Sunday, April 30, 2006

"Thank You. Thank You Very Much."

Watched Bubba Hotep this afternoon. Best line from the film, spoken by Elvis himself: "I felt my pecker flutter once, like a pigeon having a heart attack."

Behold the power of the internet, my droogies. Some of my prized pieces of clothing have been cursed with unremovable lint and animal hair. No matter how often I have washed them, how many sheets of anti-cling this-or-that I employ, or what manner of drying I attempt, the lint just does not go away.

But a quick google search revealed this priceless piece of wisdom: to drastically reduce the amount of lint attached to your clothing, throw in half a cup of vinegar into the rinse cycle! Yes, I tried it today. It's magic!

Friday, April 28, 2006

Kaavya, We Barely Knew Thee

Remember, I said no more daily perv links! So, whatever you do, don't click here!

Let me tell you a story of a little upper-middle-class Indian-American girl named Kaavya Viswanathan. At the tender age of 17, Kaavya somehow managed to secure a 2 book deal with a New York publisher, worth $500,000! At that point, Kaavya had never written a book before, and didn't even have an idea for a novel. That's how pop books are created these days: potential authors are found for their marketability, "book packagers" work with the authors to develop a marketable story which matches the authors' innate marketability (in this case, pretty young ethnic girl with conservative family pressures wants to be cool and get into Harvard), and a piece of digestible pop-lit is produced.

In Kaavya's case, the book that was birthed was called How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got In, and is a bestseller with film rights already sold to Dreamworks. Her magical story is summarized here, and Kaavya is enjoying her sophomore year as yet another celebrity wunderkind at Harvard. Never one to dodge a bit of schadenfreude, I and my ilk were predictably a bit irked that Kaavya had been hand-fed and ushered into the kind of success that so many of us struggling authors toil for decades to achieve. (I still have knuckle pains from so many teenage nights sitting up in my parents' unheated basement, knacking away on the ancient manual typewriter.)

But, oh, my friends, the story does not end there. This week, several varieties of feces hit several models of fans. The best summary of the controversy is presented by the Harvard Crimson, which reports that Kaavya's book has something on the order of 40 "similar'' if not identical passages to two novels by accomplished youth author
Megan McCafferty, whose books Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings are quite popular among girls Kaavya's age. And sure enough, after much delay, Kaavya has admitted that she is a fan of McCafferty's books, and issued an email response, which included the passage:
"I am a huge fan of [McCafferty's] work and can honestly say that any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious."
Slate has an interesting summary of the trend of plagiarism. Apparently, McCafferty's publisher has rejected the erstwhile apology and is rightfully seeking legal damages. As Slate so poingantly put it, "if you succeed by packaging, you can expect to fail by packaging, too—and you alone, not your packagers, will pay the price." Indeed, some experts are saying that Kaavya may surive the suit from McCafferty, but lose one from her own publisher, who would be in their rights to demand repayment.

Yes, we of the author ilk can now celebrate that at least one over-inflated fake writer has been brought down.... sort of. But I do have some sympathy for Kaavya. She was a teenager clearly in over her head, under a lot of pressure from a "book packager" to produce something she just assumed she could create (that a lot of people assume they can create, without realizing just how difficult it is to do).

And there's an element of the modern education system at work here, too. High schools today give lip service to the threat of plagiarism; the typical penalty for plagiarized work is.... nothing. Moreover, increasingly, high school and university level "research" consists of cobbled together citations of greater works, with minimal innovation or original content. Call it the "blogification" of academia and literature. In these ways, Kaavya's transgression is merely a symptom of a deeper scar on society.

But she's not off the hook. Not by a long shot. She's an adult, albeit a fresh one, and so is responsible for the consequences of her actions. (Mind you, I won't be surprised if she still ends up making millions off of the movie deal.) Of course, the question remains, was her transgression a conscious one? Non-writers may ask, how is it possible to plagiarize unconsciously? Well, I too was accused of plagiarism once. Gather 'round as I tell the tale, chil'un...

Back in the late 80s, before I'd had any real success as a fiction writer, I was eager to earn my chops in the litmag circuit, that arena of high literature in which all the truly great fiction writers prove themselves before venturing into the world of book publishing. I'd had one or two stories published at that point, and was really enjoying exploring daring ideas on paper. One summer, I wrote what I thought was my finest story to date, a tale about a Latin American barber being coerced to slit the throat of a dictator who was sitting in his barber chair. Titled, "Wizard With A Straight Blade", the story was immediately accepted by The U.C. Review, one of the University of Toronto's many respected litmags.

