Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Under the Cover of Darkness 2 (Gaza: The Issues)

In part 1, I noted that the roadblocks to a sustainable truce in Gaza were: justice, humanitarian aid and clarity in Gaza.

First, justice must be served because Israel has been accused of (knowingly) bombing civilian targets, e.g., the UN school and zoo, and using DIME (Dense Inert Metal Explosive), white phosphorous and flechettes (small darts released from shells), which are controversial weapons, especially when deployed against civilians. A number of organizations, institutions, and countries have begun investigating these allegations. Furthermore, an elusive, but by no means weak, notion has floated around that, despite what the courts decide, Israel acted unethically in the bombardment by using excessive force and denying humanitarian aid, which compounded to create unnecessary human suffering. So far Israel has not apologized but asserted that they have a moral obligation to protect their citizens, and indeed they do; however, they also have a moral obligation to abide by human rights legislation.

At present, very little, if any, humanitarian aid has made it into Gaza and very little, including injured children, has made it out — the carnations on Valentine’s Day were one exception. Again Israel deserves security, but Gazans deserve medical and humanitarian assistance, especially in such deplorable conditions. The verdict will not lie with the courts because excessive force remains somewhat abstract, despite the 100 to 1 mortality ratio, but will lie with public opinion. Currently, at least one organization campaigns against the budget request for military aid to Israel ($31 billion in Bush’s tenure and $53 billion in total plus $1 billion worth of fuel since 2004). Although there was a general discomfort at the violence of the bombardment, few people, and fewer nations, have condemned Israel. (However, Israel’s Ambassador to Sweden did have a shoe thrown at him.) Everyone has their own reasons: some do not want to be labelled a radical and others feel they do not have enough information to speak out.

For the hesitant ones, some anonymous action exists: in the States you can send a letter asking President Obama to reconsider sending military aid or you can send one to Sen. Kerry and Representatives Baird and Ellison thanking them for visiting Gaza. For those lacking information, Voices for Creative Nonviolence lists these sources (.pdf). Unfortunately, most mainstream media has been hesitant to appear radical, or at least unsympathetic to the Holocaust, but this appears to be changing. CBS recently produced a 60 Minutes segment that provided a balanced view of the issues relating to the West Bank.

Nevertheless, with respect to the Gaza bombardment, there was a media blackout. John Snow took an innovative approach and made an excellent documentary on the effect of the blackout. Unfortunately, media timidity manifested itself when British broadcasters refused to air DEC’s appeal. Tony Benn reacted by taking matters into his own hands and provided DEC’s contact info against the host’s wishes; furthermore, El Baradei, the IAEA chief, reacted by boycotting the BBC. Alex Thomson of the BBC plodded on and at times struck gold: check out how he handles Mark Regev here.

Time can bring perspective, but it can also fade issues into irrelevance, e.g., no reprimand or consequence came from the excellent reporting by Dan Rather and Human Rights Watch regarding Israel’s use of cluster munitions in Southern Lebanon. In the excellent segment by CBS, Livni states that she will remove all settlers to facilitate a two state solution (a separate Israel and Palestine); however, nothing so far indicates otherwise: wall construction, home destruction, and mass arrests continue.

As Uri Avnery provides an excellent breakdown of what may happen as a result of the election, it is clear that something must happen; hopefully justice, humanitarian aid, and media clarity coupled with Obama’s determination and Mitchell’s skill will result in something unthinkable — peace or at least a long term truce with open borders. If the strong desire of this Gaza survivor for peace is any indication, it may yet be thinkable.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Workshop Whimsy

On Saturday I went over to Vancouver to attend a Geist workshop, The Art of the Short Review, which (as expected) turned out to be really worthwhile. It, like most things associated with Geist, was informative, succint, and fun. You should be witnessing some results in coming posts.

On the way over I got to enjoy the fruits of TransLink’s labours and Victoria Regional Transit’s (VRTS) improvements: Although the VRTS has a long way to go to match TransLink’s extensive array of frequent express buses and bus stops with digital screens that provide updates on coming buses, they now offer an express bus to the ferry that’s coordinated with arrival and departure times, so you no longer have wait outside for 15 minutes.

Much of the fun of travel, even on short trips, lies with the unexpected: after getting to downtown Vancouver I happened upon the City of Bhangra, a vibrant, intoxicating display of culture. While I have had some exposure to Indian music, I have had little (a few Bollywood dance numbers) to Indian dance; this, however, was graceful, athletic, and entirely different. (I wish that I could have attended the competition.) The festival also included drummers, singers, and visual artists. On an aside, one of the sponsors, DesiWear, (Desi refers to the diaspora of people originally from the Indian subcontinent) crafts some awesome t-shirts.

