Monday, July 31, 2006

When Life Hands You Crusaders, Make Crusaderade

Arianna Huffington gets nasty:
But, apparently, Rice is not alone. In Rush Limbaugh's opinion, "Bush is sitting around the White House pretty happy with what's going on in the Middle East -- there's a new paradigm going on." This sunny-side-up judgment was borne out during Bush's get-away day joint press conference with Tony Blair. "This is a moment of intense conflict in the Middle East," said the president, "yet our aim is to turn it into a moment of opportunity." Ah, yes... when life hands you Lebanons, make lemonade.

In that spirit, may I present to you a recipe for sekanjabin, the original "Crusaderade," drunk in the Middle East during the Middle Ages and afterwards. It is a sweet, tart, minty drink syrup intended to be diluted with cold water, although it's quite tasty hot as well (not that anyone much is thinking about hot drinks here in the microclimate at the moment).

1 l/4 c. white sugar
500 ml/2 c. water
250 ml/1 c. vinegar (you can use wine vinegar, white vinegar, or a fruit-flavoured vinegar; balsamic vinegar might provide a very interesting flavour, as well)
125 ml/1/2 c. fresh mint, washed and bruised, but intact with stems (I prefer spearmint, but you can use any variety of mint you have on hand)
the juice of one lemon

Bring the water to a boil, then dissolve the sugar into it. When it boils again and all the sugar is dissolved, add the vinegar. Stir well and simmer for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat, transfer off the heat, and stir in the mint and lemon juice. You can either leave the mint in the syrup to store it, or you can fish it out. The syrup will keep almost indefinitely without refrigeration.

To use: Dilute the syrup to taste in cold or hot water. Enjoy.


This post is actually quite timely for me, since I'm just putting the finishing touches on a manuscript I started on the weekend, which I hope will be another pocket guide similar to the streetcar book. It's tentatively entitled How to Dress Like A Muslim: A Non-Muslim's Guide to Modern Islamic Clothing, and is basically a glossary of terms, with some how-to advice and other trivia sprinkled in for flavour. If you've ever wondered, "How did she get fabric to do that around her head?" or been annoyed by a misuse of "burqa" in a newspaper, this is for you...

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Streetcar Update

I have finally finished the manuscript (who would have thought that the last five paragraphs or so would be so hard to write?!), and I'll be putting it in the mail to my publisher in the morning. As of now, it is officially in post-production. I'd break open a bottle of champagne if I had any...or if it weren't 10 of 5 in the morning...or if I liked champagne...

For those of you who might be interested in purchasing a copy (please do; they're cheap, and putting food on my and my publisher's tables means that we get to produce even more content for you), information will be forthcoming.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Questions of Conflict

I'm reminded of this image from Ampersand:

Pictures from Beirut? Pictures from Haifa? Pictures from Gaza? Dead people look like dead people to me. Two of the Israelis killed in the Hezbollah bombing of Nazareth (Nazareth!) were Arab Israelis, one of them Christian. One of the Lebanese servicemembers killed was Catholic. One of the IDF servicemembers killed was Druze. Lebanese civilians under fire from the IDF and IAF are Catholic, Maronite (Christian), Eastern Orthodox, Muslim, and Jewish.

This is not quite as cut-and-dried as it seems to appear to some people. It would be much simpler if there were these nice neat religio-ethnic and/or ideological lines in the (Golan) sand, but there aren't. Each side has its hands covered in blood, neither has an excuse. Also, there are various factions sitting on their well-padded ideological rumps far from the front lines cheering their favourites on (a real case of "Let's you and him fight," or maybe even "Let's him and him fight," if I ever saw one), safe and cosseted by distance, not having to live with the negative impacts of their policy suggestions.

The people on the ground, the people actually getting ordnance dropped on their heads, don't quite have that luxury. Seems like damn near all of them just want "that shit to stop," as the President of the United States so eloquently put it.