Some weeks later, I received an angry letter from the editors, copied to editors of other leading magazines in the city, accusing me of stealing the story from an established Latin American writer, whose photocopied story they enclosed. Sure enough, the narratives were almost identical, though I still think my words were better and more thought-provoking. I do not recall ever having read that story before (the original was in Spanish, after all), nor had I then even heard of the author. It is entirely possible, though, that someone had once told me its gist, and it thus percolated to my subconscious, eventually emerging from my pen; the artistic process is a mysterious one.

So was I guilty of plagiarism? We'll never know. I certainly bristled at the accusation, and fired off several unanswered letters of defence and complaint. But the fact remains that it remains a possibility that I indeed unconsciously plagiarized a story I had heard told to me sometime in the unidentifiable past.

But Kaavya's situation is a bit different. So many passages using the same words, the same scenarios, are far too much for unconscious regurgitation alone. Or maybe they aren't. I really can't say. I will say this, though: it is very clear indeed that Kaavya does not have it in her to produce a work of sufficient originality to be considered a literary novel. Most people don't. She should give back the money, or give it to charity, and do what she always wanted to do, be an investment banker. That way she can buy and sell all the authors she wants.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


Congratulations and good luck to my grade 9 English teacher (now retired), Harold Lass, who tomorrow leaves his comfy Toronto digs for the Mt Everest base camp! I tried to get him to send dispatches from Everest, but he'll be too busy (and too disconnected) to do so. Alas.

Thanks to Kamal V. for sending us this story about bra sizes in China getting bigger. As the article suggests, the increased Chinese bust size is likely due to improved nutrition in the wake of China's economic explosion. Now, I've actually been noticing for some time that North American bust sizes, as well, have been increasing steadily over the past 2-3 decades (if not longer). My epidemiologist's brain lands upon four possibilities:
  1. The observation is the result of fashion evolution (e.g, the push-up bra)
  2. It's due to breast augmentation surgery being more popular
  3. My observation is incorrect (it is anecdote, after all, and not necessarily data)
  4. Natural bust sizes really are getting larger
If indeed #4 is the case, then I can think of four explanations:
  1. The well known North American obesity epidemic is causing greater fat deposits on women's chests. (See this update on American fat stats for a kick in the pants.)
  2. Earlier and more prevalent use of the contraceptive pill has altered women's hormonal balance in favour of increased bustitude
  3. The oft theorized "feminization" of society, due to the breakdown of plastic waste into estrogen-like compounds, is responsible for the amplified tittification, as well as for the seemingly increased prevalence of male impotence and infertility
  4. Due to immigration, the ethnic make-up of North American society is changing, resulting in the greater genetic influence of big-boobied peoples, both male and female
I'm not alone with these observations, nor with these theories. This Australian website mirrors my thoughts. Some of the objective data comes from bra size statistics, which show that proportionally more women are buying larger bras. But this letter suggests that part of that anomaly has to do with women finally being fitted properly for bras, thus correcting for an earlier small breast bias in the data.

On another topic... For those interested, there's a petition out to convince the folks in Sweden to give the Nobel Peace Prize to Stephen Lewis. I can think of few more deserving his year.

I leave you with a cartoon forwarded to me by Nasty Nick:

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Wild Yogis

Voicemail waiting for me in my office this morning from a friend: "Hey. Buddy. Your long national nightmare is over. Sitting in my desk as we speak is a copy of.... The Wild Geese." Good start to a day, no? So let's continue with the joy.

Yoga, India style (read the circled print):

Yoga, Alabama style:

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

How Do I Know He's Lying? His Lips Are Moving.

How did I miss this?
George Bush considered provoking a war with Saddam Hussein's regime by flying a United States spyplane over Iraq bearing UN colours, enticing the Iraqis to take a shot at it, according to a leaked memorandum of a meeting between the US President and Tony Blair.

The two leaders were worried by the lack of hard evidence that Saddam Hussein had broken UN resolutions, though they were privately convinced that he had. According to the memorandum, Mr Bush said: "The US was thinking of flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colours. If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach."

Mamamia! The Bush apologists get all feisty whenever someone makes an apt comparison between their favourite monkey boy and that finest archetype of totalitarian evil, Adolph Hitler. But this incident is just one more nasty parallel. Few people today know that Nazis sold their invasion of Poland to the German citizens as defence against expected Polish aggression. In fact, the Nazis had created "Operation Himmler," which was a propagandist campaign to create such an illusion. The centrepiece of Operation Himmler was the co-called "Gleiwitz Incident," in which a fake attack against a German installation was falsely attributed to the Poles in order to stir up manufactured rage against Poland.

