Saturday, April 29, 2006

If the very people we’re training in Iraq are also the ones trying to blow us up, why are we still there?

April isn’t even over yet, and already it’s become the deadliest month of the year for U.S. troops -- more than double the 31 killed in March. Why, again, are they still there? Oh, right -- to train the Iraqi forces. Trouble is, as the WaPo headlines, in Iraqi Town, Trainees Are Also Suspects.
But in a town where the local population is hostile to the American presence in Iraq, U.S. soldiers have developed a deep distrust of their Iraqi counterparts following a slew of incidents that suggest the troops they are training are cooperating with their enemies.

The top local Iraqi army commander here was sent to Abu Ghraib prison in November, accused of tipping off insurgents about the routes taken by American convoys, said Lt. Col. Marc Hutson, commander of a Hawijah-based battalion of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division. The city's police chief was also fired and briefly arrested in January for refusing to go after armed groups.
So why are we still there? Apparently, to mark time while clueless politicians of both parties cast about for a way out of this quagmire without getting burned themselves. Will James Baker find a way to save face? It seems more likely that Russ Feingold will look more like a statesman with every passing day.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Fiction that makes you think about habeas corpus

Fear of terrorism clearly has made much of the public complacent about detention without judicial review. It’s hard for the issue to get the public traction it deserves when so many people think that if someone is imprisoned there’s probably a good reason for it and that it’s better to be safe than sorry, legal niceties be damned.

Can the emotional power of fiction be enlisted to break through this complacency and make people think? The Campaign for the American Reader thinks so. They’re compiling a list of works of fiction that illustrate what's at stake in the debate over habeas corpus. Titles they’ve compiled so far range from classics like Kafka’s “The Trial,” Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” and Edward Everett Hale's "The Man Without A Country” to more contemporary examples. Scott Turow put in a plug for his novel, “Reversible Errors,” which centers on a habeas proceeding for a man on death row, brought when another man confesses to the crime.

Go to America Reads to scroll down for more examples -- and to add your own.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Rough beast slouching update

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Is there a nuke in the rough beast’s future? It’s enough to make you wonder.

“Iranian Leader Warns U.S. Of Reprisal” headlines the Washington Post in a story about the war of words between the U.S. and Iran on the eve of the IAEA’s report Friday to the U.N. Security Council.
The recent statements are "a war of words," said Gary G. Sick, a professor of Middle East policy at Columbia University and longtime monitor of Iranian politics. "Neither side has anything to gain by an attack on the other, but there is a chance of an accident triggering something and that's what makes the situation so dangerous."
And it’s not just accidents. The more time that goes by, the harder it becomes for the embattled governments on both sides to back down. What if this thing drags on till late summer and the approach of the Congressional elections? How can the Bush administration allow itself to be perceived as weak, if Iran keeps lobbing taunts at us? And what sort of preemptive strike could they possibly -- and perhaps wishfully -- conceive that would keep gas prices from spiking right through the $5.00 mark and the economy going to hell? Stay tuned.

Congress ponders moving around deck chairs on the Titanic (again)

If Down Under is any indication, we’re in for another wild and wooly hurricane season: Australia recently had two category 5 cyclones in rapid succession. Fortunately, their landfall was in relatively unpopulated regions. Our own southern coasts are highly populated. So, should we abolish FEMA?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency was so fundamentally dysfunctional during Hurricane Katrina that Congress should abolish it and create a new disaster response agency from scratch, according to a draft of bipartisan recommendations proposed by a Senate committee.
Oh, great. Instead of fixing FEMA, let’s go into hurricane season with a new agency staffed by another bunch of political appointees, an agency with no institutional memory, experience or accountability. Can you spell Department of Homeland Security?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Observed on one of the green hills of the blue and white marble we call Earth

Everything is exploding in green now, including this tree I passed on my noon walk. As I looked up, the phrase "The Green Hills of Earth" -- title of the famous old Robert A. Heinlein science fiction story -- tugged at me with its old siren song. It often does on this sort of day, like a jingle I can't get out of my mind. I feel a bit self-conscious about it, almost embarrassed. The story no longer seems all that great (although it's a science fiction classic), and Heinlein's Kiplingesque attempt at poetry is, well, Kiplingesque.

So why does this insistent phrase keep rattling about in my mind as I see another spring breaking out around me? It's some sort of marker for my youth, sure -- but why this? Maybe it's because when I was a kid, I perceived the world around me mainly through the lens held up to it by the science fiction I read so avidly, like Heinlein's blind spacer living in his imagination. Today, nature itself seems far more marvelous than any science fiction.

Heinlein wrote the story long before the photos from Apollo 8 demonstrated that the Earth doesn't look very green from deep space, but rather like a blue and white marble, and that as seen from the moon, the green is only a metaphor. But down here it's real enough.

What was Little, Brown thinking when they gave a high school kid $500,000 for an unfinished novel?