This begs yet another question: Why is my government putting up with that eloquent (as a kick in the teeth) bastard in the White House, smugly swallowing the party line that Hezbollah is all to blame (this time), and bothering to try to negotiate a cease-fire (let alone trying to honestly broker a deal) is a waste of time?! According to the Jerusalem Post, Italy is acting as a go-between, relaying messages from Israel to Lebanon and back again. Italy?! Why is my government playing procurator, sending its garrison troops off to Afghanistan, the place where Empires Go To Die, to fight a proxy war for the US (they call it "counterinsurgency" these days, and I call it "choosing sides in a civil war," which is not what Canadian forces should be doing), when we should be helping to defuse conflicts like the one threatening to set the entire Middle East literally and figuratively ablaze right now. (Golan Powder Keg, anyone?)

Instead, what we have are cowardly Canadian governments too chickenshit scared and stupid to tell the US to take its imperial dreams and shove them sideways where they'll do them a world of good, getting involved in Afghanistan (and almost in Iraq), and now Stephen "the Smirking Corpse" Harper refusing to be at least even-handed with criticism -- effectively squandering Canada's reputation as an honest broker abroad. How long will it take us to repair our rapidly-shredding credibility? I don't know, but the date at which we can go back to being Pearson's Bluehelmets (instead of Bush's Warhammer set) starts with our going back to not taking sides. As Canadians, we should be concerned with self-determination. Boosting one faction over another is taking sides. That hurts Canadian interests abroad, and it is bad foreign policy for us. The sooner we can stop, the sooner we can start repairing our credibility loss.

Other than that, I have no answers, only sadness, anger, and questions...and I can't tell them apart either.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Annoying the Annoying

Over at Snow's place, Snow has an amusing article about a not-so-amusing bumper sticker, which says


Snow's response is pure snark gold:

It would also annoy me immensely if you did whatever it is that makes you happy and allowed everyone else to do whatever it is that makes them happy. What an annoying world that would be if everyone could work hard and be happy. So please, work hard and be happy.

Yes, a lot of deep thinking went into that bumpersticker-cum-jingoism-for-sale. Uh huh. We liberals (and Liberals) sure do hate it when people work hard and are happy. (On the other hand, I did propose a counter-sticker in the comments:


while the other commenter said "...ASK FOR A RAISE.")

However, the part about Snow's comments that most struck me was the line, "So help them to find a job where they can work hard or help them to find someway, anyway, to live their lives as freely and happily as possible."

I thought, "Yes, isn't it always the way that the worst offenders in the 'Geddafukkinjawwwb!' line are never the ones who actually have the power to hire anyone." I came up with a great way of dealing with these clowns years ago, when I was but a wee thing fresh out of grad school.

Consider this like Real World Experience Project, part two. If you really want to get under their skin, and you'd like to see them backpedal so fast they lay shoe sole rubber on the floor, the next time one of these smug jerks says "Geddafukkinjawwwb!" to you, you say, "Yes, I need a job. Will you hire me? I can..." and start rattling off your credentials.

Pay special attention to the sudden eruption of more backing and filling than Boston's Big Dig, more tapdancing than a Fred Astaire movie marathon, and more petulant self-justification than Rush Limbaugh when his stash is getting low. Enjoy it. If you really think about it, you can probably come up with some creative ways of twisting the knife, anything from, "I work weekends/the night shift/from home, but I could always use more income," to "So, you're just complaining about a problem you're not even trying to fix. I see..."

Have fun!

Monday, July 17, 2006

A Piece of the Action

The most co-operative man in this world is a dead man. And if you don't keep your mouth shut, you're gonna be co-operating.
-- Bella Oxmyx, "A Piece of the Action," Star Trek

A good friend of mine (in the Bartcop sense), Spocko, over at Spocko's Brain has been doing a wonderful series of posts on his local right-wing trash-talk radio crew, which has joked about the death by electrocution of Bill Keller, the Executive Editor of the New York Times. The co-host of talkhate show host Melanie Morgan also suggested that Associated Press reporters "commit mass suicide," in order to "do the world a favour." Melanie Morgan has also expanded her eliminationist rhetoric to include the Wall Street Journal and the LA Times.