Unknown to most American citizens, the USA has a history of criminally manufacturing rationales for going to war. Most famous is the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which was the official reason for American military action in Vietnam, but which was very probably mostly fiction. Long before that, hawks already determined to go to war used the sinking of the USS Maine as a pretext to start the Spanish-American War, despite there being no convincing evidence that the Maine had been sunk by enemy forces. (This episode actually started the trend --and name-- of "yellow journalism".)

So maybe Bush is just following in the steps of American leaders of the past. Doesn't mean that we --and especially American citizens-- have to put up with it. Impeach the bastard already.

Monday, April 24, 2006

"Remember, Remember The Fifth of November..."

Just saw V For Vendetta. Excellent movie. A bit heavy handed at times, but it is saved by the superlative acting of Hugo Weaving, who deserves multiple awards for this performance, and by the dialogue, which is remarkably mature and compelling. Bring on Alan Moore's true masterpiece, Watchmen!

Also, today I attended my first boxing class. Unlearning 14 years of karate will take some time. The two arts are very, very different. I've tried Mhuay Thai kickboxing in the past, but that seemed less proscriptive than American-style boxing. So this adventure has become a bit of a quasi-scientific experiment: can more than a decade of muscle memory be overcome in a mere 7 weeks of new training? Or, more accurately, will Ray lose his gut in time for Trinidad at the end of May? Only time will tell...

In other news, the Guyanese government has asked Canada to assist in the investigation of this weekend's murders. Guyanese are good about putting their egos aside to learn from those who have more experience. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds, to see whether this was in fact a political assassination and not a simple home invasion.

The first link to the victims has been made known to me. The woman killed while hiding under the bed was the mother of a friend of a friend. I suspect closer relationships will manifest as the days progress....

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Dick Claus


This evening I attended a house party hosted by individuals who work in the Prime Minister's office. Of course, you can probably guess that I would largely not fit in, but that's irrelevant. I do, however, wish to share three observations:
  1. Not surprisingly, many individuals who were once part of the National Post are now involved in the daily activities of the ruling Conservative Party machine. The paper's right-leaning tendencies have always been obvious, but it has never been so clear to me that it is, for all intents and purposes, essentially an arm of the Conservative Party.

  2. Having attended similar parties in Washington, DC, hosted by Republican White House staffers, I have come to the conclusion that those of the Right in both countries bear remarkably similar physical, fashion and social characteristics. I won't specify what those characteristics are; you can make your own guesses.

  3. The Prime Minister's Office produces simply the cheapest and least impressive business cards I've ever seen. The things remind me of the home-made variety I used to churn out of my ink-jet printer in the early 90s. I suppose the case might be similar to that of paper degrees produced by impressive universities, like Cambridge, which are bland and decidedly unimpressive: the message is that, hey, it's the Prime Minister's Office, isn't that impressive enough? Can't argue with that.
Meanwhile, news from Guyana is that the Agriculture Minister of Guyana, Mr. Satyadeo Sawh, and some members of his family were murdered in a home invasion this weekend. The event makes news here because Sawh was in fact a Canadian citizen, which in itself is a fascinating detail, one that is very telling about both the embracing policies of Canada's immigration system and the emigrative patterns experienced by Guyanese. Beyond that, of course, is the tragedy of the event, which is indicative of the hyper-violent nature of Guyanese city life. In one bit of travel literature I read once, travellers to Georgetown were advised to, "never go out at night, and, if you can avoid it, don't go out in daytime, either."

In Guyana, we call such violent robberies "Choke 'n' Rob", almost like a fast food chain. Robberies there often end in murder, or at least physical assault. One of the problems is that those Guyanese emigrants to the USA who get into trouble with the law are incarcerated with hardened US criminals for years, then, upon release, are immediately deported back to Guyana. And the Guyanese police system is just not set up to deal with sophisticated, organized and hyper-violent American criminals. The problem is so bad that the Guyanese papers regularly print the names of incoming criminal deportees to give locals some advance warning. As a result, I'm told that these days, Guyanese crime is run pretty much by L.A. street gangs.

The name Sawh is a common one in Guyana. I certainly have Indo-Guyanese friends in Toronto with that surname, and indeed a paternal ancestor of mine was named Kobe Sawh. So there's a fair chance that the murdered Minister was somehow related to me. In Guyana, a land of fewer than 800,000 people, all the Indians are descended from the few hundred indentured servants who arrived in a handful of boats less than 200 years ago. So pretty much all of us are related.

