Monday, July 31, 2006

Search Party (So why do I get Google hits but not Yahoo hits?)

     I’ve noticed among some of my blogging friends that it’s become sort of cool to say “I don’t care about hits, I just put it out there and whoever needs to find it will. I don’t even look at my hits.”
My Dad owned a not all that successful restaurant that had better food than his main competitor down the block, but never the business or the reputation.  There used to be a mantra in the restaurant world “If the food and service is good, the customers will find you.”  It’s not completely true.  Restaurants with perfectly good food and service go out of business all the time and other places with bad food and iffy service often flourish for reasons that have little to do with food or service and a lot to do with promotion and location. Of course, most blogs aren’t businesses either.

     At the risk of giving up any semblance of blog-coolness, I admit that I check my hit reports regularly through  At this point, the vast majority of my hits still come from blind searches, people using a search engine to track down links on a particular topic.   More than 90% of those come from Google, the largest search engine.  Quite possibly because Blogger is owned by Google, my blog does surprisingly well in Google searches.  My articles are well up on searches for odd topics like the rumors about the President’s affair with Condoleeza Rice, the book of Judas, various American Idol contestants, Hop Sing, Vladimir Horowitz and Art Tatum, different junior volleyball players, the sonic impact T-amp, the script for Rambo 4,  and flypaper.  I assume it has something to do with the fact that no one else has written much about these particular topics.  For instance, I have a bunch of articles about Karl Rove but I don’t much get Google search hits for him likely because there are hundreds even thousands of political bloggers who write about the personification of evil.

     About ten days ago, I started noticing that I almost never get yahoo searches. Yahoo is likely the second most popular search engine and way back when started blogging I did submit my site to Yahoo through my “Myyahoo” page’s “add content” option.  I began to check  searches in Yahoo and my site wasn’t on the first several pages for the topics generating the majority of my blind hits.  Although Google searches are subsumed in some way on Yahoo, the ratings system is very different when it comes to blogs.  I researched it a bit and other than the fact that Yahoo seems to be better set up for commercial sites, the general answer seemed to have to do with my being more RSS friendly (real simple syndication), something I’m working on.  I’m still trying to figure out how to put up the XML link in my right hand column.

One of the trends in web 2.0 world is the development of meta-sites where users identify sites of interest and then rate the sites recursively to develop a list of “recommended or hot sites” within the group.  A lot of those places are understandably cautious about letting blogs into the mix because the owners of blogs tend to self-promote.  Promoting one’s own site on the Internet has become very complicated stuff and takes a level of technical skill that’s currently a bit beyond me.  (I still get nervous when I have to manipulate my template in Blogger and there are all these competing syndication methods right now).  One of my posts did wind up on one of these meta-sites and I was genuinely astonished by the effect had on my hits.

Understanding the ins and outs of the search engine seems to be the rough equivalent of mastering the impact of interest rates in the real estate market.  Much like the real estate market, I went into it simply assuming that I was just buying or building a home someplace.

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

I'm With the Band

I’ve had two truly strange experiences online.  The first one happened when someone first showed me the Inktomi search engine, the first search engine that used spiders.  I put in the name of an old girlfriend and learned that she had leukemia.  The second one was last Friday when I came across a picture of myself from 43 years ago.  Okay, it was a picture of me with about 30 other people, but at that moment I felt that my computer was haunted in some way.

In 1963, my grandfather provided seed money for a Chinese drum and bugle corps in Sacramento.  The idea was to build community spirit among young Chinese, a la the Meredith Wilson Musical the Music Man which didn’t open on Broadway until 1957.  The Confucius Temple, which started as something of large Chinese community center, was another one of my Grandfather’s projects completed around the same time and I suspect his support of the drum corps was a way to turn the Confucius Temple into a center for another activity.  My Grandfather was one of these characters who was determined to find ways to make the cultural flow run uphill in that my parents’ generation had already started to move to suburban housing developments and my Grandfather still dreamt of a refurbished Chinatown as part of Sacramento’s downtown redevelopment and hence a future center for separate Chinese identity within the city..

I was one of the youngest kids in the drum and bugle corps and hated every minute of it mostly because I wanted to be less noticeably Chinese rather than more clearly Chinese at the time.  As a secondary matter, the band director felt that the younger children weren’t big enough to tote a drum.  The early version of the corps didn’t have any bugles so it was technically a Drum and Lyre corps.  As a result, we smaller ones marched in the back with cymbals that we played in a simple four beat pattern.  In other words, there wasn’t much for me to do.  In any case, the whole reverse psychology bit of making us be more Chinese by engaging in a quintessentially American activity just sucked in my opinion.  

Over the year, I marched in a couple parades, then convinced my parents that I really wanted to quit and would never make any Chinese friends through the drum and bugle corps.  I think I told them that there weren’t any boys my age in the group anyway, which at the time was true.

Some fifteen years later, both my father and grandfather were dying and the Ye Wah Drum and Lyre Corps had changed its name to the “Mandarins” and flourished as a serious drum and bugle corps.  The group decided to honor my Grandfather for his contributions to their success.  I was a twenty two year old who had just completed my first year of law school at the time.  I gave a short acceptance speech on my Grandfather’s behalf and was followed by a longer speech by Robert Matsui who was just beginning what would be a quarter century career in Congress.  That was 1978.  A week later my father died and six weeks after that my grandfather died.  I didn’t think about my drum and bugle corps experience more than in passing until a couple weeks ago when I decided to explore the cymbalism of my time as a parade participant.  

Much to my shock, the Mandarins outlasted the rest of my Granfather's "new" Chinatown. It’s members are no longer exclusively Chinese.  Actually, the Mandarins weren’t  Han Chinese anyway and the original members of the corps were almost all Cantonese :} so maybe whoever changed the name knew something.  They even have their own website complete with an alumni society.  It happened to look at some pictures on the site of the original group and much to my shock, there was a picture of me from 1963 in the months before JFK was shot.  I’m second from the right in the second row from the bottom.  

As you can see, I looked less than happy to be there at the time, but now realize that as much as I tried to bury the memory it helped shape me as an adult with a bit different outlook on life and culture than someone who simply melted into the suburbs.

Sacramento Valley stories


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Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Opium Wars by Travis Hanes and Frank Sanello (book review)

In the middle of the 19th century, the British Empire ran into a trade deficit problem with China.  English demand for Chinese tea and silk had continued to grow and England had little to trade back to China in exchange other than silver.  I should point out that the British did have military technology, modern rifles, ships, and artillery they might have traded, but did not offer it.  Instead, Britain exported opium, grown and processed on the Indian subcontinent, its most successful colony, and shipped it to China.  When the Chinese resisted and attempted to ban the drug, the British used their superior military strength to force open Chinese ports.  The result was not one, but two Opium wars in which the British Empire not only sanctioned the drug trade, but used its armies to protect it.   The second Opium war ended in 1860, the first year of the American civil war.  One impact of the Opium wars was that it diverted British patrols to police the slave trade out of Africa.  Throughout the American Civil War, the British quietly though never openly supported the Confederacy.

Travis Hanes and Frank Sanello’s   The Opium Wars is a detailed re-examintion of the Opium Wars from a twenty first century American perspective.  While Hanes is a professor at the University of Texas, Sanello is a journalist and the narrative largely splits the difference with a mixture of standard elements from traditional histories like economic statistics and detailed battle descriptions framed with novelistic descriptions of the sacking of the Emperor’s Winter Palace and sympathetic portraits of the Chinese Official Lin who attempted to address the drug problem from all angles and William Gladstone’s moral  opposition to the war (though he later tolerated it).  The authors claim that this is one of the first Western histories of the war that includes more Chinese sources, but there’s little direct evidence of that in the narrative though its perspective is clearly sympathetic to the Chinese.

As with most historical matters, I thought I knew more about the Opium Wars than I actually did.  These were some of the items in the book that resonated for me.

1) Just how much of the Chinese population at all levels became opium addicts.  The Empress Dowager who begins to come to power towards the end of the second opium war was an addict (though they believe a well-managed addict) throughout her reign.
Fwiw, the last fifteen years have brought on a number of revisionist  takes on her rule that paint her in a more heroic, but still flawed light.
The authors describe a culture where the military and political leadership is debilitated by the drug.  At one point, a Chinese man is chosen by a group of European missionaries to lead efforts against the drug and he too turns out to be an unrepentant addict.

2) The battle descriptions are hard to read, especially if you happen to be Chinese.  They largely describe a  conquistadors vs. Incas mismatch between modern military technology vs. numerical superiority and inferior weaponry and tactics. Most every battle ends with three British fatalities (most of the troops are actually Sepoys) and 700 Chinese killed.  One popular misconception is that the Chinese armies fought only with spears and bows and arrows.  The Chinese did have cannon and muskets, but most of what they had dated to the 18th century.  For instance, the cannon guarding Canton couldn’t be aimed and some of their muskets required two men to aim and fire them.  The Opium War marks one of the first uses of iron clad steam-powered warships in battle. These sections read like missing chapters of Jared Diamond’s   Guns, Germs, and Steel  especially when the most effective weapons against the British turn out to be biological.  The invaders largely remain dependent on the Chinese for food and water and more die from dysentery than from battle, but the Chinese ironically decline to use this as a tactic because it’s too uncivilized.  The book also goes into the cruel way the Chinese tortured prisoners so the reluctance is doubly ironic.

3)  The Taiping rebellion, one of  history’s most devastating revolutions that killed some 20 million people occurs in China between the two Opium wars.  In America at roughly the same time ,there were three or four Christian offshoot religions that flourish to this day, the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Seventh Day Adventists, and the Christian Scientists. It’s often forgotten that the Taiping rebellion was also nominally Christian, though it was a very radical take on the religion in that its leader claimed to be Christ’s younger brother.  

4) The Opium Wars were genuinely controversial in Britain.  The church did in fact oppose the war on moral grounds.  Again one of the ironies is that British Church missions came to China to work with addicts and the Missions in turn were protected by British soldiers who had, of course, been the instrument for spreading opium through China.  The first vote in parliament was very close.

The authors also point out that England had an Opium problem of its own mostly among factory workers in the form of laudanum, an opium derivative.   Gladstone’s own sister died from the effects of opium addiction.

5) The poppy played a prominent role in modern Chinese history.  The authors make a  case that the fall of the Manchu dynasty is very much a consequence of the opium epidemic, though the Empire clearly had other serious problems.  For the next century after the second Opium War, the west and the Japanese continue to take advantage of Opium as a weapon against China.  There’s an interesting alternate history scenario in “What if the vote to go to war had lost in parliament and the British permitted commissioner Lin to complete his campaign against the drug?”

Chiang Kai Shek uses opium and later heroin as a way to finance the Nationalist government.  The book mentions in passing that Mao may have led history’s only truly effective war on drugs.  Right wingers might be pleased to learn that he executes dealers, develops effective rehabilitation methods for addicts although the effectiveness is bolstered with prison and execution for those who fall off the wagon.  On the other hand, they’d have to admit that the ideas came from Mao and not say that paragon of will power, Rush Limbaugh or say George W. Bush whose Dad used to be called “Poppy” :}.  

The poppy continues to play a fascinating role across Asia including the ambivalent role of the U.S. in the Taliban’s activities in the heroin trade out of Afghanistan over the last twenty five years.  

6.  One persistent thread in the book is the devastating impact of faulty intelligence.  Throughout the wars, Chinese generals and bureaucrats anxious to look good to the Emperor exagerrate their successes and cover over the depth of their failures in the field.  The result is that China persists in strategies that don’t reflect reality and the disaster is worse than it might have been for the Manchus as it may be for the US in the Middle East.

What I would have liked to see more of.

  1. Perhaps the sources simply didn’t exist, but there’s very little in the book about the impact of the opium trade and the wars on ordinary Chinese.  As mentioned above, if the authors used Chinese sources most tend to be the texts of Imperial edicts, etc.

One of the few scenes of the hardships caused by the looting is of a Mandarin official whose family is first robbed by European, Sepoy, and Sikh soldiers who then manages to find a small amount of food for his wife and children only to have it stolen by Chinese bandits.  

  1. The use of the sacking of the Imperial Winter Palace as a framing device makes for some great imagery.  There’s a colorful scene where the Europeans are met by dozens of Eunuchs shouting to them not to destroy the treasures.  By presenting  Lord Elgin’s destruction of one of the great collections of Chinese art, books, etc. as the symbolic atrocity of the wars, the writers choice undercuts the thousands of deaths and suffering actually wrought by the English and eventually the French in the two wars.  The cost in lives and resources is detailed, but these never receive the same level of description as the Winter Palace.  One result is that the Manchu rulers come off as the “victims” rather than the Chinese people.

  1. The book is intended as a history, but early on does try to draw some parallels between British colonialism and the current American Empire.  While it may have been outside the scope of what they intended to do, I regretted that the authors didn’t spend a chapter or two discussing the way the Opium Wars still impact Chinese-western relations (somehow China can’t feel too guilty about flooding the US with cheap goods and taking away American jobs with our addiction to inexpensive shopping) and resonate with modern foreign policy where real politik gets draped in moral outrage.  One of the juicier parallels to our world is that Chinese mistreatment of British emissaries and prisoners is used to justify the Opium War to the British public through the early newspapers.

  1. The authors note that Britian’s cynical use of war wound up being hugely successful in sustaining the Empire.  The choice between a culture’s economic vitality and its soul gets trumpeted on the book jacket and in the preface, but the book actually never explores its consequences and impact with much depth.  

At roughly the same time, Commodore Perry forced Tokugawa Japan open to the west.  Unlike China perhaps because opium did not play a role there, the Japanese were able to industrialize in 50 years well enough that they were able to defeat the Russians n the Russo-Japanese war at the turn of the 20th century.  Fascinatingly, it is the British who play a key role in helping the Japanese develop modern factories and battleships.  Again, this may have been outside the scope, but I would have loved to seem some discussion of the contrast.  

  1. Finally, despite the attempts to enliven the book with “characters” and anecdote, much of the book bogs down in numbingly interchangeable descriptions of the military campaigns themselves.  I imagine these keep it feeling like history, but as narrative for a popular audience I would have settled for a summary description of the military portion in exchange for more detail about the social and cultural impact of the war in both countries.  The authors are also big on lurid descriptions of torture during confinement.  This may have something to do with the available documentation since these incidents were played up in the western press of the time, but they detracted from the more overarching historical points.  

For those who believe that the last 150 years have seen little progress in world affairs, the Opium Wars provides an excellent reminder of how morally bankrupt the 19th century could be. For those who have any nostalgia for Queen Victoria this is a pretty disturbing portrait of Britain’s last significant monarch.  The Opium War was largely won by the superior technology of the west, but it leaves one asking the question “Was Europe more advanced in any other significant way than the countries it was exploiting?”

It’s a question still worth asking about the current players on the world stage.  


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Thursday, July 27, 2006

House of Whispers (fiction)

Decades later, the twenty one living grandchildren sit in a circle around the spot where the Christmas tree always stood. What is now missing holds more power than the more obvious changes to our grandparents’ home. In one room, the walls are painted purple. In another a chandelier hangs at an odd angle over a leather-clad water bed. Ten years ago, the house sold below market to a couple who transformed it into a bed and breakfast. My aunt Wanda’s husband rented it back for this one Sunday afternoon reunion. It was against his judgment, but it was her last wish.

We talk only in English about selling Cisco at fifty one, about working for the state department in Moscow, about where our children go to college.