Unlike David Neiwert over at Orcinus, Spocko doesn't merely document the atrocities on his blog*, complete with incriminating audio clips, he actually spends what looks to be an astonishing amount of time writing to the parent corporation(s) and sponsors of the offending radio station and shows. A great many of his blog entries are basically complaints in epistolary fashion, outlining abuses perpetrated and proposed remedies.

His letters have apparently been quite successful. He got a mention in a highly-flattering article in Salon (warning: subscription or day pass required to read full text; may not work with some browser/adblocker combinations) by the tremendously talented heavy hitter Joe Conason.

Unfortunately, he also got a spate of seriously nasty trolls, someone setting up a counterblog called Spocko's Vendetta (no link; I'm not doing them the favour), and someone else posting his photo on a blog, along with a veiled threat. It wouldn't be too out of line to suppose they're watching his blog like a flock of hawks, either.

Naturally, he's been a little worried about litigation, intimidation and threats, and says that their "outing" him completely is only a matter of time.

It seems the lesson here is pretty simple -- it's ok for a media figure to use the public airwaves to call for the deaths on spurious grounds of other media figures, but no matter how offensive, egregious, hatemongering, or ethically questionable that might be, it's not ok for a private citizen to object on any grounds. Right. Gotcha. Let's keep that in mind the next time some religious group in the US goes batshit insane and campaigns to the FCC to have fines levied against someone because they said "shit" on air at 2AM, shall we?

Keep up the good work, Spocko!


* I mean no disrespect to David Neiwert, since he's one of my favourite bloggers (yes, David, that's me who keeps hitting your site from Ontario, hoping madly that you've posted something) and surely the best meaty read in the blogosphere (edging Glenn Greenwald and Billmon and me, ha ha!, out by a bare margin).

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Best Friends in the World

Last night at 3AM the phone rang, and it was my dear friend calling from the Tel Aviv suburbs. He'd done the math wrong (added seven instead of subtracted seven), and thought it was afternoon where I was. We talked about writing, and software, and our pet cats, and lots of other good things. Then I read the news this morning and got very depressed.

I can't help but think of all the people I know in the Middle East, and all the people I know here who probably have families there, whether Israeli, Palestinian, or Lebanese. It makes me feel sad and frustrated.

Ironically, my friend called me because he'd read a slightly surreal, depressive entry I had written on my LiveJournal while upset and having a migraine, and wanted to be sure I was all right. Now I'm worried about him.

Of course, rationally I know that none of my close friends are likely to be in harm's way, but they give me a focal point to think about goings-on in the Middle East. Gilad Shalit could be my friend in the outskirts of Tel Aviv, who likes to write stories and translate them into English, who goes to folk dances every week, and who still lives at home with his mom and dad and two sisters. The Lebanese civilians in the pictures, being hustled into ambulances with blood on them, they could be the guy who runs the little felafel joint downtown, who always plays the Arabic-language satellite news, and will help me with translation if I ask; or Mr. B, who runs the best Middle Eastern restaurant in the city. They could be anyone.

The political is the personal, and the personal is the political.

So I can't help but see my friends' faces on all sides in this dispute, and I can't help but think it's been a case of people behaving badly since before the Balfour Declaration. Maybe some other time I'll talk about my possibly uniquely Canadian perspective on creating nations by fiat and the fallout in modern times, but not today...

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Social Networks as Instruments of Corporate Dominance

I first noticed the phenomenon that forms the basis of this post years ago when I was working with supplier data for General Electric. Based on its supply lines and distribution lines, as well as its massively interlocking and tiered systems of subsidiaries, wholly or partially owned, divisions, sub-divisions, branches, plants, and so on, General Electric must have one of the largest corporate social networks in the world.

When I say "social network" in this case, I mean by that all the other companies and organisations to which GE is connected by formal or informal ties as described above.

I got re-interested in the subject thanks to my researches on streetcars (see here and here, and here, for instance), which inevitably leads one into a byzantine web of transit companies owned by holding companies influenced by suppliers and manufacturers. Inevitably, no matter what happens, you're going to come back to another one of those nearly-identically-named titans of US industry, General Motors. I became interested in trying to map the social network of General Motors the corporation because it seemed that everywhere you turn when researching transit and transportation in the last 110 years or so, there they are.