The last dimension to this story that will not be explored in Canadian newspapers is the racial one. I mention it in this space very delicately, since this is the sort of thing that can be misquoted or misrepresented. Guyana is a nation torn down the middle by tensions between its two dominant races, the East Indians and the Blacks. Due to the former's slight advantage in population, fair elections tend to consistently produce majority victories for the PPP party, which is thought these days to have more pro-Indian sentiments than its foe, the PNC party. Certainly, PPP Ministers tend to be Indian. I know that there will be strong speculation by Indo-Guyanese reading of Sawh's death that his murderers were Black. I don't know if they were or not, but I do know that that will be the first assumption made by many; and the question thus of both a political and racial motivation for the murder arises. If I were to hope for one thing and one thing alone for the nation of my birth, it would be that the strife between the races would evaporate into nothingness.

I will leave you with two last items. First, let's not forget my long standing prediction that Al Gore will return to US federal politics in a big way very soon. Ayme S. lets us know that Mr. Gore has in fact produced a documentary called An Inconvenient Truth, which played at the Sundance Film Festival; it's about global warming and a clip can be seen here. Perhaps this is how Mr. Gore will sneak back into the public consciousness?

And finally, my good friend Andrew Currie sends us this story about how having a blog might actually be a useful tool in securing employment. Andrew summarizes the article here, but the thesis is essentially this: that blogging is a great tool for accessing employers and marketing oneself to them, but also is reflective of having certain skills and passions relevant to 21st century employment. I agree heartily, but of course I'm biased.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Grandmaster Codgers

People who know me only through my hoidy-toidy literary persona are often surprised to learn that I'm a great fan of trashy science fiction. Give me aliens, spaceships and time machines any day over tales of finding one's identity or of a young girl's coming of age in rural Saskatchewan. Right now, I am happily devouring Larry Niven's latest missive, Ringworld's Children. It ain't Pasternak, but it scratches an itch.

For those unbaptized into the canon of Niven's "Known Space" books, Ringworld was his 1970 masterpiece, followed 10 years later by the much anticipated sequel, The Ringworld Engineers. Here's an artist's rendition of the actual Ringworld, which is an artificial "world" made by deconstructing a solar system and rebuilding a thin ring about its sun's equator:

A funny thing happened after Niven wrote the sequel. Sixteen years passed, then he suddenly produced a flurry of sequels, including a series of short stories set in the same universe. Even funnier is that many of the masters of classic science fiction followed a similar path near the ends of their lives, I hope Niven isn't about to kick the can anytime soon!

First, Isaac Asimov revisited his Foundation Trilogy of 1951 with a fourth book thirty years later. He then quickly produced a fifth book, then a number of prequels, and linked the books to his other unrelated books, notably Pebble In The Sky and his classic Robot Series, all within the last handful of his years. (A first edition of the first Foundation book, then called The Thousand Year Plan, is the jewel of my personal book collection.)

Similarly, Asimov's Golden Age co-Master, Robert Heinlein drew together his most famous plotlines in the last books of his storied life, in such seminal finales as The Number Of The Beast and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, both of which feature Heinlein's favourite character, the immortal Lazarus Long.

And the last surviving Grand Master of "hard" science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke, is following a near identical path. Fans waited 17 years for the sequel to Clarke's 1972 masterpiece, Rendezvous With Rama. But four years later, two more sequels were written! It's as if the old masters accelerate their sequel creation in the final years of their lives, finally accepting that fans wish to read more about their greatest creations, and not necessarily about anything new they might wish to create.

Frank Herbert was an outside case. He wrote many books, but few of note, and even fewer that were actually enjoyable. But his one indisputable masterpiece was 1965's Dune. He produced 5 sequels, and was working on a sixth when he died in 1986. His son Brian has capitalized on his father's fame by cranking out a series of forgettable Dune prequels. I don't think Frank HErbert's situation was comparable to the other authors I've mentioned. He was no grandmaster, and fans didn't care for anything from him that wasn't Dune related, so his hands were tied.

I love novel sequels. Just love 'em. But there's someting to be said for leaving well enough alone. The original Foundation Trilogy was a perfect little tale that ended well and with enough mystery to set one's imagination on fire. Its subsequent books were surely enjoyable; but now the majesty of the standalone trilogy is gone foreverer.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Beat It, Ya Bum!

Happy 4/20, everyone.

You know, I've always prided myself on my fitness level, what with the daily running, the weight lifting and the 14 years of competitive martial arts. But I think my advancing age has finally started to assert itself. Since I came back from India 6 weeks ago, I've been slow to return to the gym. This morning was my first run since the beginning of February! And I feel like I've been hit by a truck. Ohhhhhhh.

