know about it, but if he was an American, he was innocent. He came to Iraq on a mission to help Iraqis," said Ali Abu Nabi, a 29-year-old house painter.

But his friend, Ahmed Taleb, 24, a kiosk owner, poured scorn on the Americans, saying they had done nothing to rebuild the country.

"It's the poverty that's leading these criminals to act in such a way," he said.

Overall, the reaction might best be summarized as this: horror at the beheading, outrage over the justification using Islam, and some sympathy for the revenge aspect (in terms of assigning partial blame). Since by the US military's own estimates, about 70-90% of the detainees at Abu Ghraib were innocents, I'm inclined to dismiss the latter the way I dismiss Oklahoma Senator Inhofe's dishonorable statements.

There is a useful article on Islam Online about what Islam teaches about treatment of Prisoners of War. The invocation of the murderers of Berg of the Prophet SAW as justification of their acts was particularly obscene and they will pay a price in hellfire - American first, afterlife second. Bill Allison notes that the article was spurred by the Abu Ghraib torture rather than the beheading of Berg; however I think that the detail doesn't really have direct relevance, given the reactions above.

w.bloggar image upload test

Blogger is firewalled at school/work now, so I'm using w.bloggar instead. This post is just an experiment to test some of the features.

UPDATE: This tool is pretty slick... except it doesn't know how to delete posts. Still, maybe I should be using w.bloggar preferentially for my blogging...

Kyoto-blogging: final preparations

It turns out that Japan uses a different credit-card network than the rest of the world - and that cash is the preferred medium for transactions. This comes as a bit of a counter-intuitive shock to me. I've accordingly ordered a healthy amount of Yen from my bank, both cash and traveler's checks.

Also,I hadn't really given any thought to the issue of electrical power formats - Japan runs on 100 V AC, and Kyoto and Tokyo run at diferent frequencies (60 and 50 Hz). The pins are two-bladed with no third grounding plug, but I am not taking any three-pronged appliances along. And my laptop power brick supports 100 - 240 V input, 50-60 Hz, so I should be able to use it without any adapters. The only possible stumbling block is current, but my brick supports .8 - 1.6 A which hopefully will be sufficient range. Unless Japan runs at some insanely high current like 2A or above I don't think I will be risking my laptop.

Finally, I went to Fry's and got a very cheap ($12) USB flash card reader, supporting everything from Microdrive to SD to Memory Stick. This means I'll be able to transfer photos from the digital camera I am borrowing for the trip with ease. every day. I imagine that I'll have decent connectivity at the conference to blog from so I don't forsee any problems in uploading my files.

I leave on Saturday - blogging will be very light from now until I arrive on Sunday, but I will make a point of blogging my arrival in Kyoto after the flight and shinkansen ride.


Schlitterbahn !!!

It's official!

Water park gets the all-clear to start construction in Galveston

ABC13 Eyewitness News

(5/05/04 - GALVESTON, TX) � It's now official -- Schlitterbahn is coming to Galveston.

The planning commission on Tuesday gave the New Braunfels-based company the green light to break ground. Officials say the $30 million water park will be constructed on 25 acres at the Galveston airport.

Construction could begin as early as this summer and the goal is to have it finished within a year.

That means my daughter will be three years old when it opens - the perfect age to introduce her to the water :) We already go to the beach (Stewart Beach) but a water park is a whole different animal... can't wait :)

Of course, we still need to go to Sea World this summer. Once my wife's schedule clears up and finishes third year, we really need to get to San Antonio and show the baby the whales...

Ayatollahs against theocracy

via Pejman Yousefzadeh, comes an example of moderate (ie, theological mainstream) muslim leaders speaking out against tyranny in Islam's name:

"Seyyed Hossein Khomeini, a Shi'ite Islamic cleric like his grandfather the late Ayatollah Khomeini, told the Voice of America had he been in his grandfather's shoes he 'would never have taken such an action as issuing the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.'