A Brief Aside on Nomenclature: Based on cursory examinations, I think there are grounds for suspicion of any company whose name begins with "General," my prime examples being General Motors, General Electric, General Dynamics, and General Mills (founded by extreme right-wing Christian anti-sex zealots, incidentally). Anyhow...

A couple of days ago, through comments at No Capital, I found an interesting entry by the author of an equally-interesting blog, Memetix. Slomo at Memetix did a series of graphics showing the Social Network of 9/11 (September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US). He has also helpfully provided me with information to get started doing my own analyses of GM's social networks.

To show you some of the scope of what I'm dealing with, in terms of a data set, I've organised my list (and it is basically a list, at this point) by Organisation (Name), Type (ie. Subsidiary, Division, Foreign Office/Plant, etc.), Place (ie. US, UK, Canada, Worldwide), Date of Acquisition/Formation, and Industry (ie. Auto Parts, Automotive, Rail, Transit). I've also got a Notes column, which contains entries such as "dissolved 1919," "liquidated 1922," and so on. Most of my information is taken from GM's Corporate History pages, but I have also used other sources, including other pages on the GM website as well. (Hmm, they have a page on Who Killed the Electric Car?, helpfully captioned "Read GM's Response: Learn what really happened to GM's EV1 electric car program. Get the facts!" Estimations of the factuality or the truthiness of GM's official line on the subject I leave up to the Constant Reader.)

I must say this for GM: Thank you so much for helpfully providing all that information. (Don't bother even thinking about scrubbing your site, should it cross your mind; I've saved copies of the relevant information.)

How much information? My guaranteed-incomplete list of companies falling within GM's social sphere of influence, mostly focusing on the years between 1900 and 1960, has 122 entries right now, and includes companies such as Frigidaire, Vauxhall, DuPont, Eastern Air Transport (the forerunner of Eastern Airlines), and The Hertz Corporation (Hertz Rent-a-Car). It spans industries including the obvious (car, truck, and other vehicle manufacturing) to rail, transit, auto parts, auto sales and service, oil, aviation, farm and heavy equipment, insurance, finance, and education.

Keep in mind that by no means is GM an anomaly; they're just particularly good at it. Most companies of any size are tied into an intricate web of connections to other companies that create certain constraints in the marketplace. Modern "vertical integration" of supply chains, where companies will own or invest in their own suppliers (also a key indicator of a monopolising tendency in a sector) is quite common.

The heavy interdependence of corporations (which is still going on) make me even more suspicious of the seemingly top-down enforced anomie and "rugged individualism" that is preached in modern Western culture (particularly the US, but also in Canada and the UK to a certain degree) as one of the main (if not the only) acceptable ways in which lifestyles can be framed. That is to say, even if you don't believe that "everyone for themselves" is the ideal way to live, you are, in this political discourse, sometimes left without ways of expressing contrary ideas without evoking those notions. (Even many of the hard-core conservatives self-identify, cynically, as "Libertarians" these days.)

That makes me wonder: Divide and conquer, versus consolidate and rule?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Empires Fall Slowly

(Author's Note: The title of this post is the English translation of
אימפריות נופלות לאט
"Imperiot Noflot Le'at," by Hemi Rodner and Dan Thorn. Thanks to Nave Weiss for his help with my original translation of the song, Hebrew lyrics here. )

I just read an essay by Tony Judt called "The Country that Wouldn't Grow Up" on Aron's Israel Peace Weblog. One passage in particular from Judt's essay stood out for me:
But whereas Israel has no choice but to look to America - it has no other friends, at best only the conditional affection of the enemies of its enemies, such as India - the United States is a great power; and great powers have interests that sooner or later transcend the local obsessions of even the closest of their client states and satellites.

I find Judt's use of "client states and satellites" interesting. I wonder which he considers Israel to be. I am certain that Canada is a US satellite, and I have remarked before (although not in this venue) on the existence of virtually identical proverbs regarding Canada's, Australia's, and Israel's relationship to the US, namely:

When the United States sneezes, Canada gets a cold;
...Australia gets covered in mucus; and
...Israel gets pneumonia.