Here's an article on Slate about how blogging prevents writers from writing. I think the author is on to something. This website has been up since 1996, and I've been blogging daily for about two years now. I've noticed a definite inverse correlation between the frequency of my blog posts and my output in other media (newspaper columns, books, short stories, book reviews, etc.) Not good.

In other news, White House spokesman Scott Mclellan is leaving his job. I always had a little sympathy for the shmuck. Unlike his predecessor, Ari Fleischer, Scott always looked a little embarassed to be lying so blatantly all the time. Ari, on the other hand, had a less than intimate relationship with honesty. But, you know, Scott chose that job. So my sympathy only goes so far. Beat it, ya bum!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

What The?

Check this out. is selling an article about my first book, Sweet Like Saltwater, for $20. Meanwhile, the same site is selling the actual book for $15.95! Yes, commentary about my work is more valuable than the work itself. Fascinating.

I've got nothing more for you today, except for this excellent Craigslist post on the rules of breaking up.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Title? Can't Be Bothered To Think Up A Title

One of my 'bots brought back this link. Thanks to Anesa for noticing me!

We live in strange times where media, identity and work are colliding, sometimes unprettily. As an outspoken author, journalist and blogger with an unrelated full-time job, this has particular relevance for me. That is why I was concerned to hear of this story, in which the Canadian Minister of the Environment, Rona Ambrose, has put a gag order on Ministry employee Mark Tushingham from discussing his own fiction novel.

There are those among you who will argue that Tushingham is trying to capitalize on his status as an Environment Canada scientist, and thus the Minister is within her rights to control his actions in this regard. Maybe. But so long as he makes clear that he is discussing his personal opinions, I would always argue for society to err on the side of personal freedom, and to let Tushingham deal with whatever repercussions flow from his expressions.

But I think there's another issue at play here, specifically that Canada's new Conservative government, while eager to project an image of laid back confidence and passionate defence of individual freedoms, is nonetheless Bush-like in its controlling reflex. Under this regime, I believe, gag orders will become the norm, especially when the issue is one the Conservatives have an irrational obsession with attacking, like global warming. It's right out of the Republican playbook: make sure everyone is on message, from the politicos down to the lowest peons of the bureaucracy. I find it all terribly un-Canadian and more than a little Orwellian.

This seems like a good place to store some links which will prove increasingly valuable as this collision between media, identity and rights continues:
Meanwhile, I am pleased to report a victory for the forces opposed to racial profiling. An American economics professor of Iranian origin was arrested as a "terrorist" simply because she had certain genetic physical features. Due to the wonderfully litigious nature of American society, she successfully sued for over $27 million! Hmmm, maybe I should re-grow my beard, and scowl menacingly on planes from now on...

And I'm sorry to provide yet another daily perv link. These reports get sadder and more depressing by the day, so I think I will now desist from collecting and posting them. (Also because these links are getting the, um, wrong kind of attention.) Besides, I think there's enough data now for us to begin to think about my thesis question: are these media reports reflective of an increase in people pursuing these specific bestial behaviours, or are they instead reflective of "detection bias", i.e. are they simply being reported more frequently? I now strongly suspect the former.

I will end today with an anecdote. I was on an airplane this morning (sans beard and scowl), pressed between two aged military intelligence men who were travelling to Ottawa on business. They were speaking rather candidly about Canada's military commitments around the world. It was their ardent belief that Afghanistan is a bigger military quagmire than Iraq and that the resistance there is only now getting organized. They also mentioned something about the proper GWOT (Global War On Terrorism) response necessitating the simultaneous targetting of "all Muslim enclaves from Algeria to Indonesia", and that the present GWOT will fail because it is not comprehensive enough.

This is, of course, terrifyingly naive thinking. I guess I shouldn't surprised, since these supposed bigshots were stuck in the flimsy economy seats in the back of the plane with me, and not on the private military learjets with those who perhaps actually know what they're talking about --or who at least can look like they do.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Pax Fobiscum

Happy Easter, everyone.

Every year, I make the same tired joke, that Easter is when Jesus emerges from the dark hole in which he was buried, and if he sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter.

Yes, I think it's funny, too, though some might be offended. If you are one of the offended, do accept my apology, but also try to see the humour in it. I mean, it's not as if I drew a cartoon and published it in a Danish newspaper!

I do want to be serious about Christianity for a moment, though. I am ostensibly a Hindu, and intellectually I cling to much of Hindu philosophy, especially its cosmology and the idea of maya. But having grown up in North America, it's hard not to have absorbed much of Christian teachings. (In grade 3, my teacher actually quizzed us on "who was Jesus's father"; if we said "Joseph", we were scolded because the answer, of course, is "God." Yes, this was a public school.) Indeed, we Indo-Guyanese are typically either Christian or a combination of Christian and something else (Hindu or Muslim, for example). For my people --unlike my forebears in the subcontinent-- there tends not to be any conflict between religions; many of we nominal Hindus can be found in Christian churches on Christmas, Easter or on a random Sunday.