"In an exclusive interview that aired today, Khomeini told the VOA Persian television show News and Views that, historically, some Shiite leaders and scholars have considered themselves Velayat Faghih (supreme leaders) who expect people to abide by their verdicts, even when they involve death sentences. Although his grandfather was included in this group, he pointed out Islam accords this kind of decision-making authority only to prophets, not to ordinary people.

"Khomeini went on to say that he is open to the idea of meeting author Salman Rushdie after watching a series of interviews with Rushdie on VOA, believing that he might benefit from the writer's knowledge about religion, especially the religions in the author's native India."

Note that this is the grandson of the Ayatollah who personifies the face of Iranian clerical oppression. The important thing to realize is that teh freedom to speak out so forthrightly is a fragile one. Many muslims living in tyrannical states cannot speak freely. In iRan, the reason that such public dissent is even thinkable is precisely because the reform movement has been growing from within, a groundswell that is entirely homegrown. If, as the hard-liner neocons demand, America were to pose a military threat to Iran, rest assured that all the progress that has been won at such cost would be undone in a moment.

Contrast Iran with Iraq. Liberty cannot be granted, it can only be aided, by an external entity. If democracy takes root - as seems inevitable - in Iran, it will be far more robust than the pseudo-sovereign Iraq that will be no different from Egypt in being a US client state. Iraq is the rhetoric, Iran is the reality. Maybe.


Kyoto-blogging: mega-population

It seems that the Tokyo metropolitan area is the world's most populous, with 33.8 million people. Kyoto-Osaka is ranked at number 9, with 16.7 million people. Since I am flying into Tokyo and taking the shinkansen to Kyoto, that means I'll be traveling through an area populated by 50 million human beings.

In comparison, the Houston metropolitan area has only 5.2 million people, which is surprisingly less than the Boston metro area (5.7m) where I spent two years. My hometown of Chicago has 9.7m in its greater environs (Chicagoland). This isn't surprising, given that population density in America is far below eastern countries, but I was surprised to see even mighty Mumbai rank only number 6 (18.8m).

I've seen slums with teeming millions of poor. But what do the teeming millions look like when they aren't in slums, but rather high-rise urban grids? I think I'm in for some culture shock, indeed.

why perceptions matter

Via a roundabout ego-search, I came back across the article by James Fallows in the Atlantic Monthly about the investigation into who shot Mohammed al-Dura, a Palestinian boy whose death was caught on tape during a firefight with the IDF. What struck me, however, was the relevance of the concluding paragraph to the larger designs upon the Middle East that our present Administration is pursuing:

In its engagement with the Arab world the United States has assumed that what it believes are noble motives will be perceived as such around the world. We mean the best for the people under our control; stability, democracy, prosperity, are our goals; why else would we have risked so much to help an oppressed people achieve them? The case of Mohammed al-Dura suggests the need for much more modest assumptions about the way other cultures�in particular today's embattled Islam�will perceive our truths.

I think that the torture at Abu Ghuraib is notable in that it gave the conspiracy theorists their first crack at actual evidence for their theories.

just Go

Iraqi blogette Riverbend has a long rant about Abu Ghraib, cutting through the fog of our domestic media's coverage about Rumsfeld's testimony and Bush's speeches and drops with unadulterated fury the verdict upon our nation: guilty.

Chaos? Civil war? Bloodshed? We�ll take our chances- just take your Puppets, your tanks, your smart weapons, your dumb politicians, your lies, your empty promises, your rapists, your sadistic torturers and go.

I want to argue with her and explain to her that these actions were not representative of us, but how can my abstract statement make any headway against the reality that she has to face? Like Jonathan, I'm beginning to question whether our presence in Iraq truly is better than the alternative.

From Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib

When Oubliette comes into play, target creature phases out. That creature can't phase in as long as Oubliette remains in play. When Oubliette leaves play, the creature phases in tapped.


demand more

I hate disagreeing with Bill Scher of Liberal Oasis, but I think it would be suicidal to vote against the $25b request for Iraq and Afghanistan. First of all, the money is badly needed for body armor, etc. Second, the war in Afghanistan is underfunded as it is. Third, there's still a Homeland Defense Credibility gap to cross with swing undecided voters, and voting against this money gives all too easy a soundbite to the opposition (Tom Delay already invoked the Support Our Troops meme).