"Kenny is it true what it said in Architectural Digest, that your wife really has one closet for all black clothes and another with nothing but white?"
Other questions sound less like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and reveal what simply refuses to be hidden.
"Where are you living these days?"
"What do you do for work?"
"Do you have any children?"
My grandfather had told me as a boy. "A Chinese family never forget its own identity. You understand?”

My Grandfather kept asking me the question whenever we had time alone, which was usually when he was handing me an envelope of hundred dollar bills to cover my tuition money for boarding school and later college out of sight of other family members. He would ask the question, I would nod, and then he’d ask it again, each time he seemed a little less convinced than the last, as we both watched the quarrels within my father’s family intensify as his passing drew closer.

The last time he asked me I was twenty two and in my first year of law school. My Grandfather was past eighty and completing his second round of chemo.

“Of course, I understand,” I assured him, but my Grandfather kept going.

“You see your cousin Sally?”

“Yes, sometimes.”

“You meet her husband and see her baby?”

“Yes, of course I have.”

“They invite you to their house for dinner?”

“Well, no.”

“You see them in the street and you say “Hello, I’m you cousin. We not strangers. You come have dinner with me.”

“Yeh-yeh, I’ve met them. I can recognize Sally on the street.”

“Do you know them?”

“Of course, I know my cousin.”

He shook his head, groaned, and closed his eyes. He then hissed at me in despair then said something in Cantonese frustrated with the imprecision of American speech. Of his grandchildren, only one ever learned to speak Chinese.

That was our last conversation. After the funeral, I did not see Sally, her husband, or meet her two children until today twenty four years later.

Except for a yellow Ferrari, the cars parked outside what was my grandparents’ house are German.

One cousin, dressed in a dun tunic, wanders the circle and asks anyone who will talk to him "Are you sincerely happy?"
We nod. He asks the question again and again as he echoes the way our grandfather would persist in asking the same question? I don’t know why, but it doesn’t occur to me to ask my tunic-clad-shaved-head cousin his own question back.

A younger male cousin is vague about his particulars and substitutes questions for answers.

"Do you remember how we used to slide down those banisters and jump off the front step?"

We nod and someone recalls cracking a tooth after trying to win a bet. He continues, "When Sally locked us in the basement, I got so scared because everyone said there were ghosts down there, I peed in my pants. Does anyone remember that? You all made fun of me. I never forgot.”

The others laugh, but no more giddy memories pop through the conversation. I had indeed forgotten. In my mind I can see the scene, but I can’t hear the giggles at all. The sound of their voices are increasingly faint.

Brochures scattered in each room offer a ghost free history of this bed and breakfast, Paperson’s only remaining business. This is what they tell me about my own family.

The owner built the mansion in 1935 in violation of an unspoken color line about the size of homes owned by non-whites. It was the biggest most elaborate Chinese home in the Sacramento Delta and even considered something of a Cantonese tourist attraction. People drove to Paperson just to visit the house and see what the dream of the Golden Mountain might look like.

My Grandfather was a diplomat who was alleged to own a gambling house. My Grandmother was so beautiful that her parents received fourteen marriage proposals before she turned 16. They raised six children. Bing Crosby once sang in the living room. Actually, it was Danny Kaye, but the publicist feared too few people would know the name.
Faded pictures, a Koumintang council, a Chinese drum and bugle corps, a portrait of Sun Yat Sen, and columns of inspirational calligraphy mingle on the walls with paintings of ocean sunsets and Laura Ashley prints.

In the kitchen, grandmother's soups have given way to ripe brie. Was I the only one who remembered that she used to gather garden snails in the backyard and stew them?

She was so Chinese, it seemed impossible that she'd been born in San Francisco and thus a native-born American citizen who happened to speak heavily accented English. This fact let my grandfather beat the alien land law by buying the land beneath Paperson in his wife’s name.

We sit down to catered lunch of rigorously multicultural California cuisine. Pita, teriyaki, salsa, maybe its an accident that nothing is Cantonese?

I twice approach my cousin Karen, who somehow keeps her shoulders and eyes pointed away from me as she chats on the couch with two other cousins. Maybe she doesn't want to ask about my mother, once her favorite aunt. After my dad died, her parents stopped speaking to us two years after an argument about real estate. Before then, I’d had dinner with Karen more than once without other family around. We’ve never discussed the rift, we’ve just never spoken or even seen one another since.

For two years after my Grandmother died, my parents and I moved back to my grandparents’ house to look after my Grandfather as her last wish. I was fourteen. There had always been arguments within my father’s family, but after we moved in they got worse. Perhaps the rest of the family feared that my mother and father would have too much influence over my Grandfather. Perhaps my mother wasn’t enough of a diplomat to manage their fears. My Grandfather, at my aunts and uncles urging, blamed my mother. While I was gone, my parents were called to a family meeting in the basement and were asked to move out by one of my aunts on behalf of my grandfather.

For six years, my father and I came to this house for Christmas without my mom. The first two years, I would try to refuse to go without my mother, but it was my mother who always insisted. “It doesn’t concern you. You need to keep your relationship with your grandfather,” she would tell me. “He’s paying for your school. You have to respect that. This is your educastion.”

I sit alone on the one step drop that sets off the living room from the entry room until my cousinMelvin, now close to sixty and white-haired fills the space between my other cousins and myself by sitting down in the middle of the step. It wasMelvin who had to move out after we moved in here. He was twenty four at the time.
In seconds, he tells me, "I was grandmother's favorite, you were grandfather's. No one acknowledged Kenny, so he was always angry. The family was dysfunctional. "

This is the first time, it’s ever occurred to me that Kenny wasn't just mean to me back then. It’s also the longest conversation I’ve ever had with my oldest cousin Melvin.

Another cousin takes digital pictures, promising to e-mail copies.

The lunch over, we pose for one last picture, all of us our parents' age when the family last gathered.

In what is now the purple-painted room, my grandfather used to make us bow three times before photos of our great grandparents. The gunpowder flash rendered their one surviving image somber and anciently oriental.

We promise to get together again with wives and children the next time. Someone suggests that by then we can celebrate the closing of the estate. Twenty seven years after our grandfather’s death, the surviving aunts and uncles still can’t agree on a distribution plan.

Kenny offers to host us in the house he is having built with view of Angel Island in Tiburon, “It’s going to be thirty five hundred square feet but just two bedrooms, because we decided not to have children. The real estate people say we’re crazy, but I’d rather have the space for my cars and toys than bedrooms we won’t be using.”

I almost say something about our grandparent’s house being exactly thirty five hundred square feet with its six bedrooms, but stop myself. Instead, I find myself saying,”Sure, just let us know and I’ll get my family there.”

My grandfather built the house so well that these plaster walls will last another two generations. He dreamt that all his sons would live with their children in this compound just the way they would have in Guangdong province.

Other fiction on this site

link to a bed and breakfast spa in an old Chinese house in the Sacramento area

another link to same inn

Please Note, the Inn at Parkside is considerably more tasteful than the bed and breakfast described in this story. They are not the same place.

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Monday, July 24, 2006

I'll have the Philly Cheese Steak with Hummus and Miso Soup

We spent the last morning of our vacation in Wilmington, North Carolina which is both Michael Jordan’s home town and the site of the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 .  The old town section is very scenic with the river and a row of pre-civil war red brick buildings.  Like many families, it’s sometimes hard for us to agree on where to go to lunch because we often have very different taste in food.  We happened into a place called   Nikki's Gourmet  on Front Street which turned out to be one of the more eccentrically eclectic restaurants I’ve ever seen.  

If it weren’t for the name, Nikki’s would look mostly like a sushi bar.  There’s Japanese writing on the windows, a yellow sandwich board out front announces the specials, and one can see the glass-fronted sushi counter complete with two sushi chefs in robes from the street.  The menu, however, not only included kobe beef (very Japanese), but cheese steaks, hummus, and french fries.   The sushi chefs looked to be Japanese and the wait staff was largely white.  Behind the sushi counter, there was a second kitchen where I assume they prepared the non-Japanese food that appeared to be a mixture of middle-eastern style vegetarian and fast food.  The staff in that kitchen looked Latino. One of the many signs that blogging has changed me was that once I began to comprehend how weird the cultural mix of philly cheese steaks and sushi was my first thought was that I should send a picture of the place to Inkyhack  at Teriyaki Donuts.  

Actually, I even started to ask myself the mindbloggingly ethical question, “Is it okay for me to post something about one of these places since this kind of cross-cultural commercial curiousity is Inkyhack’s thing?”

Since I have no morals, I decided that Inkyhack specializes in finding these places when they’re along Highway 99 in California, the road that defines the unglamorous agricultural backbone of the state. In the last 150 years, a variety of ethnic groups have provided cheap labor for California farms.  As groups like the Italians, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Fillipinos, Portugese, Armenians, Hindus, Sikhs,  and Steinbeck’s dust bowl refugees, moved upwards and outwards, many of them opened small businesses that were bought from members of the predecessor groups.  One result is that the flat expanses and drab architecture of highway 99 are culturally much more complex once you take a closer look.  

If you look closely at Luke Skywalker’s home planet in the Star Wars trilogy, you’ll find that it’s a stylized science fiction version of Modesto ( I call it “Ralston” when I write about it) with a drab outer shell covering over an exotic mix of cultures and peoples with vague memories of lost forms of magic and power.

Back at Nikki’s and Wilmington, the four of us wound up taking full advantage of the multi-continent menu.  I had sushi, my wife had a salad topped with seared tuna (more California cuisine than Japanese since they cooked the tuna ever so slightly), one daughter had a smoked chicken wrap with fries, and the other had hummus and falafel.  Usually when you get these mixed-cuisine restaurants something suffers.  It’s generally not as bad as those places that mix chow mein with glazed donuts and the oil from the two begins crossing in your nostrils, but the dishes lose their basic character.  

For example, most Mexican food in North Carolina is pretty horrifying because they like to fry things in batter (imagine refried beans taken very literally).  I also remember a Hindu friend who was working in Silcon Valley complaining that California Chinese food didn’t have any curry in it the way it did in Bombay.  Sometimes food inter-marriage works very well.  For instance spaghetti may have Chinese roots and biryani  isn’t as “Indian” as most people think.  New Orleans food, Vietnamese, and Thai are all culturally eclectic cuisines that took on an identity of their own over time. Still, the one good thing about ghettoes tends to be that it makes for much better ethnic food because there are fewer pressures to compromise the traditional ingredients and preparation.  It’s one of the reasons, I think Chicago may have the best everyday food in America.  

The really amazing thing about Nikki’s was that all the food was excellent.  My sushi rolls tasted Japanese, fwiw the majority of sushi bars in America are Korean just like a large percentage of “Chinese” restaurants are Southeast Asian though many Southeast Asians are ethnically Chinese.  There’s a similar thing with Italian restaurants run by Greeks and in a kind of worst case scenario we once made the mistake of eating at a “Thai” restaurant whose owners turned out to be Fillipino (my wife and I now predudge Thai restaurants on the basis of whether or not they have a photo of the king and queen on the wall somewhere as an assurance that it’s really Thai).  The falafel was almost as good as the Palestinian restaurant we used to love in Burlingame, the owners called it the “Olive Tree” and everything was designated as “Middle Eastern” with little specific mention of Palestine.  The chicken wrap and french fries tasted like first-rate Calvin Tirllin roadside food.  I asked the waitress how Nikki’s had come about, but sadly or maybe not so sadly she had no idea and just said, “I tell people that I work at a sushi bar.”

It’s probably demonstrably false, but I have this theory that this is what “peace” between cultures looks like.  Cultural understanding doesn’t necessarily come through the mind as much as it might be achieved through the stomach, touch, art, etc.  It can be a very gradual process carried out by ordinary working people not diplomats, trade agreements, and treaties.  In any case, it’s fascinating that a place like Nikki’s seems to be thriving in the restored waterfront area of Wilmington which is doing its best to evoke the ante-bellum town, one of the last Confederate ports to withstand Northern invasion.

I wish I knew how Nikki’s which is  gastronomic testimony to multi-cutural America come to be sitting in the midst of the city that was the site of an event that crossed a race-riot with a military coup in 1898?  (if you don’t want to trace the link, white supremacist’s seized control of the city in 1898 by killing at least 22 blacks and deposing the city’s elected Republican post-reconstruction leadership and simply taking over the city government by force. One interesting detail is that the White Supremacist Democrats of 1898 called themselves "Redshirts", just an odd detail given the current "red state-blue state" nomenclature)).   There’s some mention of this event in historic downtown Wilmington,but not a lot.  There’s also no mention that Michael Jordan’s father was murdered outside Wilmington in a carjacking.  Instead, the historical restoration consists of a horse-drawn trolley, river boat rides, and restored brick warehouses- American history as told by Disney and the Chamber of Commerce.  There is one fascinating symbol in Wilmington, one of the last bastions of the Confederacy.  The largest building in the historic district is a Federal Courthouse that dates to the Truman era, a sort of message about who won the war.

All at once, these mixed cultural messages inundated me.  There was the inevitability of cultural exchange embodied in our lunch.  There was the way we tend to prettify the past and conveniently neglect its tragic side for the sake of economic revival embodied in the reconstruction of downtown Wilmington.  Some would argue that Wilmington’s favorite son, Michael Jordan, is the personification of the emerging money first culture of tolerance and racial acceptance that tends to minimize the past and gloss over the imperfections of race issues in America’s present. In an earlier era, Jackie Robinson couldn’t get endorsements, but also insisted on being outspoken on civil rights matters.  
I don’t question that this is progress, yet it’s vaguely haunting as if the things they’re leaving behind might come back to bite the city in ways that it can’t yet imagine.  Can you leave behind the pain of the past without giving up some part of your national soul? If America is a place that constantly mixes cultures, what’s it mean to be American? What of our ethnic identities must we remember and retain?

Link to Alex Manly's editorial that may have helped set off the riot Manly was half black and half white. One of the central events of the Wilmington Insurrection was the destruction of Manly's printing press and the building that contained it-echoes of today's rhetoric against the "liberal" media.


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Friday, July 21, 2006

The Vultures of Life (Stem Cell Veto)

When I was a child, I remember a National Geographic article about a Buddhist sect so respectful of life that its members took care not to step on insects as they walked.  Like many people, I confess that I’ve not followed the stem cell controversy all that carefully except to note that the word “blastocyst” needs to be changed if those who see this as the frontier of the anti-abortion movement really want to romanticize embryonic cells as sentient life.  I have, however listened to the rhetoric around embryonic stem cell research and if you knew nothing else about these folk who were talking about the sanctity of life, you would assume that they lived the rest of their life like those Buddhist monks.  Obviously it would be more than a little weird to learn that those same Buddhist monks operated a slaughterhouse or that half of them were serial killers.  Most of us would ask, “What would be the point of worrying about accidentally stepping on ants if you so wantonly kill creatures who are clearly sentient and communicative?”

When the President vetoed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act last week, I wasn’t surprised from a political perspective.  I’m pretty sure that if part of his hardcore base insisted  that the stars and sun revolved around the earth, he would endorse legislation making it so.  I did read his veto statement though and found myself trying to apply some of what he says about the “culture of life”, which I interpret as protecting human life as long as you can fit it in a culture dish, to the rest of Administration policy.  For instance, could this really be the same people who are presiding over an invasion of Iraq where 100 civilians have died a day over the last two months?  Could it be the same Congress who overwhelmingly endorsed Israel’s right of self-defense to include killing 300 civilians?  Are these the same people who support the death penalty when DNA testing repeatedly reveals that we’ve executed more than a few people who were actually innocent?  

I wouldn’t call myself a practicing Buddhist, but their perspective at least makes some sense to me.  They talk about mindfulness, respect for life, and the interconnected web of cause and effect put into play by any of our choices.  When it comes to something like abortion, the Buddhists wouldn’t question the idea that a fetus is a potential life and certainly they would stress that we must take responsibility for all of our actions (both father and mother), but they also recognize that decisions about life aren’t simple.  One does not necessarily just draw a line and say “life begins here” and we must protect it at any cost.  The world and life is much more complicated than that since one must both respect life and respect the right and need of others to make mindful choices.  Interestingly, there’s almost no history of Buddhists starting wars.  

My issue with the whole stem cell debate in America is that there’s little to no perspective on how it fits in to the rest of our culture.  If we back off enough, we look less like a “culture of life” than “vultures of life”  (that may be an insult to vultures who do the ecosystem an enormous service).  Whether or not we defend embryonic stem cells has no impact on the bigger picture.  We live with and promote policies that actively disdain the value of life in any larger truer sense.  

Years ago, I also read a book (whose title escapes me) that argued that our notion of ourselves as a single sentient being is peculiar.  We walk around with any number of organisms living on or inside of us.  When we get a rash for instance, most of us think nothing of eradicating it with whatever means necessary because we tell ourselves that it’s our body.  As I’ve looked at the whole matter of embryonic stem cells, it’s clear to me that the philosophical and ethical questions are much more complex than either side has been willing to admit to.  But to worry about our society, our own body politic if you will and evaluating its “culture of life” at a microscopic level is deeply misguided.  

Most of America should understand by now that the current administration has permitted the deaths of thousands of people based on gross misrepresentation of the facts.  When seen from any sensible perspective, its talk about ethics around embryonic stem cell research and balancing the needs of science with a deep respect for life is really much closer to Hitler being a vegetarian than it is to Buddhist monks not stepping on insects.  


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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Betting on the Future

Carolina Beach is an old beach town in the midst of a real estate boom.  We’re renting the upper half of an older house on a narrow strip of land that fronts the ocean.  This particular beach runs for about two and a half miles and every third lot has sprouted a for sale sign.  The real estate lady who manages the place where we’re staying tells us that prices here have tripled in the last four year.  All the new construction is built on stilts and there appears to be a three story height limit on the waterfront.  It’s common to build duplexes and the newer duplexes are selling for 1.6 million dollars a unit.  Given the amount  and pace of the new construction, there’s no shortage of buyers. It’s also become impossible to see the ocean from the street.  To top it off, the vast majority of vehicles parking underneath the stilts happen to be SUVs.  

They do tell us not to turn the air conditioner below 73 degrees, but otherwise there appear to be a lot of people down here betting against both global warming and peak oil.  All the beach stores also sell way more Confederate flags than US flags. The other peculiarity is that during the day when the sun is out, most of the people on the beach are white.  After six, most of the people on the beach are black.  It probably has nothing to do with segregation and a lot to do with one set of people wanting to get tan and another trying to avoid it.  

The top of the strip includes an old Atlantic City section of arcades, stores selling fudge, and relatively inexpensive motels filled with people who don’t drive late model SUVs.  I’m not sure where these people will go on vacation once the developers complete the transformation of the beach front.  

A part of me wants to admire the optimism of the place.  Seven years ago, I remember seeing pictures of the effects of a hurricane off of Wilmington in which beachfront communities like this one wound up under several feet of water.   I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that some of the older homes that weren’t on stilts may have gotten cleared for these three story homes with elevators, granite counters, and tile floors.  Another part just wonders how the market manages to sustain these cycles in places like Carolina Beach.

Okay, I know I’m supposed to be out and about enjoying the sun and the ocean.  Healthy people don’t drive themselves to depression while on vacation in nice places.  Why am I thinking about war in the Middle East, Inconvenient Truths, and the replacement of coastland with strips of condominiae?  Maybe this trend of putting internet wireless in vacation homes ins’t such a good thing?  And why the heck did I bring my computer with me?

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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Baghdad Barada Nicto (The Day the Earth Stood Still revisited) -movie review

Last night, my wife and I stopped at a sub shop in Greenville, North Carolina.  We’re out here on vacation, but the first week has consisted of hanging out with our two older kids who live here.  The lady behind the counter at Ernie’s asked us with each order if we wanted the sandwich “All the way”, which apparently meant with lettuce, mayonnaise, peppers, onions, etc.  The basic meal there was an eight inch sub with an order of fries and a soda.  If you’re still hungry, the right-hand side of the Ernie’s counter is devoted to ice cream and milk shakes. At home, the most popular market is called “Whole Foods” which stands next to a vegetarian restaurant in the center of town.  A volleyball coach from Alabama came to our town once to look at a player and labeled it “Hippieville”.  We aren’t, but people tend to say things like that when they’re greeted by a sign proclaiming the place a “Nuclear Free Zone”.  I imagine this may have something to do with our kids moving to North Carolina.

At Ernie’s, there was a television on a high mount pointed towards the eight tables and it was turned to CNN.  Ironically, any time there’s a tv in a waiting area at home in Northern California, it seems to be tuned to Fox News.  I think it’s kind of a message from the traditional dairy and orchard types who once made up the town to those of us who moved there over the last twenty years and turned all the open space into wineries and the hardware and auto stores into spiritual bookstores and yoga studios.  For example, our town has a traditional feed store, it’s just that the place also sells Birkenstocks.  

CNN devoted the entire fifteen minutes of our sandwich wait to reports on Israel’s attempt to bomb Hezbollah out of Lebanon.  Every three minutes, instead of details about people dying or suffering, there’d either be an announcement that this new war in the Middle East was making the price of oil spiral upwards.  If you ask me, they should stop fooling with Ethanol and just make a car that runs on blood.  It’s clear that our ability to ensure an endlessly renewable supply of the latter is far more advanced than our capacity to develop alternative fuels.  

My wife and I then returned to our daughter’s apartment to consume our subs which were  good, but if they want to know where all the oil is going it’s in the eleven inch pepper steak sub done “All the Way” at Ernie’s.  Since nothing goes better with sub sandwiches than cable tv, we decided not to talk to each other and turned on the television instead though the kids didn’t want to watch either CNN or Fox News and we didn’t want to watch Parent Control or the Hills.

As it happened, TMC was showing the 1951 science fiction classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still.  I’d actually only seen it once when I was about ten years old and my cousins and I only really noticed the scenes with the jeeps careening around Dupont Circle with fifty caliber machine guns mounted on the back and that very cool robot, Gort with its built-in aimable microwave oven.  For about three weeks I tried to tell the vacuum cleaner and washing machine “Klaatu Barada Nicto”.  I have to confess though that as a kid I definitely didn’t “get” the movie in the way Robert Wise probably meant for more me to get it.

Watching  Michael Rennie-Patricia Neal in 2006, I was struck by how exotic the movie is.  For instance, it showed all these middle-class people living in a boarding house with Aunt Bea from the Andy Griffith Show as if that were perfectly normal.  No one in Aunt Bea’s boarding house is a recovering alcoholic, happens to be a serial killer, or wants to realize some sort of against all odds dream that the other boarders support in their own unique ways. Patricia Neal and her son live in two upstairs rooms and Klaatu stays right next door to them.  When Neal goes on a date with her boyfriend, she lets Klaatu whose known her all of a day look after the son while they’re gone.  Talk about your alien experiences ! Equally strange, I  lived for a year at Harvard and Columbia Road in D.C. which is roughly where Klaatu’s boarding house appeared to be (Adams Morgan changed a lot)

The message part of The Day the Earth Stood Still is that the earthlings of 1951 are paranoid, violent, and not especially good at math. I suspect the reason the movie achieved cult status in the sixties and seventies is that it came with a message that Earth’s nuclear arms race was crazy and primitive.  Into the early 1970’s, arms control during the Cold War meant both sides reducing their arsenals. If you look at old New Yorker cartoons, you’ll see that “Ban the Bomb” signs are a running backdrop throughout that period.  

In 2006, the movie has a different kind of resonance for me. Robert Wise’s movie is after all basically a story about weapons of mass destruction.  Klaatu travels the 250 million miles to earth with Gort to advertise his version of SDI.  Klaatu wants to tell the earthlings that their traveling from planet to planet with nuclear weapons is the galactic version of drunk driving.  In the meantime, Klaatu’s UFOing around with Gort who charming a robot as he/she is happens to be a weapon of mass destruction that can single-cybernetically-handedly raise the earth’s temperature far faster than Al Gort ever dreamed possible.  Klaatu gets to police the galaxy with his WMD because somehow they are more advanced and more responsible.  If some primitive rogue planet like earth gets WMD, then Klaatu lets them know that he will preemptively blow them up for the sake of keeping the galaxy safe.

As I was sitting in my stepdaughter’s living room telling myself that the U.S. of 2006 is really an even less advanced version of the earthlings of 1951, it suddenly struck me that Donald Rumsfeld must see himself as Klaatu.  As the lone nuclear superpower, the U.S. seems to have taken on the duty of roaming the earth in Klaatu-like fashion telling rogue nations and terrorist groups with WMD to give them up to us immediately or we will blow you up.  In the movie, the viewer is supposed to get the fact that Michael Rennie is indeed the product of a superior civilization and it’s therefore okay for him to have a Gort  but it’s not okay for anyone else.  At the moment though, I think the rest of the world seems to see the U.S. as some guy in a boarding house who’s putting the make on Patricia Neal by creepily befriending her son.  Of course, Klaatu didn’t torture anyone or rape a young girl then kill her family which really is creepy.

Should there be a remake, there are some issues.  In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Michael Rennie explains that no individual planet controls Gort.  It is the robots who implement the weapons of planetary destruction when necessary and without human interference.  Clearly Robert Wise did not anticipate either Bill Gates or Microsoft’s Operating System issues.  Could you imagine doing that today and having Gort disabled by adware or spam instead of a block of plexiglass?  Second, the movie actually appears to take scientists seriously as a source of wisdom and hope.  Sam Jaffe who wound up on Ben Casey a decade later does mention that the people of his day don’t listen to scientists, but if anyone did the remake now we’d know that scientific consensus is just one “opinion” when it comes to complex questions like the effect of human industrial activity on the earth’s temperature.  After all, the earth is billions of years old and it’s survived lots of calamities.  Of course, many of them were without human beings, but what’s the big deal and scientists are wrong some times? Also, in the original they simply lock Klaatu’s door and don’t monitor the room and they send two soldiers to guard the alien spaceship and Gort.  Okay, while I’m at it.  What kind of advanced aliens would decorate the whole interior of a spaceship with venetian blinds?  Today, they’d send in the guys from Queer Eye for the Straight Alien to do some sort of Extreme Spaceship Makeover before the guy gets resurrected and goes home.

The bigger issue to me is that Klaatu, for an advanced being, seems to have little appreciation for psychology.  He comes to a strange planet and says “Hey I’m here, bring me all your leaders who never get along anyway and I’m going to sit them down and talk some sense to them.” (kind of like an outer space version of Dr. Phil)

He’s very disappointed when they don’t jump to it, as if it’s not sort of a shock to have a flying saucer land in the middle of the Capitol Mall.  The whole movie, he has this pained “What’s the matter with these moron earthlings that they don’t understand freedom and democracy" look?  Why do they just want to blow each other up instead?”

After a five month trip there, Klaatu also decides to give the humans all of three days to get all this figured out or he’s going to blow them up.  Clearly, the humans in this movie were more than three days from building the Starship Enterprise.  I mean George Lucas was reading comic books in Modesto and dreaming about Fiat Bianchinis not Tye Fighters.  Finally, Klaatu thinks he can scare the humans by letting them know that he can make all their cars stop running and their electricity stop working as if he were Enron scamming California.  In the modern version he’d shut down their servers or turn off their televisions or maybe shut off all the credit card verification machines instead of making y2k-like threats.  

It’s weird how real life people playing at being Klaatu changed the way I responded to this movie.  When I was a kid, I never dreamt that I’d be rooting for Klaatu to just declare victory and go home. It's one thing to ruin the Constitution, the econonmy, and the Middle East, but wrecking my ability to just enjoy old childhood science fiction fantasies-that's going too far.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Ron Suskind-The One Percent Doctrine (book review)

When I first saw the title of Ron Suskind’s One Percent Doctrine, I immediately thought of Nicholas Meyer’s Seven Percent Solution, a book and movie about Sherlock Holmes seeking help with his addiction to cocaine from Sigmund Freud.  Suskind’s book, of course, has nothing to do with either Holmes or Freud and everything to do with America’s surprisingly perverse tactics in the “war on terror”.  Suskind’s One Percent Doctrine is a theory of action advanced by President Cheney or as the CIA sources for the book call him “Edgar” (Edgar Bergen was the last celebrity ventriloquist whose dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd became household names) that even a one percent chance of danger from terrorism justifies a full-force response.  There is no suggestion that Suskind meant in any way to evoke Meyer’s book, but the dichotomy in the Seven Percent Solution of the deductive-methodical Holmes possessed by the paranoia inducing demon of cocaine proves a remarkably apt metaphor.  Suskind’s describe the shift from a reality-based and policy driven American intelligence community to a Bush administration that sets policy without reference to and often despite the facts.   While Meyer’s book was an effective mystery-thriller, Suskind’s scares me much more because it’s not fiction.

As often happens with exposes, the naughtier bits of Suskind’s book have already hit the media.  These include,
  1. Bush telling his August 6, 2001 CIA briefer who warned him that Bin Laden was about to attack the United States, “Well, now you’ve covered your ass.”

  2. The capture and subsequent torture of Zubaydah, a man that the administration first ballyhoos as Al Qaeda’s third in command who turns out to be a mentally disabled “operations manager” in the organization with no tactical responsibility. In Suskind’s anecdotes, it’s strongly implied that the President and Vice-President were both aware of and at least tacitly approved torture as a tactic.  Torture includes practices like “waterboarding” and the use of death threats against innocent family members.  The administration continues to toutZubaydah’s alleged  status as an Al Qaeda higher up and even more disturbingly continues to torture the man well after it becomes obvious that he is both mentally disabled and just a functionary.

  1. The role of Western Union and other communications companies in state-sponsored information harvesting missions that ignored both the fourth amendment and FISA.  (so much for the New York Times exposing critical secrets in the War on Terror)

  2. The deliberate attempt to mislead Americans about the dangers actually posed by Saddam and Iraq.

  3. The misrepresentation of Libya’s giving up its weapons program as a successful consequence of the invasion of Iraq

  4. The failure to capture Bin Laden at Tora Bora

  5. The fact that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, allies in the War on Terror, pose much more significant terror threats than Iraq ever did.

  6. Donald Rumsfeld’s near vendetta with the CIA that dates back to the 1970’s and the appointment of George H W Bush as CIA director.

  7. The distant relationship between Bush Potus 43 and Bush Potus 45

  8. The  disastrous impact of Porter Goss’s tenure as head of the CIA.

Until shortly before 9/11, Suskind was the National Affairs reporter for that radical publication, the Wall Street Journal.  His outlook is in many ways conservative in the traditional sense in much the same way that Paul O’neill, the subject of his earlier book The Price of Loyalty, is at heart deeply conservative.  He actually appears to support two major premises of the Adminsitration’s post-9/11 policy.  First, Suskind offers a number of stories to support the belief that the danger of terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction is very real.  Second, he does seem to endorse the notion that this means that new measures are necessary for these new types of dangers.