And while, like with every other religion, horrible things have historically been said and done in the name of Christ and Christianity, I find that religion's fundamental tenets to be quite beautiful. The idea of a deific saviour struggling to find his identity has some resonance with the writer in me, so the New Testament can be appreciated as both a guidebook for moral action and as a seminal work of literature. Moreover, I once heard the Old Testament (and thus Torah) described aptly as a description of a God and his people struggling to find one another. This is quite a poetic and attractive appreciation, and I think without parallel elsewhere in the theological world, except maybe in the Koran (which, I've heard argued, has essentially the same content).

Christianity is also fascinating for the history it represents. The New Testament can almost be considered a kind of meta-text, drawing upon the best of contemporary ideals. Jerusalem of the time of Christ was one of the world's most active crossroads, where ideas and religious thought were shared with gusto. It is thus not surprising that seemingly some of the teachings of Buddha and Lao Tse are reflected in the New Testament, since I believe it likely that its writers were influenced by Asian travellers. Similarly, a Jesus-like figure supposedly appears in Hindu texts describing a fellow named "Isha" ("Issa" is also the Islamic name for Jesus) , which some theorists believe explains the years of Jesus's life missing from the New Testament, and also explains why his teachings resemble more those of Buddhists and Hindus than they do the teachings of many saints in the more fire-and-brimstone Old Testament.

But I in no way claim to be an authority on Christianity, that period of world history, or on any aspect of theology. Perhaps some of you are, and can enlighten me on some of these issues. What I do want to pontificate about, though, is our contemporary tendency to dismiss the tenets of a given faith because we conflate them with that faith's politicized nature. Do the Pope or TV evangelists sometimes piss you off? Me, too. Doesn't mean we should discount any wisdom that we might find in the Bible. Similarly, are you offended by the Taliban or by Iran's ruling Imams? Who isn't? Doesn't mean there isn't beauty and truth to be found in the Koran. Does Richard Gere make crappy movies? Maybe; doesn't mean his Buddhist faith is without merit. And does India's Shiv Sena foment violence and intolerance? Pretty much, but don't blame the arcane content of Hindu scripture for the Sena's chauvinism.

There is a remarkable sameness to the messages produced by the world's great religions, first articulated well, I believe, in the so-called Axis Age of 500 BCE. And that sameness is reflected in the Golden Rule, which was recapitulated in the teachings of Jesus, but that many --even those nominally Christian-- tend to forget. It is simply this: treat others as we would have them treat us.

Simple, no?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Mighty Minds and Mysteries

Marla R. reminds us of the conspiracy theory surrounding the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon by sharing this video. While I don't agree with its conclusions, it's definitely worth a look. A couple of weeks after the 9/11 attack, I was at the Pentagon. It was hard to miss the enormous gash on its side, which was in direct contrast to the video's assertion that the crash only created a tiny plane-sized hole. But, of course, by the time I got there, construction teams had already been hard at work modifying the scene. Here's my pic of the scene:

Yesterday I was privileged to attend the announcement by WHO of the launch of a new international commission studying the social determinants of poor global health. The commissioners present were former Minister Monique Begin and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. It was quite an inspiring presentation, given the brain power present in that room, and given their hilarious non-officious approach. Who knew Nobel prizewinners had such funny anecdotes? (As an aside, I was very impressed by the moderator, Evan Solomon, whom I've criticized in the past for a couple of bombastic statements he's made on his TV shows. Evan, I was wrong about ye, and not just because you've mistakenly invited me on your shows twice.)

A topic was brought up which I believe deserves some reinforcement, specifically that the most important determinant of health in people is socioeconomic status (SES). It has resonance with something I once heard Jeffrey Sachs say in Washington, that we can talk all we want about roads, access to drugs and water, poor working conditions and access to doctors, but ultimately the one thing that will have a direct impact on people's health is their poverty. Money is everything.

Money can buy clean water, good shoes, a doctor, a road, drugs and an education. Many of the interventions we do-gooders offer are essentially treatments meant to ameliorate the mid-points between money and good health. We send emergency drugs or provide some semblance of education or fund the occasional visits to remote areas by surgeons and opthalmologists. But these are, I'm afraid, stop-gap measures that will fail in the long run unless the big issue is tackled head on. That's why, in my opinion, all development work, even health development work, must ultimately embrace poverty reduction as the Big Goal.