What Kerry has to do is demand more money - about $40b. Make the discrepancy large enough that it becomes a wedge between Bush and the fiscal conservatives. Kerry needs to emphasise that this war has been fought on the cheap with poor planning, and that the troops still don't have the body armor they need. Given that the Senate will grill Rumsfeld on the failures of training and discipline, Kerry's message that the troops are not being supported by the Administration will resonate.

I don't see a flaw in asking for more money - either Bush refuses, and erodes his own credibility, or concedes in which case Kerry gets the credit and Bush inherits the consequences from within the GOP.

the mujahideen of Najaf

The San Jose Mercury News features a Knight-Ridder exclusive on the Thulfikar Army, with an actual interview of a member:

AN-NAJAF, Iraq -- Armed with a 9mm handgun and grit, Haidar is trying to do what the U.S. military camped nearby hasn't done: Drive the gunmen of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from this holy city.

Since mid-April, Haidar and scores of other men from An-Najaf have gathered nightly in the city's sprawling cemetery to attack members of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. Only a few gunmen are targeted each time to prevent big firefights that might injure civilians, said Haidar, who spoke with Knight Ridder on the condition that his last name not be used.

``If we capture them and they swear on the holy Koran they will leave Najaf and never come back, we let them go,'' the 20-year-old furniture maker said. ``If they resist, they are killed.''

The group claimed to have killed at least a half-dozen Mahdi gunmen and chased off more than 20.
Before joining Thul Fiqar, Haidar said he had shot his 9mm handgun only once and that was into the air to celebrate the capture of Saddam.

Yet the men have a major tactical advantage over Mahdi members, many of whom are from nearby Al-Kufah, Baghdad and other southern towns. Thul Fiqar fighters are hometown boys who know every inch of An-Najaf, including the hundreds of pathways in the cemetery, which is the largest Muslim burial ground in the world. This cemetery is where they have concentrated their attacks against Sadr's gunmen, who go there at night to monitor U.S. troop movements in the distance.

The immediate impact is negligible, Haidar admitted. Mahdi Army numbers in and around An-Najaf are estimated in the thousands, compared with the 250 claimed by the Thul Fiqar. Their quest also comes at a high price. Four members of the new group have been killed in firefights with the Mahdi Army, said Hashim, 27, a Thul Fiqar leader who refused to give his last name.

``The Americans made us happy when they got rid of Saddam Hussein,'' Haidar said. ``We're happy to return the favor by getting rid of the Mahdi Army.''

I'm pleased at the depth of detail in this article, which nicely counters the reductio-ad-Iran approach to any news of Iraq (see Dan Darling for a more realistic assessment of Iran's influence).

This is sort of a historical moment for me. Until now, I've never seen an example of modern-day jihad - the violent kind, precipitated by necessity, a true defense of the Faith. These mujahideen are true exemplars. I keep hammering the analogy to Jacksonian warfare because the militant form of jihad is nearly indistinguishable.

The full text of the article has been posted to the UNMEDIA list.


anti-muslim watch II

follow-up to my post from March, I have indeed noticed a rise in conservative talk-radio rhetoric against Muslims, most recently Jay Severin and Michael Savage (the recent issue about the call to prayer on loudspeakers in a mosque in Michigan seemed to particularly aggravate the radio pundits).

It seems that there's a correlation with increased incidents of anti-muslim hate. Al-Muhajabah has been compiling reports of incidents the past few weeks and here's a partial list:

Arson attacks against Muslim San Antonio businesses

Tampa police investigating battery of Muslim woman as hate crime

Imam's wife assaulted at Maryland mosque

12 year-old Florida Muslim girl assaulted by boys in school, hit in the face with a belt (not in dispute, though other details of the case are)

Bullets fired at Texas mosque

The anti-muslim trend is not limited to violence, there are also more symbolic expressions of the same sentiment. For example, a Portland interfaith breakfast conference disinvited the Muslim representative. And there is no shortage of personal anecdotes either. The reality is that conservatives are actively seeking to exclude muslims from the community - despite the muslim community's active attempts to integrate. Quite ironic given the rhetoric about stubborn refusal to assimilate coming from the conservative quarter.

Glenn recently questioned whether the trend was real, noting that CAIR is partially a compromised source, and that the rise in reporting of such incidents may be due to an increased number of offices. But the incidents are what drive the need for new offices, not the other way around - and there's a general feeling amongst American muslims that things are getting worse. This isn't about 9-11 so much as it is the result of a systematic cultural-propaganda campaign, finally beginning to affect the center of gravity.

Despite my misgivings about the organization and Ibrahim Cooper specifically, there's a real role for CAIR to play here, as evidenced by Al-Muhajabah's links. It seems that a jihad of words against conservative talk radio is needed. I may have to donate money to CAIR if the trend continues.


the sword of Ali AS

Time magazine devotes a small piece to the Thulfikar Army in Najaf:

Locals say the gunmen in the Volvo came from a new group calling itself the Thulfiqar Army, seemingly named for a famed two-pronged sword that in Shi'ite tradition was used by Imam Ali, the martyred son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Two weeks ago, the group began distributing leaflets ordering al-Sadr to leave Najaf immediately or face death. Since then, residents say, Thulfiqar has killed up to four Mahdi Army militiamen, a figure challenged by al-Sadr officials, who claim the group is the invention of American propaganda. U.S. officials say they believe the group exists but have few clues about its composition. "We don't assess it to be a very large activity at this point," coalition spokesman Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said last week.

The article devotes some speculation to who may be controlling it, raising the specter of Iran. Frankly I find it tiresome to invoke Iran at all turns. The Iran-Sadr connection! The Iran-Chalabi connection! and now the Iran-Thulfikar connection? Even these glimmering, sketchy and even conflicting reports strongly suggest that the Thulfikar Army is a home-grown operation, a true grassroots insurgeny. Perhaps I am an idealist, irrevocably tainted by the rhetoric of Howard Dean, but I do believe that sometimes, the People do indeed have the Power.

Bandar Bush

Steven den Beste asks the question why Prince Bandar remains the ambassador to the US, given that it's long overdue (in his estimation) for the Bush Administration ot get tough with the Saudis.

The reason is that Bandar and the Saud dynasty have very close business and personal relations with former President Bush. A reprint from the March 24, 2003 edition of The New Yorker explains how Bandar is consdered almost family to Bush Sr. A reprint from the April 19th 2003 edition of the National Post, also details the relationship between Bandar and the former President and First Lady[1]. Finally, a March 5th 2001 (note: before 9-11) story in the New York Times about the Carlyle group links between the Saud and Bush families.

I should make it clear here that I do NOT believe in any idiotic conspiracy theories. The basic point which is supported by facts in these articles, among numerous others, is that the Bush business-dynasty is a powerful player in the international market, especially in the oil sector[2]. Bush Sr. is a member of the Carlyle group, which is a powerhouse consortium including the Bin Laden family. The ruling Saud family is heavily indebted to the bin Laden family fo rmaintaining their tenous control over the Kingdom, and the health of the Saud family is critical to the financial interests of the Carlyle group, and Bandar acts as a lubrication to the entire mechanism.[3]

The presence of Bandar in Washington is essentially a no-brainer, as is the decision to evacuate the bin Laden family members in the United States after 9-11 during the aviation blackout. I'm not justifying these decisions but I am explaining why they occurred, and I think it's rather obvious why they make sense from their perspective.

However, one critique I am willing to make is the notion that the current President Bush was eer capable of acing as an independent executor of the War on Terror. There is a large blind spot when it comes to Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, Steven's arguments about the real why behind the war on Iraq notwithstanding, the real reason we are there is because the current President was willing, and even desperate, to find an outlet for pursuing the War on Terror without antagonizing the relationship between his family and the Sauds. The neocon promises of war-on-the-cheap and domino effects was seductive. Now that the war has proven non-negligible an investment, Bush seems genuinely conflicted about how best to proceed, hence the complete policy disorientation in Falluja.

With the revelations of the Iraqi POW torture, rape, and murders, and the selection of a former Republican Guard general as the face of security in Falluja, the cognitive dissonance between President Bush's liberation rhetoric and the facts on the ground is overwhelming to even his most ardent supporters. But the truth is that there is no controlling intent and vision behind this war, and never was (apart from hoping Wolfowitz's insanely rosy post-war scenarios would magically come to pass). All we have now is a President who wants the problem to go away, and make the public forget it exists until after the election.

[1] and the Saud royal family as a whole.
[2] oil is cheaper to buy than to invade countries for, so let's dismiss any hint of the absurd notion that both Gulf Wars were about oil.
[3] Note that the business relationships operate perfectly smoothly even when there was no Bush family member in power in US government. Hence we can dispense with the abusrd notion that the Executive Branch is just a branch office of Carlyle. In fact, large corporate interests like Carlyle do NOT like wars in the heartland of their revenue resources.


a useful resource indeed

Attempting to "reveal" the warlike nature of Islam, an LGFer has posted a list of 111 ayats from the Qur'an that he interprets as uniformly justifying and making compulsory the murder of non-muslims. To be honest, it's a useful list, because anyone actually familiar with the Qur'an and who makes modest effort to read the ayats surrounding the excerpted ones will understand exactly how hollow their case is. As Charles has noted, context is the key to understanding; this list of ayats is the signpost which honest seekers of Truth will follow in that spirit. Those who have an a-priori vision of Islam, and jihad, will of course not need such a list to justify their belief.

For example, consider this story (via LGF) about the Islamist governor of Zanfara state in Nigeria who has ordered all churches therein to be demolished. According to the story, the governor has invoked the Qur'an, claiming that there is an injunction to fight the unbelievers wherever they are found. Looking at the handy ayat list, it seems that this nutbar is referring to Ayat 2.191. However, looking at the surrounding ayats for full context:

2.190 And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits.
2.191 And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, and persecution is severer than slaughter, and do not fight with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the recompense of the unbelievers.
2:193 And fight with them until there is no persecution, and religion should be only for Allah, but if they desist, then there should be no hostility except against the oppressors.

These are Jacksonian ideals, indeed. The governor of Zamfara state is mis-using the Qur'an, and guilty of the same selective readings with which to further his agenda as some commentators at LGF with an anti-muslim agenda. Theirs will be a shared recompense.

Disclaimer - translations of the Qur'an are inherently flawed. But if that is the field upon which we must engage, so be it.


wireless router for sale

I'm selling my Netgear MR814 wireless router on ebay - click over if you think you might be interested.

November is a referendum on incumbent leadership

US Presidents are limited to two four-year terms[1]. Elections held after the second term are really a referendum on the challenger, and in 2000 Gore ultimately failed (I've written before on why the 2000 election represented the highest ideal of our system of government).

Elections held after the first term, however, are a referendum on the incumbent. A President who'se only claim to fitness for office is "I'm better than the alternative" is guilty of lowering the bar of public expectation. Such an attitude essentially justifies any failure of judgement or systematic deficit of leadership, because such am incumbent can always demonize the opponent infinitely worse. In the modern age, such demonization (called the politics of personal destruction) is all too easy for a well-funded political party, and a temptation that neither party can resist.

The way to begin raising the bar is to evaluate a President after their first term - and punish failure. Not failure as simple disagreement with policy positions, but failure of true leadership, failure in those respects where the President should be acting - and leading - as the Executive for all Americans, on issues that transcend the minor issues such as abortion and taxes and immigration. The score card for Leadership contains items like vision for America's role in the world, defense of the homeland, a commitment the Administration's own rhetoric on foreign policy, a willingness and dapatbility to recognize error and change course when needed.

A President who disagrees with me on social issues is tolerable, and even neccessary at times to maintain the ongoing national debate. But a President who fails to Lead is not tolerable, regardless of party affiliation or whether I voted for them or not.

I disagree with President Bush on social issues, and reserved the right to vote against him, based on that disagreement. But After 9-11, he had me on-board. I will never forget how he stood up on MY behalf as an American muslim and spoke needed words of restraint to the nation about a rush to judgement. I'll never hate him as a person. However, on the Leadership front, he has failed me and he has failed my nation. WARNING EXPLICIT LINKS NOT FOR CHILDREN The photos of the shocking torture and rape of Iraqi POWs at the Abu Ghuraib prison are ultimately a failure of policy, a failure of example, a failure of priorities, a failure of resolve[2]. This is just the most graphic symptom of a systematic failure to commit to the Iraq war the resources that were needed to succeed - and were this the Former President H.W. Bush executing the war, none of these failures would have been evident.

You must now take a detour and read Ginmar's Journal entry. It is a cleansing salve for the sickness of the Iraqi POW torture-rape story. If you clicked the graphic link above, you don't know how much you need to read this. But you do. Read it now.

Why am I reminded of the former President Bush? John Kerry spoke at Westminster College in Missouri and had this to say about how he would prosecute this war:

I believe that failure is not an option in Iraq. But it is also true that failure is not an excuse for more of the same.

Here is how we must proceed.

First, we must create a stable and secure environment in Iraq. That will require a level of forces equal to the demands of the mission. To do this right, we have to truly internationalize both politically and militarily: we cannot depend on a US-only presence. In the short-term, however, if our commanders believe they need more American troops, they should say so and they should get them.

But more and more American soldiers cannot be the only solution. Other nations have a vital interest in the outcome and they must be brought in.

To accomplish this, we must do the hard work to get the world?s major political powers to join in this mission. To do so, the President must lead. He must build a political coalition of key countries, including the UK, France, Russia and China, the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, to share the political and military responsibilities and burdens of Iraq with the United States.

The coalition should endorse the Brahimi plan for an interim Iraqi government, it should propose an international High Commissioner to work with the Iraqi authorities on the political transition, and it should organize an expanded international security force, preferably with NATO, but clearly under US command.

Once these elements are in place, the coalition would then go to the UN for a resolution to ratify the agreement. The UN would provide the necessary legitimacy. The UN is not the total solution but it is a key that opens the door to participation by others.

In parallel, the President must also go to NATO members and others to contribute the additional military forces and to NATO to take on an organizing role. NATO is now a global security organization and Iraq must be one of its global missions.

To bring NATO members and others in, the President must immediately and personally reach out and convince them that Iraqi security and stability is a global interest that all must contribute to. He must also convince NATO as an organization that Iraq should be a NATO mission?a mission consistent with the principles of collective security that have formed the basis of the alliance?s remarkable history in the pursuit of peace and security.

To bring others in it is imperative we share responsibility and authority. When NATO members have been treated with respect, they have always ? always ? answered the call of duty. So too with other key contributors. Every one has a huge stake in whether Iraq survives its trial by fire or is consumed by fire and becomes a breeding ground for terror, intolerance and fear.

This is an argument of enlightened self-interest to our allies, not bluster about expectations of obedience. These words could have been spoken by our first President Bush equally well. That is in fact the game plan that he pursued in building the Coalition to free Kuwait. This approach worked then, it worked in Kosovo, and it will work now. The truth is that the current President, bound by forces within his Administration and a basic lack of will to assert leadership, or even attempt to articulate his specific plan and vision for how to proceed, is a failure. The election is a referendum indeed so that the next occupant als understands that the Electorate will hold him accountable in the same manner.

[1] Amendment XII, passed in 1951 because the GOP chafed under the four-term war leadership of FDR.
[2] As usual, Phil Carter has the best military legal analysis of the case, and Juan Cole has the best political analysis of the effect on American credibility, not with the mythical Arab Street, but with the very-real and essential-to-the-domino-theory Arab middle class and imntellectual elite, who are receptive to our mission but distrustful of our motives.