Oscar Irony

As everyone has their own say about who won, who should have, who wore what, and who will still have a career (I wondered myself at what had happened to Brody) at the Oscars, more should be said about the eloquent introductions by past inductees — they were candid and heartfelt. Nevertheless, such displays of affection rarely take place in North America unless people are intoxicated, in crisis, or at a wedding (at which they may be both), which means that, although they were genuine, it was hard to receive them as such, especially in the hyper-real atmosphere of the Oscars.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Under Cover of Darkness 1 (Gaza: The Climate)

As Israel’s bombardment of Gaza fades into the collective memory, perhaps seldom to be recalled, due process must take place: first, questions relating to war crimes and the use of unethical or banned weapons require answers, without restrictions; second, humanitarian aid needs to reach Gaza; third, transparency needs to prevail over mis-speak and propoganda (from both sides). Only after these basic, but extremely difficult, tasks get completed will an atmosphere prevail in which Mitchell can begin to work his magic.

Although a number of outstanding Israeli and Palestinian citizens have accomplished extraordinary things, a significant portion of the general population subscribes to distrust and hatred; furthermore, in North America especially, there’s a media ban, for all inents and purposes, on any criticism of Israel. As a result, it can be difficult to gain an informed opinion on the matter; in order to do so, I consult the opinions of Israelis who do not condone violence and alternative (non-mainstream media) stories about Palestine.

In the first category, Norman Finkelstein (a Jew and son of Holocaust survivors) presents strong and cogent opinions and Ilan Pappé (an Israeli historian who for political reasons no longer works in Israel) provides common sense and deep insight. Both are academics and experts worth consulting. Although both note that the kill ratio was excessive 100 Palestinians for every Israeli, Mark Steel expresses this fact best. Non-academic opinions are also important, e.g., Judith Stone (a Jewish woman who participated in the Rally for the Right to Return to Palestine). Kathy Kelly (a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence) also makes some excellent points and If Americans Knew provides an excellent breakdown of the confilct.

In the second category, alternative news sources, some can be a little extreme, but most are excellent and evoke strong emotions:

Now that you’re aware of some of the news sources out there, you may ask, “What can I do?” First, vote with your dollar by purchasing fair trade items (I’ve already mentioned Zaytoun olive oil). You can also, depending on your convictions, boycott Israeli products; for me it means not purchasing products by Coke, Timberland, and Biotherm (I already eschew McDonalds). Sending donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee (the charity whose appeal the British media banned) and Lights for Gaza (you get an awesome solar powered flashlight in a buy one/send one deal). Last, petition your elected officials. Be heartened that protestors have netted results in South Africa and Scotland.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Like many fans of Firefly I had hoped Serenity would create enough stimulus for further episodes, or at least a sequel; instead, I have buried this hope and relived what I can by watching Summer Glau in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Although I find some episodes tiresome, the show is pretty solid overall — it rests on much great acting (I was especially buoyed by the addition of Shirley Manson, pure-Scot and Garbages lead singer). Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Chuck, with Firefly alumnus Adam Baldwin. (At least, Fillion appears to have left that dreadful show; also, check out his MySpace page).

Anyway, this leads to Dollhouse, Whedon’s latest creation, which I’ve eagerly awaited. The premise of the story is that a number of people work for a company for one desperate reason or another. The catch is that their memories get wiped and they become dolls. These dolls then get programmed with amalgams perfectly suited for a specific mission, near-sightedness, asthma, and all. The show revolves around Echo, apparently the fifth doll, who exhibits the beginnings of self-awareness in her cloistered world. Of course, someone wants to expose the Dollhouse, perhaps due to an attachment to Echo, and someone else, Paul Ballard, wants to take it down. While some characters seem mechanical and others recall Firefly, it will take some time for me to fully assess the show and determine whether it lives up to its potential (great writing and plot conception). I suspect (and hope) that it will; Dollhouse airs on Fridays at 9:00 PM, right after The Sarah Connor Chronicles, on Fox.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


For the last two days I have been convalescing; that is, while confined to my bed I am completing crossword and Sudoku puzzles that I wouldn’t ordinarily have had the time for. On Monday morning I experienced those dreaded symptoms — the enormous weight on my chest and inability to breathe — that frequently get dramatized on TV and strike a particular fear into men. Yes, I thought I was having a heart-attack. It all began while I was asleep, dreaming that I had a pipe in my throat; I was restless and tossed and turned a number of times to try and dislodge it, but to no avail. I then got up and stumbled to the bathroom. On my return, my chest caved-in and upon reaching the bed I fell into a fetal position. Any attempt to move resulted in more pain, so I stayed still. After summoning the strength for a few pathetic screams I got my wife’s attention. She then phoned 8–1–1, the number for HealthLink BC (an excellent medical consulting service) and I whispered answers to a nurse in between convulsions. She advised me that I may be experiencing cardiac arrest and that I should phone 9–1–1. My wife did so and I spent an eternity, in reality a few minutes, wishing for the ambulance to arrive so I could gain some relief.