Of course, lifting a people out of poverty requires questionable investments in questionable schemes that underpin questionable theories. Remember shock therapy economics, that was supposed to kickstart the post-Soviet Russian economy? Aieee. And even the tenets of globalisation, which, to be honest, I've not yet decided how I feel about, are unproven as an anti-poverty ethic.

Then you have investments into the determinants of wealth, such as the World Bank's fetish with energy production. So many dams have been built in the developing world, with the intention of providing cheap, clean energy to power local economic growth and allow sustained poverty reduction. But energy products bring with them their own kind of heck, with ecological destruction, pork barrel concerns, and social disruptions --and sometimes outright violence-- brought about by attempts to control locals' access to the new energy.

None of this is easy, which is why I'm glad that now the world's mightiest minds have been put to this issue. Good luck to them all!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A Simplistic View of the Middle East, part 1

Ahmadinejad's Iran has successfully refined uranium, and has thus joined the elite corps of nations with nuclear technology. Sufficient purity for an explosive is still years away, if it is indeed being pursued, but this announcement is nonetheless an important one. It squarely puts the pressure on the Americans to "put up or shut up." What will they do?

The scuttlebut continues to be that the US, UK and Israel will attack soon, perhaps ironically with nuclear weapons. But the wise action would be to simply congratulate Ahmadinejad on his achievement and to start treating Iran like a viable market for civilian nuclear products, which it most certainly is now. Large scale production of nuclear energy in Iran frees up its oil for export only. Europe, Russia and India in particular would be well advised to start negotiating a good price for that small surplus.

The American response will be quite telling. Wait for it and read it carefully. Israel, meanwhile, will be slow to respond, since newly elected Prime Minister Ohmert is still finding his voice. Speaking of Israel, perhaps it's time for me to talk a little bit about my attitudes toward that state.

A couple of nights ago, I had the privilege to have supper with a Director of the B'Nai Brith in Canada, a fellow who happens to have been a Conservative candidate in the last federal election. Yes, I socialize with those of the opposite political colour, so what? This is the nature of a free democracy: we can debate the appropriate course of actions while accepting that all players ultimately want what is best for the country. There is no need to create personal animosities, unless ethical lines are clearly crossed. What ethical lines? Well, racist and homophobic ones are typically identified these days. But, for the most part, all mainstream players on the Canadian political landscape are essentially decent people.

And this is certainly the case of the B'Nai Brith, an organization with a proud history of defending defamed and marginalised peoples, with, in my opinion, an understandable specific bias toward protecting defamed and and marginalised Jewish interests. (The organization is Jewish in origin, after all.) Now, I have recent issues with the Brith, based on their defence of Israeli strong-arm "terrorist" tactics against Palestinians, as typified by this infamous TV quote:
"When Israel uses terror . . . to destroy a home and convince people to be terrified of what the possible consequences are, I'd say that's acceptable use to terrify someone." -Adam Aptowitzer, the Ontario chairman of B’nai Brith Canada’s Institute for International Affairs, Oct 2004
And herein lies the problem with contextualizing the role of Israel in North American affairs. Clearly, the Israeli people tend to be caring and reasonable. The very existence of the B'Nai Brith is an example of that soulfulness. And indeed, Israeli voters are typically moderate, pushing for real negotiations with whoever is representing the Palestinians. The confounding influence arises when members of the Israeli hard Right sell their extremist political views, often cached in Zionist dogma, as being typical of all Israeli Jewish thought.

This is, unsurprisingly, the same mess that curses political Islam: the machinations of a duplicitous subset tarnish the reputations of the whole. The Israeli Zionists push for the expansion of settlements on disputed lands, solely to piss off Palestinians and establish de facto ownership. And they constitute perhaps the most powerful political lobby in Washington, DC, managing to conflate Zionist ambition with Jewish mentality, when the two are not the same. It is possible to be Jewish without being Zionist, just as it is possible to be Muslim without being Islamist.

But because of bigotry on both sides, every individual is tarnished with the homogenizing brush of their misleaders, and the result is suicide bombings, the bulldozing of homes, asassinations of Palestinian leaders, targeted terrorism against Jewish individuals, the hoarding of arsenals (now nuclear) and negotiations in bad faith.

How do we solve this? We begin by removing the Western investments in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (of which Israel receives disproportionately more support). When left to fight with their own money, I think there will be strong incentive for both parties to broker a permanent peace.

To be continued.