Ah, everything seemed so much more cute and innocent back on April 6 when the NYT ran Dinitia Smith’s feature, “A 'How to Get Into College by Really, Really Trying' Novel.” Since then, of course, Harvard freshman Kaavya Viswanathan's "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life” has blown up in everyone’s face over plagiarism charges. But three weeks ago, the NYT was in full superachiever mode.
Her parents were not immune to the competitive pressure, however. Because they had never applied to an American educational institution, they hired Katherine Cohen, founder of IvyWise, a private counseling service, and author of "Rock Hard Apps: How to Write the Killer College Application." At the time IvyWise charged $10,000 to $20,000 for two years of college preparation services, spread over a student's junior and senior years.

But they did have limits. "I don't think she did our platinum package, which is now over $30,000," Ms. Cohen said of Ms. Viswanathan.

Ms. Cohen helped open doors other than Harvard's. After reading some of Ms. Viswanathan's writing (she had completed a several-hundred-page novel about Irish history while in high school, naturally), Ms. Cohen put her in touch with the William Morris Agency, which represents Ms. Cohen. Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, who is now Ms. Viswanathan's agent, sold the novel that eventually became "Opal" to Little, Brown on the basis of four chapters and an outline as part of a two-book deal.

Ms. Viswanathan, who said she planned to become an investment banker after college, finished writing "Opal" during her freshman year, in Lamont Library at Harvard, while taking a full course load.
You’ve got to ask, what were they thinking? The girl’s parents. The NYT and their wide-eyed hype and lack of restraining skepticism. But especially Little, Brown for forking over $500,000 to a high school student with four sample chapters and an outline.

What’s striking about the pattern of Viswanathan's “unconscious borrowings” is that they’re so like the plagiarism in a term paper written by an overstressed and underscrupulous high school student -- minor changes in word order or a single word that in no way disguise the theft.

But what do you expect when you contract with a teen-aged novice writer to complete a novel while taking a full course schedule at Harvard?

UPDATE:Blowin’ in the Wind has a whole other angle to this -- the role of a "book packager" -- with links. Looks as if the book may have been a team effort.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Pace off your next walk, run or ride on your computer screen with this Google Maps pedometer

This Gmaps hack is so cool
. Just zoom in on any location and then click off the segments of your desired route with a mouse. The software automatically tallies your mileage. I tried it by clicking the four corners of Madison’s Capitol Square, the site of the Dane County Farmers’ Market. With 300 vendors, it’s the largest producers-only market in the country -- and a great place for a Saturday morning stroll of exactly 0.55 miles, according to the Gmaps pedometer. Thanks to Atrios, who mentioned it when posting about a recent run.

Every day seems to be April Fool's Day in the airline industry

Standing-room-only seats?
The airlines have come up with a new answer to an old question: How many passengers can be squeezed into economy class?

A lot more, it turns out, especially if an idea still in the early stage should catch on: standing-room-only "seats."
Why stop there? With a little ingenuity, they should be able stack them like cordwood, or maybe even containerize them before boarding. Should help with security, too.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Newspapers making another stupid attempt to use technology to wall themselves off from the internet

The trouble with the famous example of the Betamax, Sony’s futile attempt to build a levee against a wave of technological change with its own proprietary standard, is that everyone remembers it but nobody learns from it. Today’s NYT has a story about a new round of upcoming “e-paper” trials by newspapers around the world (including the Times), using readers with “digital ink” on a flexible plastic substrate that would cost about $400. But they could only download prepackaged media, including the newspaper.
The difference this time, developers and supporters say, is that the screens on the new hardware are made to reflect rather than transmit light, making them more like paper. The devices weigh about 13 ounces (light enough to be held in one hand while reading) and can be updated in Wi-Fi hot spots or through Internet connections (although they cannot be used to surf the Web yet). Their touch screens are also capable of doubling as notebooks to jot down information or to download books. Pages are turned with the touch of a button.
Big deal. Why would anyone want an e-newspaper that doesn’t connect to the internet or allow the reader follow hyperlinks? Isn’t that the point of reading an electronic newspaper?

The newspapers, of course, are trying to save trees, cut print production costs and lock in readers (perhaps by giving them free readers in exchange for long-term contracts). But who wants to be part of a captive audience limited to top-down, one-way communication. Isn’t that what TV is all about?

Slowly riding a turtle

Someday this will all be behind us.
So I trudge through the forestry thicket of the world wide web brandishing my trustworthy, handy, inadequate pocket knife - my ferocious jaunts onto highway information lasting only fleetingly...
Until then, there's this brief lament for the existential limbo known as dial-up.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Lorrie Moore’s shout-out to “The Modern Elizabethan”

Half the Op-Ed page in the Sunday NYT was filled by Lorrie Moore's signature combination of wit and feeling -- her birthday bouquet to the Bard, who had just turned 442.
Though many people have tried to insist that Shakespeare must have been a secret guild of theatricals, or the Earl of Oxford, or Sir Walter Raleigh, or some other person of education and rank ("How about the theory that Shakespeare is really Cliff Robertson?" joked a friend of mine), there is no doubt the man existed. Those who are still skeptical may be the same people who, generally pessimistic about human ability, insist that the pyramids were built by space aliens, or that Joyce Carol Oates is really a committee of middle-aged men. Or else they are the same elitists who think things like the roots of rock 'n' roll are actually white.
Summing up Shakespeare in half a page of newsprint is a tough assignment, but Moore gives it her best shot, with the help of some serious name-dropping (Dickens, Puccini, Edith Wharton, Ogden Nash, Tim Burton, Alice Munro, and Joni Mitchell, among others).