Susskind’s split with the radicals in conservative clothing who control Bush Administration foreign policy, however, is  profound and goes to the heart of what’s missing both from most public policy debate and the blogosphere.  Suskind’s book lays out two story lines about real weapons of mass destruction.  One is a nuclear weapons technology trading ring run out of Pakistan that has supplied critical parts for uranium enrichment and other technologies both to stateless terrorists and states like North Korea and Iran.  Second, he documents one extremely scary story line about Al Qaeda’s growing capacity to distill and dispense nerve gas through something known as the “mubtakkar”, a kind of holy grail of terrorism.  In the book, Suskind discusses a poison gas attack on New York’s subways that was mysteriously called off just as American authorities were about to close in.  Suskind makes it clear that both technologies have already escaped Pandora’s box.  He states at least four times that fully protecting the United States and its citizens from another attack on the scale of 9/11 is now a logistical impossibility.

If one imagines America’s struggle with terrorists as a lone human confronted by a pack of wild dogs (please forgive the value judgments implicit in this metaphor), conventional or reality-based wisdom would suggest that the human focus his/her attention on the members of the pack who can actually hurt you.  According to Suskind, the Cheneyites instead chose a strategy that is part Pavlov and part bad prison movie.  According to the One Percent Doctrine, one can and should use all of one’s resources to do whatever is necessary against any dog in the pack who even might be dangerous, e.g. any dog with teeth of any kind.  Second, the Cheneyites decided to largely ignore the truly dangerous vicious dogs in the pack in favor of one they figured they could beat up easily, Saddam and Iraq.

According to Suskind, it didn’t matter that Saddam was no serious threat to either the United States or world order, President Cheney chose Iraq as an object lesson to show that the United States’s willingness to beat up and subdue a dog in the pack with the expectation that this demonstration would intimidate the other dogs into backing off (to be clear, the dog metaphor isn’t Susskind’s, it’s my take on his description of the Administration’s Iraq rationale).  The strategy is not entirely insane.  It does seem to work at the beginning of prison movies when the sadistic guards pick on the weak members of the block to keep the others in line.  Of course in the movies, the prisoners are inspired to action and galvanized by the prison guard’s cruelty and eventually work together to subdue the guard despite their logistical and technical disadvantage, something oddly reminiscent of the realities of flypaper.

Of course, the most frightening thing about the strategy of “set an example” is the fact that it’s a very high risk gamble.  First it can harden the resolve of the healthy dogs in the pack as in the prison guard movie. In the movies, someone always comes along who isn’t intimidated by the tactic. Second, if the weak dog you choose to set your example with happens to put up an unexpectedly good fight, you wind up exposed and actually emboldening the stronger dogs (think North Korea and Iran).  Third, it allows the truly dangerous members of the pack to both observe how you fight and to slip behind you while you are otherwise occupied.

Susskind mostly settles for simply reporting this high-risk strategy.  One weakness of the book is that he doesn’t expand on the very obvious cost of President Cheney’s One Percent Doctrine in action.  Bottom line, it’s meant that some sixty thousand people have died including 2,600 American soldiers, a couple hundred American contractors who would have been soldiers in any other war, and hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on essentially making the other dogs in the pack stronger. It’s a bit frustrating to read Suskind because he takes great care to come off as a “reporter”, yet he doesn’t footnote and is careful about attribution because so many of his sources were necessarily confidential.  In addition, at least to me, his old school journalist take on the material often comes at the expense of appreciating the fact that any thinking-feeling individual would have very strong feelings about much of what he reveals.  This, of course, is an ideal of traditional journalism, but it remains one of its limitations.  When one reports the horrific, you can give it a sense of banality by reporting it as if it’s not supposed to be offensive.

Suskind also paints a portrait of the President that splits the difference between Bob Woodward’s engaged even probing chief executive and Richard Clarke’s few strokes of a man who is simply uninterested in Al Qaeda until after 9/11.  Suskind’s W is not so much “disengaged” as many on the left tend to demonize him as much as he is “misengaged”.  Suskind presents President Bush as an action-addict, an executive who wants a sense of things being done almost without reference to underlying policy or strategy.  In a sense, Suskind’s W is a kind of Joe Friday Presidency or if you’re a bit younger CSI.  He wants to catch bad guys and encourage those who are in the front lines of the action, but he never questions whether we’re chasing the right bad guys or even where they’re coming from.

Suskind’s Bush has little to no appreciation of or appetitie for nuance or strategy.  Those below him determine  how much he gets to know (Susskind does point out that this is always somewhat the case) and largely dictate the major policy choices (not generally the case).  The President in the One Percent Doctrine is little more than the head cheerleader.  The paradox, of course, is that he makes clear that the Bush administration’s secrecy and lack of concern for the first and fourth amendment have made it the most powerful administration in American history run by an executive who completely lacks the necessaries for executive decision making.  

For me, the most revealing anecdote in the book about the President didn’t come from the past five years but from W’s time at Harvard Biz.  Susskind tells the story of W’s sportsmanship or lack of it in an intramural basketball game between first years and second years there.  Not certain that he can win by making baskets or playing defense, Bush takes to simply and viciously punching his opponent.  In other words, the only thing that mattered to him was winning and a very narrowly-defined kind of winning at that.  The young W was willing to be ruthless to win what was from anyone’s perspective a Gentleman’s game in which the score or even the nominal winner hardly mattered.  While Suskind doesn’t return to the story, he does reserve what little commentary he offers in his book with a discussion of the classic choice between ends and means.

At a policy level, this country deserves to be having a very serious debate about what means are appropriate for the champions of both democracy and civilization against an opponent who doesn’t play by “civilized” rules.  This is the dilemma made story in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that was later transposed, most say less artfully,  to Vietnam and Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now”.  The One Percent Doctrine poses the provocative question “Can one protect America by transforming oneself into a nation that it is essentially un-American, unconstitutional, undemocratic, and as amoral as its enemies?”

Suskind suggests that Cheney in particular has worked for thirty years to undo the erosion of executive power post Watergate and Vietnam by essentially repeating Nixon and LBJ’s executive strategies but simply doing it better i.e. not getting caught this time around.   In addition, Cheney and Rumsfeld first came to power in the 70’s by taking on the George Kennan-inspired policy of watchful accommodation that served as the heart of Nixon-Kissinger’s approach to détente with the Soviets and Chinese, a foreign policy that enjoyed bipartisan support just before the cleavage of Watergate.  During the Ford administration, Rumsfeld revived the Soviet threat by essentially doctoring the available information on Soviet weapons development.  In other words, the One Percent Doctrine is not a new idea for Cheney-Rumsefeld.  Suskind alludes to this history, but doesn’t work it back into his narrative.

Because he resists editorial comment, I think this is one area where Susskind falls short.  He leaves too much room for the reader to cast the Administration’s major players, the president not necessarily being one of them, as honorable individuals with a bad strategy.  That’s not necessarily what comes across here.  There’s too much in the evidence assembled by Suskind to suggest that the Administration isn’t interested in protecting America and Americans as much as it’s simply interested in getting and keeping power.  It is much like W being willing to do anything it took to win a recreational basketball game.  Cheney et. al. ignore the facts because they are more interested in defending their own policy than actually defending either America or Americans.  The picture that jumped out of me was that of a group that is treasonous in the deepest sense of the word in the way they subvert what America is not to protect America, but to protect themselves and their base of power.  It is what happens when one fights a pack of dogs by becoming the meanest dog in the room.  Even if you win the fight, at the end you are nothing but just another vicious dog now bereft of any humanity (though my dogs would tell me I have that one backwards).