(The latter I collected from an editorial writer in Haaretz.) If anything, Israel may be an unusual combination of satellite and client state, dependent on US foreign aid but also economically dependent in ways that make it susceptible to every passing fever and grippe of the US economy.

I suspect this rankles the Israeli collective subconscious somewhat, actually, in the way Judt describes as "[t]he contradictions of Israeli self-presentation." On the one hand, Israel is a satellite-client state of the US (contrary to much of the conventional wisdom in the US, both on the political left and right, which most Israelis find laughable), but on the other hand, it has some tacit or explicit dreams of empire of its own.

When I read Judt's essay, I thought immediately of Rodner and Thorn's song, a beautiful rock ballad with a simple literal narrative of a boy studying the history of the rise and fall of empires while his father comes home to tell his family that his salary has been cut in half. Around the time I first heard the song, I was beginning to read the Israeli press regularly, and the newspapers were full of stories of Israeli civil servants going unpaid for literally months at a time. It's not hard to see the parable in the song, of overextended empires collapsing because they can no longer afford the blood and treasure required to keep the empire functioning (and the civil servants paid, dare I say).

I think the key passage, both in terms of the song and Judt's essay is the lead-in to the chorus:

And in the pages of the past
People are finished in one moment
Empires fall...
Fall slowly...

ובתוך הדפים של הזמן שאבד
אנשים נגמרים ברגע אחד
אימפריות נופלות

In his final paragraph, Judt makes the compelling argument that in order for Israel to truly "grow up," it needs to get out of the (aspirational) empire business. As Judt points out, Israel has done a very good job indeed of making enemies, and it can't trust its fortunes to being under the protective wing of the United States. As Judt mentions passim, this wouldn't be the first time questions of sovereignty in the area were settled by a foreign power -- in 63 CE, after the Third Mithridatic War, the two sons of the then-recently-deceased Queen Alexandra petitioned (possibly in quotes) Rome for help with settling the succession question. In return, the Romans wound up assimilating Judea and Galilee as client states of the Roman Empire. Lesson to most of the countries of the world -- never ask the local superpower to solve your domestic disputes, because you won't like the solution.

The peculiar fallacy that drives this assumption seems to work from both sides -- Israel's government assumes that the US will act in Israel's interests, not in its own (which is demonstrably false), and, within the US, even the usual suspects in the "Israel lobby" act oftentimes more in a way that's congruent with US interests than Israeli interests at base. However, the extremely hawkish, right-wing faction purporting to act in Israel's interests within the US doesn't actually have to live with the consequenses of their policies on the ground in Israel (being safely ensconced in Washington DC for the most part), so they're free to be as extreme and ideological as they would like, often with disastrous consequenses for both countries.

All of this comes, of course, in the wake of the Israeli government's massive and brutal overreaction to the Gilad Shalit abduction, which, in turn, was ostensibly provoked by the IDF shelling a beach in Gaza and killing a family of beach-going Palestinians. So long as each side keeps pouring more anger, more blood, and more treasure into the sand, the empire will continue to fall. The great US empire, the Rome of today, is looking none too stable either, for that matter. As the old slogan goes, guns or butter -- empires or would-be empires must choose eventually.

It's hard to say what will be in the pages of the past when our future is somebody's yesterday...

They're Cremating Ken Lay

...otherwise, too many people would be lined up to piss on his grave.

On the other hand, if they did bury him, the family could maybe recoup some of Lay's ill-gotten gains from the people seeking them in remunerative torts by selling grave-pissing tickets. They really could make a (semi) legitimate fortune. How much do you think any of the 3000 people whose lives he ruined directly would pay for that, not to mention all the millions of people in California who were inconvenienced, hung over a barrel, and then bilked by ever-soaring deregulated electricity prices? Hell, I'd probably throw a ten-spot at that particular macabre (water) sporting event, and I wasn't even directly affected; I just have less than zero sympathy for the robber barons of the New Gilded Age.


Streetcar Update: My publisher is undergoing a cash crisis, so the book may be appearing in August or September. Sorry...