Martin Amis, Muhammad Atta and the raisins of paradise

PLEASE NOTE: An update of this post dated 7/29/06 can be found here.

9/18/06 Update: "Martin Amis: Drinking too much neocon Kool Aid?"

The Last Days of Muhammad Atta.” a short story by the British writer Martin Amis appeared in The New Yorker this week. I thought I would be able to link to it, because the magazine usually posts its fiction online, but not this time. The missing link probably has to do with publishing rights, since the story is part of Amis’s controversial next book, to be published in September in the UK, next year in the U.S.

(Please Note: Now you can read the story online. The UK's Observer published the story Sept. 3 and the story title now links to their site.)

The story follows Atta in a rambling stream of consciousness from Portland, Maine all the way to the Twin Towers. The Independent quotes his publisher:
The publisher said of the new work, which will be released in September: "These themes and settings may look like unfamiliar ground for Martin Amis. But in fact he is returning to his central preoccupation: the nature of masculinity, and the connections between male sexuality and violence."
Well, maybe. It was hard for me to get caught up in the story. Maybe it’s just me. The tragedy of 9/11 seems too recent for fiction -- I can't help but wonder, what’s the point of make-believe when the reality is still so close and it takes so little to start the tapes playing all over again in our heads?

And then there was the matter of the raisins. Atta is getting ready to commit one of the greatest crimes in history when he interrupts his preparations for this little epiphany about the raisins of paradise.
Ah, yes, the virgins: six dozen of them -- half a gross. He had read in a news magazine that “virgins,” in the holy book, was a mistranslation from the Aramaic. It should be “raisins.” He idly wondered whether the quibble might have something to do with “sultana,” which meant (a) a small seedless raisin, and (b) the wife or a concubine of a sultan. Abdul-aziz, Marwan, Ziad, and the others: they would not be best pleased, on their arrival in the Garden, to find a little red packet of Sun-Maid Sultanas (Average Contents 72).
What the hell is going on here? The passage intrudes by adding an incongruous note to the narrative. This sounds less like something a Muslim terrorist might think than something a British writer might think about a Muslim terrorist. And the whole idea of this absurd mistranslation at the heart of the sacred texts diminishes the religion of Islam, virtually reducing it to a bad joke. Even if Muhammad Atta were as secular as Amis makes him out to be and if he actually did think about this during his last days, wouldn't he have tended to see the substitution of raisins for virgins as one more Western slander of his culture?

I wondered about those raisins. Where did they come from? I wasted the better part of an afternoon on the internet trying to track them down. Turns out that there was a very specific source for this passage -- a book published in Germany in 2000 by one Christoph Luxenberg, a pseudonym for a scholar who supposedly did not dare reveal his name. The book still has not been published in English, though there were plenty of announcements on the web over the last few years saying English publication was imminent. Luxenberg’s theory of mistranslation, which went way beyond raisins and challenged the entire foundation of Islam’s sacred texts, hit the English-speaking mainstream media with a January, 2002 article in the UK’s Guardian, by one Ibn Warraq, also a pseudonym. In March of 2003, during the run-up to the Iraq war, the New York Times published an article about Luxenberg. And in July of 2003, the issue of International Newsweek carrying the story was banned and burned in Pakistan. That’s about it for mainstream media, but Google currently shows 31,200 hits for “Christoph Luxenberg.”

It’s when I started to follow some of these links that I began to feel I was lost inside an echo chamber inside a hall of mirrors. The sources all echoed each other, and didn't seem to lead anywhere else. This post from the Daniel Pipes weblog is typical. Most of this stuff was written during the triumphalist period leading up to and immediately after the invasion of Iraq, when the U.S. was going to remake the entire Middle East. After that, it all seemed to go away. Luxenberg’s book still hasn’t been published in English, and the only current references to it just cite the old sources.

It seems to me that this all was part of one of those disinformation campaigns that swirled around the world, like news of the infamous Niger documents, before and during the Iraq invasion. With sufficient resources, you can turn the internet into an amplifier for almost anything. Did Christoph Luxenberg ever really exist? Who knows? But the contempt for Islam implicit in his work (though he always was careful to deny that he was attacking Islam) was echoed in the mockery of the prisoners’ religion at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Once they were no longer useful -- or because there were starting to be too many loose threads -- both Luxenberg and his book seem to have quietly faded away.

Leaving the question: How and why did Luxenberg’s raisins end up in the Martin Amis story?

UPDATE: Regarding the pain of others.