Of the books that I have read on the War on Terror, I consider Suskind’s book the most important because it documents both what is wrong and how we got there.  Susskind’s version is unusual in that the CIA under Tenet (likely a major source for the book) comes off as surprisingly effective in the initial war on terror.  He, in fact, makes a convincing case for the CIA’s effectiveness with several stories about the early use of financial information to track terrorist networks, a fake storefront bank in Pakistan, and the development of human intelligence resources in the Arab world from 2001-2003.  He makes a less persuasive case for his tragic hero, George Tenet, and struggles with Tenet’s now infamous “slam dunk” comment that he supposedly used to characterize the case for WMDs in Iraq.  Susskind suggests that Tenent doesn’t remember saying it and implies that Tenet may have been referring to selling the case to the American public rather than the quality of the evidence itself.  At the end of the One Percent Solution, as the book shows the last of the effective CIA terrorism experts leaving the agency in the wake of the “loyalty-first” regime of Porter Goss, I felt the ominous inevitability that the worse is yet to come in the War on Terror, because we have an administration that cares more about how things “sell” than what’s actually being done.

More than ever, I hope November 2006 and 2008 sees the 51% doctrine in action and we take steps to restore our Democracy and find leaders genuinely interested in protecting us.

Chancelucky: America's Secret War (book review)

GAO Report ont the Administration's strategy


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Saturday, July 08, 2006

Limpbaugh in a Blue State (Limbaugh legal problem)

Now that they’ve confiscated his viagra, Rush Limpbaugh must be relieved that he won't  be having to do hard time for failing to have his own name on his prescription.  With Bob Dole and Rafael Palmeiro both having endorsed the drug and now Rush being caught with it, there appear to be a lot of Republican males who are in a blue state in more ways than I’d imagined.  It does bring me back to the sixties when people used to walk around with signs and buttons that said “Make love not war.” Apparently, you have to choose one.   

When the Limpbaugh story broke, a number of folk got very excited about the fact that he’d violated his “probation”.  To be clear, the mostly deaf talk radio guy (btw this is a common side effect of Oxycontin abuse) wasn’t placed on probation two months ago.  He had a deal with the prosecutor that meant that he wouldn’t get charged with doctor shopping if he submitted to regular drug testing and didn’t carry firearms.  I do appear to be the only blogger who did take a look at the side effects of Oxycontin, the drug Limpbaugh had been collecting and did find out that impotence is one of the side effects.  Before anyone gets excited though, it’s listed as a  rare side effect though so is "ringing in the ears"..  

A number of people did speculate why Limpbaugh, who is divorced multiple times and not currently linked with anyone, was flying to the Dominican Republic with a bottle of unprescribed Viagra.  He was caught with 20 of the pills on his way back, none of the stories I saw indicated how many pills started in the bottle.  Second, the Orlando Sentinel story refers to three other people on his private jet which makes the romantic weekend down there much more unlikely.  I know that Limpbaugh has personally defended the sanctity of marriage and I assume he doesn’t believe in pre-marital sex, so I assume that he was going into his blue state to entertain himself.  It does make perfect sense to me.  If someone were being intimate with Limpbaugh, that individual would need some help.  I assume that Jocelyn Elders was not one of the three people on that private jet.

Some point out that Limpbaugh has received the same treatment from the law that anyone who wasn’t a famous hypocrite would have gotten on a first offense.   I suspect that this is true.  I’ve personally always been surprised at what prosecutors won’t charge.  One time my wife’s car was stolen and the thief was caught driving it up the coast two days later.  They never charged him with theft supposedly because no one saw him actually steal the car.  Another friend of mine had a stranger in a road rage incident throw hot coffee at him.  The police didn’t charge in that matter either because he didn’t have to go to the hospital.  I told him that had the woman bought the coffee at McDonald’s, he would have had a better case.  

I do, however, wonder if the standard for someone like Limpbaugh really should be “What any petty criminal, small time drug addict, should get”. He does, after all, hold himself out as the voice of princple and reason.  I’m not saying that he should have to go to prison.  I am wondering, however, what he’s still doing on the radio.  In the same vein, I was also wondering how Ken Lay had a heart attack in his Colorado vacation home after being convicted.  Somehow, it seems Limpbaugh insisted on all his own Constitutional rights when he was the one in trouble.  Does anyone wonder how close Limpbaugh’s private jet came to flying over Guantanomo on his way back to Florida from the Dominican?

In the end, I’m left with this really odd thought.  Rush got his Viagra prescription put in his Doctor’s name because he wanted sexual privacy while wandering the Dominican for a weekend?  Isn’t he the same guy who’s been arguing in abortion matters that sexual privacy isn’t a compelling argument or right?  Isn’t this the same guy who argues that privacy must give way to the government’s right to prevent terrorism?  Limpbaugh may have just taken the lead from Anne Coulter in the race to be  this generation’s  Roy Cohn.


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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Access to and Axis of Evil (North Korea and Ike)

On January 29, 2002, President Bush identified the “Axis of Evil” in his State of the Union speech . It was three and a half months after 9/11 and the President identified three members of the axis, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.  According to the President, these nations “sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction.”

The President promised the following,”We will work closely with our coalition to deny terrorists and their state sponsors the materials, technology, and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction.”

More than four years later, the North Koreans tested a series of missiles.  In the meantime, Iran elected a regime that was even more confrontational with the United States and prepares to be moving ahead with its plans to enhance its capacity to enrich uranium which may be used in reactors, but also could be used to develop nuclear weapons.  Iraq, on the other hand, is well on its way to democracy.  In fact, U.S. policy has been so effective there that no one has found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq since 2002 or any significant ties between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.  There is the small matter of all those insurgents, but it seems that they aren’t planting IEDs in the United States yet.  How are we doing with that “Axis of Evil?” and dare I ask exactly what did the administration really do in the last four years about what it identified as its priority?

In the last two or three centuries, war changed.  At one time, a nation’s capacity for war was a direct function of the size of its armies and the quality of its military leadership. Starting sometime between Napoleon and the American Civil War, victory began to depend on industrial prowess.  The country that could keep its factories intact inevitably won the war.  At the end of World War 2 largely because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many began to argue that scientists and engineers would be the key to victory in future wars.  Post-World War 2 conflicts like Vietnam and Afghanistan (against the Soviets) have certainly made the case that there’s more to winning a war than manufacturing and science, but there’s no denying that the latter two will play major roles in the United States’s capacity to maintain military dominance in the world (assuming that’s a desirable thing).  

I know I’m distinctly in the minority, but Ken Lay’s death this morning reminds me that the real axis of evil threatening the United States isn’t necessarily Pyonyang or Tehran. Corporate criminals like Lay are arguably a more serious security threat to this country than missile tests in foreign nations.  Fifty years ago, perhaps because it was the middle of the cold war, the Eisenhower administration sold the completion of the Federal Insterstate Highway system as a defense measure.  Eisenhower, the last president who really had a significant career as a military leader, understood that modern Defense was about “infrastructure”.  The American response to Sputnik with its prospect of Soviet warheads dropping from space wasn’t just to launch our own satellites.  America also responded to Sputnik with a sizeable investment in schools and science and math research and education.

Certainly, under Eisenhower, the American defense establishment expanded and we began a nuclear arms race that remains one of the most terrifying periods in world history.  Still, at the end of Eisenhower’s terms, it was the Democrats who were complaining about a “missile gap” with the Soviets.  Eisenhower himself used his farewell address to warn about the growing link between big industry and the defense establishment, now called the “military-industrial complex”.  This is what that liberal, Ike, had to say about it in that speech,

“Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society's future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow. Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”

It’s worth noting that Eisenhower,who had more direct experience with war than any other American president in the 20th century, was speaking at the height of the Cold War, yet when he identified his “Axis of Evil” suggested that we look within first.  We need to ask the following about the last four and half years.  Have we paid enough attention to our economic and scientific infrastructure to keep our nation’s defensive capacity intact?  Doesn’t preserving democracy and freedom start at home?

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