Prince Of Persia, King Of Fools

The verbal belligerence against Iran continues, with this report from the UK Times and, of course, with Seymour Hersh's already famous article in the NY Times. Of course, Bush is denying it, 'cause that's what he does. But Eric Margolis, with his incredible Middle Eastern and Central Asian sources, has been reporting for months that US, UK and Israeli forces are already in Iran, marking targets.

With Iraq bleeding money, military assets and...blood, and with Afghanistan barely tenable, even with increasing reliance on non-American troops, it would seem on the surface that it would be madness for the US to even contemplate a war with heavily armed and blooded Iran. Hersh implies that tactical nukes are to be deployed, which would minimize the need for many ground troops. But despite movie and science-fiction suggestions to the contrary, a handful of nukes will not completely decapitate the Iranian military machine. Certainly, reports of Iran's new super fast underwater missile are possibly designed to suggest to NATO that their ships would still be vulnerable after an aerial bombardment of the Iranian mainland.

So the first question, simply, is what would Iran do after such a lightning strike? The answer, just as simply, is that Iran would attack Israel, and that would lead to nothing but heartbreak for everyone involved.

The second question is, why would the USA attack Iran? Well, the rhetoric is that Iran is a threat to world security. This is bullcrap. Iran is a threat only to Israel. Even if Iran were to obtain nuclear capability (in about 10 years), it's sole likely target would be Israel. Scuttlebut that all American governments, and especially the current evangelical one, are in the pocket of the Israeli lobby would be proven true in the event of an American military attack on Iran.

Hersh and others point out another, more easily understood motivation. An attack on Iran before the current Republican mandate has expired would revitalize the Republican position in time for the 2008 federal election. All politics are local, and remembering this really helps us to understand many of the seemingly inconceivable decisions made by the current amoral and duplicitious US administration.

The final question is.... will it happen? I believe it will. Nothing short of either a complete change in behaviour of the Iranian government or the impeachment of George Bush will prevent US and/or Israeli military action against Iran by 2008. Because, beyond the need to influence American sentiment locally, Bush and his neocons are millennarialists, ironically much like the millennarialists in Iran. He believes that bringing about the final great war in the Middle East will finally reveal to the world the second coming of Jesus Christ.

If this is so, may He save us all!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Ruddy Bigots and Giant Bunnies

Ahhh, nothing gets the blood racing on a Monday morning better than a testosterone-infused exchange with a ruddy bigot. (See comments to this post.)

Growing up as a dark-skinned immigrant in Toronto in the 1970s was not a fun experience. We were a poor family, confused, stressed and scared much of the time. So many things were new to us, and back then Canada didn't have its present infrastructure and experience in speeding along immigrants' assimilation process. It's still a rough time today for most immigrants, especially those arriving from truly foreign cultures and those without the economic advantages of others. But back in the 70s, it was particularly bad, especially for those of us with no ties to extant community groups. (We didn't, for example, know of any existing Guyanese or West Indian communities we could find solace among.) Indeed, for much of my childhood, not a day went by without at least one racist event perpetrated against me on the street: a verbal slur, a threat of violence or indeed actual violence.

Most frustrating were the constant faulty assumptions people made about you, based upon fragments of information, hearsay or isolated experiences: Indians smell, Indians are good at math, etc. My favourite was that, since Gandhi was a pacifist, then Indians wouldn't fight back if you hit them. My extremely tough older brothers disproved that myth quite effectively.

That's why it's so irritating to see modern troglodytes do the same with today's immigrants, particularly Muslim ones, who are the brunt of so much irrational hatred. It's the one stimulus that is guaranteed to trigger my testosterone response, the racist disrespect of any immigrant in my presence. So be warned.

Oh yeah, the daily perv link. Yes, it's more animal abuse. In a truly just world, punishment would meted upon the perpetrator by the animal kingdom's new champion, this guy:


Thursday, April 06, 2006

Have I Sunk To This?

If the image on the left isn't moving, click on it to reload. It's erie.... her expression never changes!

[Update: If the image above does not appear, try this link instead.]

Anu sends us this ABC news feed reporting about the commercial revolution in India.

Here's some of the best reading on the internet: the best of Craig's List.

And now we break for some serious stuff. Reports are ramping up for an impending US invasion of Iran. Read about it here and here.

Now back to our regularly scheduled empty programming...

Check this out. Tom DeLay and the anencephaltic frog boy.... separated at birth?

Oops. I clearly am underslept. Darth Vadum points out my goof: the above photo is of former Attorney General (and theocrat) John Ashcroft, not Tom Delay. Though the two do resemble one another:

Monday, April 03, 2006

Me So So So Tired

Averaging 3 hours of sleep per night these days. No time or energy to write anything pithy right now. Until I find a moment, you'll have to make due with this: