Feb 28, 2007

Human Rights Official Blasts Chechen Torture

Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, acting president of Chechnya (Gudermes) A senior European human rights official blasted the government of Chechnya, claiming that there is "systematic torture" in the Russian republic, including electric shocks, militia kidnappings, and forced confessions.

Thomas Hammarberg, of the Council of Europe, visited a prison in the Chechen capital of Grozny in advance of a human rights conference this week.

"Today I have met people who convinced me there is not only a system of bad treatment, but even torture," Hammarberg told the Putin-backed acting president, Ramzan Kadyrov. "It's not just one or two cases, but a whole system."

Kadyrov denied that Chechnya has secret prisons, and said that he "welcomed" monitoring from European human rights groups.

"With God's help, I will become president and there will be no more cases of abduction," Kadyrov added.

Kadyrov is a 30-year-old former rebel and son of murdered Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov. The Kadyrov clan split from separatist groups during the Second Chechen War and sided with Moscow.

Kadyrov carries considerable baggage with him, should he fulfill expectations and formally assume the Chechen presidency. He is widely believed to have illegally profited from his political and military connections, amassing wealth from corruption, extortion, kidnapping and ransoms. Human Rights Watch maintains that Kadyrov's paramilitary forces illegally detain individuals "secretly at unlawful detention facilities, and use illegal methods of interrogation, including torture and ill-treatment." HRW described some of these torture methods:
With very few exceptions, all interviewees who were detained by Kadyrov’s forces told Human Rights Watch that they had been brutally tortured. The most common methods of torture they described were the use of electric shocks and beatings through punching, kicking and the use of clubs. Victims, interviewed separately, consistently described the administration of electric shocks through a portable device with a handle for producing electricity and wires that the torturers attached to the victims’ fingers, toes, ears, or other body parts.
Kadyrov's claims that Chechen militias can be trusted - or at least controlled - should be met with suspicion. The Chechen leader also had an odd quote attributed to him in an interview yesterday with a reporter from Radio Free Europe; he said that "If you're a leader, people should fear you. Why? They should not fear being beaten, but they should fear letting down the people who have given them their trust."

Book Review: The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808

The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808: A World on the Move by A.J.R. Russell-WoodRussell-Wood, A.J.R.

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, 290 pages

Russell-Wood is the Herbert Baxter Adams Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University, specializing in pre-Columbian and colonial Latin America and the Portuguese seaborne empire. The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808 reflects the author’s desire to create a synthesis of the history of Portugal’s imperial rise and decline that captures the global nature of the Lusophonic empire, avoiding the historiographical tendency to examine narrow geographical segments or short temporal pieces of an empire that at one time nearly circled the planet. The book’s subtitle - "A World on the Move" - illustrates a theme that Russell-Wood skillfully weaves throughout the text, as the Portuguese seaborne empire was indeed a world in which people, merchandise, conveyances, flora, fauna, and cultures moved across oceans and - through the process of exchange – created new structures in their wakes.

One of the problems historians face in explaining the unparalleled success of Portugal as an early modern imperial power lies in the fact that the population of the Iberian nation was only about one million people by the end of the fifteenth century. Russell-Wood argued that a number of factors explain this meteoric rise, and chief among these was the ability of the Portuguese to identify “strategic and key points” in commerce and geopolitics that coincided with imperial interests. In addition, argued the author, the Portuguese exhibited a knack for determining the precise military strength needed for a particular engagement, rarely finding themselves overstaffed or undermanned for a battle. Finally, Russell-Wood maintained that the success of the Portuguese as imperialists owed much to their ability to readily adapt to the needs of a given commercial or military situation; Portuguese officials might opt for outright territorial possession, or they might instead settle for alternatives such as forts, feitorias, or strategic alliances in lieu of acquiring extensive territorial holdings.

Map of the Portuguese empire at its heightLeft: Map of the Portuguese empire at its height (click for larger image)

Rather than a chronological approach to the topic, Russell-Wood chose to develop thematic chapters that focus on specific topics in the history of the Portuguese empire. A chapter on transportation illustrates how the Portuguese were able to develop innovative, hybrid ship designs that combined European and Arabic features in vessels like the não and the caravel. Russell-Wood composed a lengthy chapter that described the wide range of people who left Portugal to serve the empire – including migrants, settlers, Crown officials, soldiers, missionaries, and traders – as well as the reciprocal “reflux” of indigenous peoples emigrating to Portugal. This two-way exchange of peoples, noted Russell-Wood, also led to the exchange of diseases between continents, and the arrival of Eurasian diseases in the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa were matched by the spread of tropical diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, and yaws among Europeans. Moreover, argued the author, the mutual exchange of goods, plants, animals, and ideas changed the Portuguese as well as their imperial subjects, allies, and enemies. Whether they landed in “Africa, India, or Brazil,” argued Russell-Wood, “the Portuguese put an indelible urban imprint on those places they settled.”

Scholars, the learned general public, and non-specialist historians will find Russell-Wood’s work to be a thorough overview of imperial Portugal. Accompanying the text are several sections of paintings and photographs that provide readers with visual representations of the textual analysis. The author provided detailed – though somewhat limited - endnotes, as well as a 21-page bibliography, a cross-referenced index, a six-page chronology, and a number of useful maps to help readers unfamiliar with the history of the Portuguese empire. The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808 could best be described, though, as an essential starting point for understanding the rise of the Portuguese as an imperial power, as well as a text that helps explain the period in which Europeans became dominant players in globalization.

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No matter how rich you become, how famous or powerful, when you die the size of your funeral will still pretty much depend on the weather. --Michael Pritchard

Feb 27, 2007

US Stocks Plunge Amidst Global Selloff

(New York) The US stock market plummeted today, with the Dow Jones industrials falling nearly 550 points before a slight rebound cut the one-day freefall to a 416 point drop. Wall Street was part of a global market selloff - initiated by a 9 percent drop in the Chinese stock exchange overnight - fueled by growing concerns that the American and Chinese economies are cooling and that equities are overpriced.

The sudden plunge wiped out about $600 billion in market value and erased all of the market gains in 2007, and the losses were the worst since the post-September 11 market slide.

The Dow fell 546.02, or 4.3 percent, to 12,086.06 before regaining ground in the last hour of the day to close down 415.86, or 3.29 percent, at 12,216.40.

The bloodbath was preceded by Commerce Department projections showing a 7.8 percent drop in orders of durable goods, while nondefense goods orders had showed the largest monthly drop on record. The industrial decline was led by an 18 percent drop in the transportation sector, especially in orders for commercial jetliners and in auto manufacturing.

Oddly, gold also fell nearly one percent today, reflecting sentiments that the metal was also overpriced.

"The weakness in world stock markets is probably a double edged sword for gold. On the one hand, falling stock prices should make gold more attractive as a store of value and safe haven," said a representative of Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein. "As gold rose also on hopes of stronger physical buying from China, the collapsing stock market there might also reduce the potential demand for gold from China."

A sampling of global markets shows that the US is not alone in its market jitters. Argentina's MERV index fell 7.49 percent, while the Brazilian Bovespa was off 6.62%.

I shudder to look at my own portfolios after this ugly day. Perhaps I will open a good book and wait until the markets improve.

Assuming, of course, that they DO improve...

Suicide Bomber Greets Cheney in Afghan Visit

Relatives carry the body of a contractor killed after a suicide blast outside the main U.S. military base in Bagram, Afghanistan.  Vice President Dick Cheney was not injured in the blast  (Bagram, Afghanistan) A suicide bomber killed at least 15 people, injuring dozens more, outside a US military base in Afghanistan today during a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney was not hurt during the explosion.

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press agency, quoting other police sources, said 20 people had been killed.

The Taliban claimed initial responsibility for the attack, and a spokesman for the group claims the bomber knew Cheney was visiting the Bagram air base, which is located 40 miles north of Kabul.

"We wanted to target … Cheney," said Taliban commander Mullah Hayat Khan from an undisclosed location.

If the Taliban claims of prior knowledge of the Cheney visit are legitimate, the government of Hamid Karzai will likely be embarassed by this attack. The arrival of an American dignitary as important as Cheney would have been a closely-guarded secret, and the leaking of such information in time for an attack to be planned would have occurred high up in the Afghan government.

The Taliban has been boasting of a spring offensive in 2007, and there is widespread suspicion that record Afghan opium crops - estimated to account for over 90% of the world's supply of opium - may be benefitting the Taliban, either through direct funding of insurgent activities or through alliances with powerful Afghan drug lords.

Feb 26, 2007

Greatest Television Theme Songs of All Time

Greatest televsion theme songs of all time, best TV themes (Toledo, OH) Most of the music produced for American television is pretty forgettable, but I think that there have been some compositions that deserve praise and a short blog post on a slow news day when my head hurts.

Here, then, is my list of the Top Ten Television Theme Songs of all time. My criteria are simple: 1) The song must have been an original composition for a show (not previously released, like R.E.M.'s "Stand" for Get A Life); and 2) The song must have some value as music.

On with the list:

10. "Where Everybody Knows Your Name," Cheers. Yeah, it's sappy, and I find it annoying, but can you name another song that can better represent the value of a neighborhood bar?

9. "Bonanza," Bonanza. You hear this song and you are instantly transported back 150 years on the prairie.

8. "Rawhide," Rawhide. Ditto, but gets bumped ahead because it got covered in The Blues Brothers.

7. "Batman," Batman. Be sure to check out the cover version by The Who.

6. "The Andy Griffith Show," The Andy Griffith Show. Whistling songs can be pretty grating, but there's something wholesome and timeless about this theme song.

5. "The Addams Family," The Addams Family. Not only is this one fun to sing, but it has a harpsichord. Bonus points for using historymike's favorite early modern instrument.

4. "Sanford and Son," Sanford and Son. This is a cool slice of 1970s funk, and it was composed by Quincy Jones. What could be coooler than that?

3. "Peter Gunn Theme," Peter Gunn. The gritty piano riff alone pushes this one up the charts. Having Henry Mancini as composer is also a bonus.

2. "Hawaii Five-0," Hawaii Five-0. This surf-driven instrumental - made famous by the Ventures - is irresistible, and McGarret's catch-phrase of "Book 'em, Dan-o" would not be the same without the theme song.

1. "Welcome Back," Welcome Back, Kotter. One of the few TV theme songs that is also just a great piece of music. John Sebastian is an underappreciated genius, and it was good that this single topped the charts (it was also the #2 single of 1976).

And now I sit back and take requests and brickbats for the songs I overlooked or panned in this list.

UT Team Improves in NCAA College Bowl

(Toledo, OH) The University of Toledo's College Bowl team traveled to Athens, Ohio this weekend for the 2007 College Bowl regional championships. UT posted a 4-5 record and finished tied for sixth place this year, up from its 3-8 record and tenth-place showing in 2006.

Billed "The Varsity Sport of the Mind," four-player teams in College Bowl compete by answering questions. It's a bit like the television show Jeopardy, except the pace is faster, the questions are more difficult, and players do not win money.

While we hoped to win the tournament - bringing honor, glory, and fancy bling-bling back to UT - the team played competitively in every round (save a sound thrashing by the Bowling Green team in the early rounds).

In the future UT might consider stacking their College Bowl team with experts in a wider variety of disciplines (say, Literature, Mathematics, Chemistry, and History). The current method UT uses involves a playoff by various campus groups, and the History department has won two years in a row. Despite our overall knowledge of human civilization, we have some glaring holes in areas like the quadratic formula and the periodic table.

Ohio University's impressive Baker Center, scene of the 2007 College Bowl regional championships

Kudos especially to UT history student Justin Pfeiffer, who nailed some obscure question about the rock band Iron Maiden, as well as teammates Jackie Hinkle and Jed Vacarro, who helped win games with some superb play. Nicole Cassidy could not make the trip due to her wedding shower, but she was there in spirit.

Congratulations to Matthew Luby of The Ohio State University, who took first place in individual scoring. Historymike came in second place in the region, but I bow to Messr. Luby, who exhibited a cool demeanor and an incredible command of obscure facts in our head-to-head matchup.

And, OSU? You KNOW you were sweating when UT was down by only 50 points late in the game, at least before you poured it on and scored an incredible 100 straight points to finish big. OSU eventually posted a 9-0 round robin record and won the regional tournament for the second year in a row.

Our favorite team was from host school Ohio University, whose students played competitively and had fun. Some of the teams were a bit too driven to win for our liking; lighten up, y'all! It's supposed to be a good time, not a bloodbath.

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There are only two kinds of freedom in the world; the freedom of the rich and powerful, and the freedom of the artist and the monk who renounces possessions. --Anaïs Nin

Feb 25, 2007

I Never Watch the Oscars

(Toledo, OH) Given the fact that so many millions of Americans - joined by millions more around the world - watch the Academy Awards, I feel a bit left out the day after the Oscars are handed out. I have never watched much of a single presentation of the Academy Awards, I have stayed away from the last decade or so of shows, and I likely never will bother to watch the Oscars again.

It's not for a lack of interest in cinematography that I avoid this awards show, and I really don't have an axe to grind against the ostentatious displays of the Hollywood elite.

OK, I admit, the material excesses of these celebrities do offend my sensibilities, but that's not the reason I skip the Oscars. The bottom line for me is that I find the shows boring, and even the presence of glib hosts like Billy Crystal or Ellen DeGeneres can't keep my attention from drifting.

I also have little use for the insider mentalité of most of the proceedings. I will never be a part of that incestuous realm, and watching members of these Hollywood cliques pat themselves on the back gets old. Fast.

I save my appreciation for the art of cinematography for a night out to the theater, or by renting a particular film. I share my opinions about the relative merits of a film with friends or with a blog post.

But I will never find much use for the self-congratulatory exercise in public narcissism that is the Oscar ceremonies, and I suppose I will always be such a curmudgeonly misfit in this regard.

A Rise in Russian Spam

Image of Russian spam, Cyrillic text, in Microsoft Outlook (Toledo, OH) Over the past year I have seen a tremendous rise in the volume of spam with a Russian origin. On some days the Cyrillic-based spam exceeds that of English language origin.

Here is a rough translation of the text of the email; my Russian reading skills are rusty, but I gave it my best effort:
"Fast, quality advertising with email. The price of the product includes: Consulting, layout, delivery. Individual approach to each client. A flexible system of discounts. We are VERY pleased that you have chosen us!"
So, a Russian spam email about spam emails.

I will be removing my email as a hotlinked embed from my web pages, as I suspect that Russian bots are scouring the net for live emails. I'll add a short post with the AT and DOT attributes for people to reach me, as the spam filters I use seem unable to recognize Cyrillic text when I have tried to write rules to filter out this spam.

I am curious if you, too, have experienced an uptick in Russian spam.

Feb 24, 2007

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The scientists of today think deeply instead of clearly. One must be sane to think clearly, but one can think deeply and be quite insane. --Nikola Tesla

Feb 23, 2007

Traveling Out of Town

I may not post much the next few days, depending on my ability to access wireless and my amount of free time.

I am traveling to Athens, Ohio for the 2007 College Bowl regional championships, where I and some fellow history geeks will be competing to win glory, honor, and bragging rights for UT. We hope to improve on our 3-8 record last year up at Oakland University.

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The power to bring me out of solitude - or to push me back into it - had never belonged to another person. It was mine and only mine. --Martha Beck

Feb 22, 2007

Egyptian Blogger Convicted for Internet Posts

Abdel Karim Nabil Suleiman, also known as Kareem Amer (Alexandria, Egypt) An Alexandria court convicted an Egyptian blogger named Abdel Karim Nabil Suleiman today for insulting both Islam and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, sentencing him to four years in jail over posts on his blog.

Suleiman, known online as "Kareem Amer," was sentenced to three years for insulting Islam and inciting sedition and one year for insulting Mubarak. The court session lasted only five minutes, after which the verdict was disclosed.

Suleiman has not denied authoring the posts, but said they merely represented his own views. The jailed blogger's lawyer, Ahmed Seif el-Islam, said that he would appeal the verdict, arguing that the ruling will "terrify other bloggers and will negative impact on the freedom of expression in Egypt."

Human rights groups, journalists, and bloggers have watched the case closely, and many have expressed concern that the conviction could set a legal precedent limiting Internet freedom in Egypt. Dalia Ziada, a journalist, blogger, and activist with the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, argued that Suleiman's conviction remains the first time an Egyptian blogger has been sentenced for writing on his personal blog.

“It sends a chilling message to bloggers of all persuasions in Egypt and across the Middle East," Ziada said. "We are not free to express ourselves openly on our websites.”

For more information, visit the Free Kareem! website.

On Smiling Fates and Unexpected Blessings

Winter sun or smiling Fates in Toledo Ohio, February 2007 (Toledo, OH) I rose this morning knowing I had to complete a task that I had been avoiding for two weeks. I was named in a stupid lawsuit (read: fishing expedition) in which the plaintiff's lawyer sued everyone with any connection to the matter at hand.

Anyways, I decided to answer the summons with a pro se response, as a) I don't have money to waste on a lawyer at the moment; and b)odds are I will be dismissed from the proceedings.

After several hours of painstaking research and formatting my response to meet the requirements of the court, I set out to begin what I thought would be an arduous journey through legal bureacracy. It was then that the Fates decided to smile upon me.

At my first stop, the Post Office, I encountered no line, and was in and out in four minutes with my postal needs. I next proceeeded to make every light on the trip downtown; this was no small feat, considering I passed through at least a dozen traffic signals.

My fortunes continued to improve, as I found an open meter on Adams Street in front of the courthouse. Better still there were 31 minutes remaining on the meter.

I entered the clerk's office to find... no line for service. The counter rep looked the paperwork over... no errors. Best of all, I did not have to shell out as much as a nickel for the filing, since I had the foresight to bring extra copies. The total time spent on the judicial journey was less than 45 minutes, and I had not a single snafu in the entire trip.

While I am still irritated that several hours of my life have been wasted on a pointless lawsuit, I could not help but feel that the Fates, karma, or the Lord Almighty were intervening on my behalf this morning.

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Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not. --Václav Havel

Feb 21, 2007

What the Hell is a Violent Femmes Song Doing in a Wendy's Ad?

Cover of the eponymous 1982 debut album by the Violent Femmes

(Toledo, OH) I have always loved the music of the Violent Femmes, and I do not begrudge this underappreciated folk-punk band a chance to make some money after decades of lingering on the margins of success.

But just what the hell is a Femmes song doing in an ad for fast food behemoth Wendy's?

The choice of "Blister in the Sun" as background music for selling burgers and fish sandwiches makes no sense. The song is a look at a kid, stoned out of his gourd and on the verge of insanity, who steadfastly refuses to conform while his world is simultaneously crumbling around him. It is equal parts celebratory and ironic in its examination of this angst-filled teen, but has nothing to do with the subject matter of the ad: crappy food.

I was certainly more outraged when Michael Jackson pimped the Beatles song "Revolution" to Nike, or when the Nick Drake song "Pink Moon" got sucked up by Volkswagen. Hearing the Violent Femmes being used to shlep greasy food, though, certainly ranks high on the list of musical abominations.

What's worse, of course, is that Wendy's chose to use only the catchy guitar riff in the ad, so we get 30 seconds of that riff over... and over... and over. I suspect that Wendy's corporate execs would have a group heart attack if they actually listened to the words of "Blister in the Sun":
When I'm walkin' I strut my stuff, man I'm so strung out
I'm high as a kite I just might stop to check you out

Let me go on like I blister in the sun,
Let me go on big hands I know you're the one

Body and beats I stain my sheets I don't even know why
My girlfriend she's at the end she is starting to cry

Let me go on like I blister in the sun,
Let me go on big hands I know you're the one...
Another cultural touchstone has been bastardized by corporate America, and I think I'm getting old and tired.

Feb 20, 2007

Book Review: Maya Conquistador

Matthew Restall, Maya Conquistador Restall, Matthew

Boston: Beacon Press, 1998, 254 pages

Restall is a Professor of Colonial Latin American History at Penn State University, and he has authored three books on the history of the Maya and the Yucatan Peninsula. Maya Conquistador is Restall’s attempt to explain the factors behind the remarkable ability of the various Mayan groups to maintain an ethnic, cultural, and historical identity despite political subjugation by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century. The text is divided between the author’s analysis of historical Mayan identity and chapters that include a selection of previously unpublished Mayan sources.

Historians, sociologists, and anthropologists have struggled to explain the continuity and strength of Mayan societies despite being “conquered” by the Spanish, as they have maintained their identity despite nearly five centuries of colonialism. Moreover, extant Mayan accounts of the arrival of the Spaniards do not portray this period as particularly horrific, and their annals, titles, and books of the Chilam Balam sometimes depict the conquistadores in a positive light. Restall argues that the “Conquest” of the Mayas, in their eyes, was really an exercise in historical continuity; in the Mayan belief of a cyclical nature of history, the Spaniards were merely the latest interlopers to appear as lords. In addition, the Spanish use of existing social hierarchies – and the official creation of titular Mayan nobility – meant that little changed in the daily life of individual cahob (villages) and chibalob (clans). Finally, Mayans tended to view the period of political subjugation in terms of struggles between various cahob, rather than in the context of a Spaniards-versus-Maya dichotomy, and the political changes were often depicted as conflicts in which the Spanish were merely one small group of players among many in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Pre-Conquest Mayan states in the Yucatan Peninsula Pre-Conquest Mayan states in the Yucatan Peninsula

The book’s title is a play on words, as Restall showed that conquistadores were both Mayan and Spanish. Mayan groups that collaborated with the Spanish became part of the historical conquistadores, at least in the eyes of Mayan chroniclers. Moreover, the actual “Conquest” itself was limited to the southwestern corner of the Yucatan Peninsula and a few enclaves like Mérida. The fact that Mayan cahob paid tribute to the Spaniards, argued Restall, comes across in the surviving texts as almost an afterthought. This was just a realignment of the nobles to whom an annual debt was owed, and “the Conquest resulted in a confirmation by colonial authorities of the social status and political position of the same Conquest-era leaders.”

Prior knowledge of Mayan history is helpful when reading this text, as the author assumes a basic level of understanding of the years of the Conquest. The author provided a glossary for some of the Mayan and Spanish terms, and the text includes maps, photographs of documents, and a chronology of the pre- and post-Conquest history of the Yucatan. Restall also included extensive footnotes and a 13-page bibliography for further reading. While the author’s post-structuralist and identity politics tendencies might bore some readers, his insights are worth the effort to decode. Most important in this text, though, are the Mayan documents that Restall translated and edited; passages such as the following (from The Accounts by Gaspar Antonio Chi) help inform modern readers of the nature of the calamities that befell the Maya after the arrival of the Spaniards:
This land was populated with many Indians, a great many at the time the Spaniards invaded. The causes of them having decreased are understood to have been the war of the conquest with the Spaniards … Also their having been brought together and congregated in towns and removed from their ancient settlements to indoctrinate them has been a great cause of many of them falling ill and dying. Also a further misfortune resulted from this, which is that famines have occurred, because the people who are now together in one town used to be divided into six or eight, and as they were spread throughout the whole land and had all of it occupied, no rain fell which did not fall on cultivated lands, which was why in that era they had a great abundance of provisions. Also the smallpox and other pestilences which have occurred…
Thus, to the Maya the arrival of the Spaniards was but one of a series of catastrophes they faced, and the temporal cyclicity with which the Maya viewed history meant that this period was one much like earlier – and future – times of turmoil.

BBC: US Preparing for Strikes in Iran

Satellite image of Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz, in the Isfahan province of IranIranian nuclear facility at Natanz, in the Isfahan province of Iran

The BBC is reporting today that US plans for air strikes on Iran go beyond nuclear sites, and include a great deal of that country's military infrastructure.

In addition to nuclear facilities, such as the Natanz site, the US purportedly has plans to target Iranian air bases, naval bases, missile facilities and command-and-control centers.

Suspected nuclear failities at at Isfahan, Arak and Bushehr are also on the list of likely targets, according to the BBC.

The leaking of this information could be for a number of reasons. It is possible that American policymakers hope to force Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to back down on his insistence that Iran has the right to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes, admittedly leaving giving Iran the potential to produce weapons-grade nuclear material.

Call this scenario a bit of American muscle-flexing.

Or - as this administration has previously demonstrated in Afghanistan and Iraq - this could simply be a loud signal that the US will go ahead with attack plans, with or without the backing of the United Nations. This might be the proverbial shot across the bow before full scale military action commences against Iran.

That, of course, would mean a much wider Middle East war, and all but cancel any plans to bring home American troops stationed in Iraq.

Being Mocked by Word Verification

(Toledo, OH) From time to time I see some strange letter combinations appear in Blogger's word verification for comments. This particular group of letters popped up when Blogger was running slow and eating my comments on a thread.

I once had the letters STFU also appear in the middle of a supposely "random" string, and I am now convinced that geeks at Blogger are toying with me.

Ye shall rue the day that ye mocked me, oh Blogger geeks, and may thine armpits be infested with the fleas of one thousand camels!

Feb 19, 2007

Letter to a Young Person Experimenting with Drugs

You are a good person, and I wouldn't be writing this if I thought you were some incorrigible cretin without value to society. Still, the path you are on is a dangerous one, and is ultimately a journey fraught with negative consequences to your life, health, and future.

I have known you a long time, and it pains me to see someone with so much potential wasting it chasing cheap chemical highs. You have opportunities and talents of which many other people can dream, yet your time is spent either getting high or thinking about the next high.

You have not always been this way, of course. I am not sure how long you have been experimenting with drugs, but I recall a time not so long ago when you were fascinated with knowledge and you imagined a future where everything seemed possible.

Today, you are unhappy. You are in a place you do not like, but you have not figured out that drugs make this situation worse. The momentary escape you derive from getting high clouds your thinking, and allows you to forget your troubles for a couple of hours.

You are programminmg your body to expect a chemical response: you feel bad, so you get high, then you come down, you feel bad, and you get high. This cycle only gets worse, and it takes larger amounts of chemicals to provide the escape. At some point, of course, your need for drugs becomes more than entertainment or escape, and you become addicted.

Only you know where you are on this addiction continuum, but I suspect you are not even honest with yourself yet. You rationalize this behavior with delusions that getting high is some sort of spiritual quest, or that you are just having fun, or that your life is so stressful that you need a break once in a while.

You don't see where you are headed.

The classic signs are there - declining grades, missing work, constant financial difficulties, irregular sleep patterns, irritability - but you have not yet made the connection between your drug use and these other occurrences. These are just more reasons to get stoned, to make the unpleasant things in your life fade away for a bit.

I have no illusions that this letter will make much of a difference to you, but I would be remiss in my obligations as a human being if I just closed my mouth and said nothing. I have seen too many good people get caught up in the cycle of self-destruction, and the last thing I would want is for someone I know and love to get sucked into this trap.

Good luck to you, and I hope that you learn - sooner, rather than later - that the road you are running down leads you to little but misery and pain.

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One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time. --Carl Sagan

Feb 18, 2007

Mallard Ducks in Toledo, OH

Flock of mallard ducks in the snow along a creek in Toledo, OH It's not quite March of the Penguins, but these Mallard ducks in Tifft Creek stormed the banks to get at some food I laid out.

This is the same group of Mallard ducks I have been following for over a year. Surprisingly, the number of ducks in the park near my home has almost doubled since I counted 69 in December.

Today's tally was over 130, and they were a rather noisy bunch, waddling around to hunt for the seeds and corn I put out. Follow this link for a larger version of this picture of Mallard ducks.

Rapid Rhetoric: BALBRIGGAN

Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

Balbriggan (BAHL-brig-ahn) n. A type of knitted cotton - typically unbleached - often used in underwear. The fabric is usually napped on one side, and we in the United States refer to such garments as "long underwear."

Balbriggan is also a town in North Dublin, Ireland, now forming a part of County Fingal. Not surprisingly, the town's textile industry is credited with the name behind the hoisery.

Feb 17, 2007

When I Met Bono

U2's Bono playing guitar and singing during the 1984 Unforgettable Fire tour Years ago I worked in the food and beverage operations for a company called Olympia Arenas, which managed such venues as Joe Louis Arena and Cobo Arena in Detroit. The company chef stopped me one day and asked me if I wanted to help out at a freelance gig he was catering at the Fox Theater for some band he had never heard of called U2.

I, of course, was a huge U2 fan, and would have paid him to tag along to see the band, which was on then on the third leg of The Unforgettable Fire tour. The band, however, had yet to really hit the big time, and this album slowly catapulted U2 to greater prominence on the strength of the single "Pride (In The Name Of Love)."

In those days the Fox was a complete dump, and it would be another four more years before Mike and Marian Ilitch would renovate and reopen this beautiful facility. I helped set up and serve dinner for the band and the road crew. I'll never forget what Bono said to me as I dished out stuffed pork loin onto his plate:


Whoa. Pretty exciting, huh? I remember December 8, 1984 as if it were yesterday, although I had to check out this U2 tour site to remember the exact date.

Anyways, the actual highlight of the evening was being allowed to watch U2 from sidestage. It was as fine a show as I had ever attended, and one of the best moments was when The Edge played both piano and electric guitar during "New Year's Day." These were the days when the four-man band hit the road with just four musicians, and couldn't afford to hire additional musicians to fill out the sound.

This was truly a memorable evening, even for a jaded guy like me who saw virtually every live act that hit the major arenas in the 1970s and 1980s.

And that's my Bono story.

Militia Leader Kadyrov Named President of Chechnya

Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, new president of Chechnya (Moscow) President Vladimir Putin yesterday removed the president of the republic of Chechnya and named prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov as acting president.

Kadyrov is a 30-year-old former rebel and son of murdered Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov. The Kadyrov clan split from separatist groups during the Second Chechen War and sided with Moscow.

Kadyrov carries considerable baggage with him into the Chechen presidency. He is widely believed to have illegally profited from his political and military connections, amassing wealth from corruption, extortion, kidnapping and ransoms. Human Rights Watch maintains that Kadyrov's paramilitary forces illegally detain individuals "secretly at unlawful detention facilities, and use illegal methods of interrogation, including torture and ill-treatment." HRW described some of these torture methods:
With very few exceptions, all interviewees who were detained by Kadyrov’s forces told Human Rights Watch that they had been brutally tortured. The most common methods of torture they described were the use of electric shocks and beatings through punching, kicking and the use of clubs. Victims, interviewed separately, consistently described the administration of electric shocks through a portable device with a handle for producing electricity and wires that the torturers attached to the victims’ fingers, toes, ears, or other body parts.
Mark Franchetti of The Sunday Times interviewed a human rights investigator - who remained anonymous out of fear of retribution - who weighed in with his opinion of Kadyrov.

"Considering the evidence we have gathered, we have no doubt that most of the crimes which are being committed now in Chechnya are the work of Kadyrov’s men," said the unnamed investigator. "There is also no doubt in our minds that Kadyrov has personally taken part in beating and torturing people. What they are doing is pure lawlessness. To make matters worse they also go after people who are innocent, whose names were given by someone being tortured."

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Dubai Investment Scam Shut Down

Map of Dubai, United Arab Emirates (Dubai) The Dubai Financial Services Authority (DFSA) obtained injunctions to close down fraudulent web sites in which investors had already invested at least $600,000.

DFSA officials claimed that Husam A. Abu-Amara, with employees of his company Globalstar Telecom & Technology, operated Web sites called the Dubai Options Exchange, the United Arab Emirates Commodity Futures Board and Cambridge Capital Trading that claimed to offer financial services in the Dubai International Financial Exchange (DIFX).

The DIFX is located in the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC), a free trade and free finance zone that debuted in 2004.

The scam mainly targeted investors in Australia and Singapore who were approached by representatives of Cambridge Capital Trading. The victims were directed to Web sites, and funds were then transferred into a Malaysian bank account.

Feb 16, 2007

Book Review: Chechnya - Tombstone of Russian Power

Chechnya - Tombstone of Russian Power, by Anatol Lieven Lieven, Anatol

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, 436 pages

Lieven is a British author, journalist, and policy analyst who is presently a senior researcher at the New America Foundation, and he is a former senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As a journalist Lieven covered Central Europe for The Financial Times, and Pakistan, Afghanistan, the former Soviet Union, and Russia for The London Times. Chechnya - Tombstone of Russian Power reflects the time that Lieven spent in Russia, the Baltics, Transnistria, and Chechnya during the First Chechen War in 1994-96, as well as during the decades he lived and worked in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The book contains much more than a summary of the history of the First Chechen War, as Lieven uses the conflict as a backdrop for his analysis of post-Soviet Russia. The first section, titled “The War,” examines the buildup and actual conflict, while the following chapters – grouped together under the heading “The Russian Defeat”- examine why the vaunted Russian army could not succeed in defeating a vastly outnumbered Chechen resistance. Similarly, the final section, which is appropriately named “The Chechen Victory,” discuss the underlying reasons for the ability of the Chechens to achieve success against a military force with numerical and technological superiority.

Former Chechen Dzhokhar DudayevFormer Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev

While the military successes of the Chechen resistance cannot be discounted as a primary reason for the defeat of the Russians, Lieven discussed additional reasons for the Chechen victory and fairly rapid capitulation of the Russians in the First Chechen War. The 1996 assassination of ultra-nationalist Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev, argued Lieven, removed from the negotiating table a man whose fiery rhetoric hampered peace discussions. Lieven also maintained that the Chechen resistance failed to cause similar rebellions among Russia’s numerous ethnic minorities, a long-held fear of Russian leaders. The new government of Aslan Maskhadov, argued Lieven, was more “rational” than that of Dudayev, meaning that Russian leaders were less worried about the future of transCaucasian gas and oil pipelines. Finally, the decision to shelve the actual question of true Chechen independence until 2001 – agreed to by representatives from both sides – allowed both sides to save face without actually addressing the issue of Chechen sovereignty.

Lieven argued that outcome of the war can also be seen as much as an indictment of the failures of the Russian military as much it was a Chechen victory, and the Chechens were not able to duplicate their military successes in the resumption of hostilities in 1999. The author noted that the Russian forces suffered from poor training and a shortage of equipment, and the military received only small fractions of the amount of replacement parts and equipment it needed to maintain its effective strength levels. In addition, the low military pay and an administrative inability to monitor conscription efforts meant that the Russian armed forces fielded combat-ready troops far below the 1.7 million listed on paper; Lieven argued that the effective manpower levels probably dipped below 1.2 million soldiers by 1996.

Many of the Russian military weaknesses can be traced to financial roots, and Lieven provided documentation for the precipitous decline of defense expenditures by the Yeltsin government. 1997 military spending was budgeted at $18.5 billion, but the 1996-97 fianncial crisis resulted in actual otlays of only $15.3 billion. In the period between the fall of the Soviet Union and 1996, spending on weapons procurement fell to a mere one-fiftteenth of levels in 1991. By July 1997 the military has only received one-fourth of its projected budget, resulting in delays of wages to troops and an inability of the military to pay basic costs such as electricity, water, and gas.

Lieven noted that there are also a number of systemic problems in the Russian armed forces that contributed to their poor showing in the First Chechen War. Chief among these problems was the lack of an effective non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps, which Lieven traced back to the First World War. This essential hierarchical component in Western armies – so sorely lacking in both the Soviet and Russian armies – leads to a lack of combat unity, troop discipline, and ultimately unit-level morale. Moreover, argued Lieven, the lack of an NCO class leads to deplorable practices such as dedovshchina, the ritualized abuse of new soldiers by older troops. New rrivals – especially, but not exclusively, soldiers from ethnic minorities – are often subject to beatings, theft, and even sexual humiliation by “grandads,” fellow soldiers with longer tenure in the armed forces.

Russian helicopter downed by Chechen forces near Grozny in 1994Russian helicopter downed by Chechen forces near Grozny in 1994

The financial weakness of the Russian government, however, is only partly responsible for the decline in the amount of money available for use by the Russian military. Lieven argued that corruption in both the state and defense bureaucracies further reduced the already low funding levels of the Russian military. The author noted examples of administrators diverting huge sums of money - earmarked for the pay of soldiers – into investment deals and other illegal ventures. Furthermore, officers and soldiers whose pay was in arrears often decided to sell whatever materials they could: arms, amunition, vehicles, spare parts, food, and even medicine.

Ultimately, though, Lieven believes that the strength of Chechen society created a generation of resistance fighters whose will to defeat those seen as invaders – in this case, Russian troops – meant that the half-hearted Russian military actions in Chechnya were in danger of failure from the very beginning of the war. The author, placing the First Chechen War in a historical context, also noted that the Chechens and Russians have a lengthy record of conflict in the Caucasus. Chief among the historical antecedents was the decision by Stalin in 1944 to deport the entire Chechen people, exiling them to the Kazakh steppes. Although Khrushchev lifted the ban in 1956, Lieven argued that the memory of the forced migration and deaths of tens of thousands of Chechens during transport and the acclimation period serves as a rallying factor for the modern Chechen resistance.

The text is footnoted throughout, and Lieven blended a wide variety of primary and secondary sources in his narrative. A working journalist, the author used his interviews with government officials, military operatives, resistance fighters, and ordinary citizens throughout the text. Yet Lieven – who obtained an undergraduate degree in history and a doctorate in political science – brings to the reader a unique blend of journalistic on-the-ground analysis and a detached academic perspective rarely seen in the same text. The result is a work that can be used by scholars and specialists, while still remaining accessible to the learned general public. Lieven’s text is an insightful contribution to the historigraphical literature of post-Soviet Russia, and is must reading for those interested in understanding the Russian attempts to transition to a Western-style democratic capitalism.

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Feb 15, 2007

On Winning, Losing, and the Iraq War

US troops in Iraq; photo courtesy of BBC US troops in Iraq; photo courtesy of BBC

One of the last remaining arguments that pro-war supporters still offer goes something like this: "Those who want us to leave Iraq are really saying they want the United States to lose the war."

There are a number of problems with this argument. The most obvious, of course, is the fact that the US military won the actual conventional war, which occurred during March and April of 2003. The Iraqi military was quickly destroyed, and Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled.

American troops are currently stuck in the middle of a low-grade civil war, one that is no longer being fought like a conventional war. The US military is "losing" this war in one sense, but it is unreasonable to expect a military designed to fight large scale conventional wars to "win" against unconventional opponents carrying out terrorist attacks in an urban setting.

Supposing, though, that I agree with the warhawk claim that a peacenik like me is really calling for a "defeat" in Iraq by calling for a withdrawal of troops. What, precisely, is the danger in "losing" in Iraq, and why are people so worked up about "losing" this war?

I have "lost" a few times in my life, and - despite the initial setback - I have always grown and learned from my losses. Using a sports analogy, teams rarely win every game, and use losses as opportunities to improve the team. Sometimes many seasons go by before a given team returns to winning form.

There may indeed be legitimate reasons for keeping troops in Iraq (such as regional stability, or supporting the nascent Iraqi government), but the idea that the United States will somehow be forever damaged by ending its occupation of Iraq is absurd.

In a similar fashion we "lost" in Vietnam, and life went on. Unfortunately, lessons learned after the Vietnam debacle were ignored by the current administration. If bringing home the troops means we somehow "lose" the war, then this might indeed be an opportune time to rethink and retool the American agenda.

On the Value of Standardized Test Scores

I have been thinking about the nature of human intelligence this morning, a train of thought that was brought about by my filling out employment applications for summer teaching positions.

As a rule I score quite high on standardized tests, and many opportunities have opened up for me over the years based upon my IQ, ACT, SAT, and GRE scores. I say this not in a boastful manner, but rather because I find such tests to be of little use in determining the current or future value of a human being. Such scores only reflect a hypothetical potential ability of a person, but offer little in the way of analysis of a person's character, or how hard a given subject will work to attain goals.

Moreover, there are many criticisms of social and cultural biases inherent in such tests. Children growing up in homes in which the "learning environment" consists of little more than cable television will certainly perform at a lower level than children raised in a home in which self-edification is held up as a worthy goal.

As a young man I squandered some excellent university opportunities, preferring instead to make money in the business world. I dropped out of college at the age of 21, enticed by the income possibilities of climbing a corporate ladder and owning my own business.

Since deciding to return to the university setting seven years ago, I have gained a far greater appreciation for the value of hard work. Setting aside the debate over the meaning of university diplomas ("are they really just pieces of paper?"), I recognize that a BA, MA, or PhD demonstrates that a recipient of such a degree at least knows how to work and achieve goals.

But what does a high IQ really mean if that person is self-centered and mean-spirited? How does that person's measured high intelligence really benefit humankind? I offer as an example the personage of neo-Nazi Bill White, who claims to have achieved a score of 152 on the Stanford-Binet intelligence scale (I am ignoring for the moment the issue of the validity of his IQ claims).

And just how valuable is such a "genius" to a future employer - or society at large - in comparison with a dedicated, hardworking person who just happens to score lower on certain standardized tests?

I confidently entered my test scores in the application form, but I thought about people I know who might be as qualified (or even better qualified) than I for the same position, but who might get passed over because I aced the GRE and they struggled. In the end, I think these tests measure only one thing - the ability to take standardized tests.

And - truth be told - how accurate can a test be that purports to measure quantitative reasoning when a person like me - who had not taken a mathematics course since 1983 - scores 750 out of 800 possible points, and who admits in a post like this that he made educated guesses on over one-third of these fairly difficult math questions?

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Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher. --Flannery O'Connor