The firefighters, as per their union agreement, arrived first and were followed shortly by the ALS (advanced life support). They asked me a lot of questions and put a number of sensors on me. The trainee made a first attempt, but no reading appeared on the ECG screen, so the supervisor with sub-zero hands gave it a shot. Yes, if I was worrying about how cold his hands were, I probably wasn’t having a heart attack. This turned out to be the case, but they weren’t taking any chances. A second ambulance crew got me on the stretcher and into an ambulance. After some oxygen I began to feel marginally better but still had a heavy weight on my chest, so another trainee attempted to insert an IV. He was unsuccessful and so was his supervisor, it even took the emergency room nurse a few times (apparently I have numerous valves in my veins, which prevent the reverse flow of my blood).

As you can tell I ran across quite a few trainees, however, this was something I began to appreciate: the medical student, who was training to be a doctor, was very sensitive and thorough; and the blood technician, though his fingers were trembling, gained some valuable experience. Apart from the glee in the paramedics’ eyes at the number of veins in my arm, I was glad that so many were training to enter this essential field. The day passed with many pokes and prods, but in the end the excellent doctor could only tell me what it was not. I had not suffered a heart attack, a blood clot, disease, or physical trauma, such as a broken bone or collapsed lung; the most likely candidates were a muscle spasm or pinched nerve. In the end, I felt a little ridiculous for coming in, but the pain still in my chest made me think otherwise.

The paramedics were nice enough to check on me as they came and went through the day. One told me that no matter what had happened I was correct to call the ambulance given my level of distress; that made me feel much better. Another, later on, had described the harsh conditions of their job and lower pay compared to firefighters and the police. At first I enquired whether this was a result of danger pay, but was assured that paramedics face equal dangers on the job. It turns out that paramedics are considering striking to get pay equity and it makes sense they get it due to the danger of riding in the back of the ambulance, hauling the portly, and proximity to deadly diseases.

The experience was traumatic for my children as well: the picture above is Evelyn’s result of natural art therapy. (I refer to it as natural because no counsellor induced her to draw it and she correctly drew my feet hanging over the edge of the stretcher.) The next morning she came into my bed and watched over me while I slept. My son chose not to share my experience with his buddies, but came to visit me in the hospital. In the end I am left with the adhesive of countless sensors and Band-Aids, relief, and a deep hope that I never experience the real thing. Although if I ever do, I know my family and the medical system will be there for me.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Comedic Conjunction

Last night a conjunction occurred, not between celestial bodies, but television shows. First, 30 Rock worked its way out of a relative slump (apart from episode five, Reunion, which was brilliant, the offbeat has become rather mundane this season, though only in terms of show’s regular radiance). Baldwin was remarkable as the Generalissimo, a perfect parody for Lemon’s own “diabolical” actions towards Dr. Baird. Jon Hamm, as always, dominated the screen with his suave magnetism; likewise, Salma Hayek’s star power cannot be underrated, since she also has breathed new life into the show.

Many time zones away another stroke of brilliance flashed through the airwaves, the Skins episode “Thomas.” The third season, which began with the gutsy replacement of nearly the entire cast, has gotten off to a good start; however, Merveille Lukeba with his quiet resolve, vulnerability, and transparent confidence adds a new layer to the show. First, he is what so many characters are not; black, subtle, and visibly skilled — most of the characters lack confidence and are offensive or unsure of their skills. Furthermore, his character adds a sure hand in uncertain waters, a true leader due to his sure goodness. I appreciated his kalimba and voice performance and Mamadou Cissokho’s Kora playing. When speaking about the show one cannot omit the rat-like Johnny White, played by the ubiquitous Mackenzie Crook, nor can one forget Dev Patel’s blossoming from the past series — Slumdog Millionaire nearly justifies all the Oscar hype (too bad Millions did not receive the same recognition).


A vacuum has been created behind Bush, which comedians, editors, and cartoonists have been scrambling to fill:

Obama has been doing his part to add to the vacuum by using complete sentences and closing Guantanamo (fortunately Judge Crawford halted the last trial at Gitmo, especially since evidence of torture seems to have been buried) Nevertheless, much remains to be undone; given the size of this task and America’s relative inaction regarding Gaza, many, including Noam Chomsky, have proclaimed that nothing has or will change regarding U.S. foreign policy. Although direct talks have not taken place with Hamas despite early indications (and similar intentions towards Iran look less likely), diplomacy may still have a chance. Of course, Israel/Palestine is a mess, over 1,300 casualties, widespread destruction, and the possible use of DIME, white phosphorous, and flechettes in Gaza, leaving little ground for trust; furthermore, what foothold the ceasefire could have provided has been eroded by recent rocket attacks and the bombing of tunnels and farmland.

Nevertheless, Mitchell remains the best man for the job. Since marvelling at his work in Northern Ireland (and his 2001 report on Israel/Palestine), I have wondered why he hasn’t played a bigger part in past negotiations, for the sake of humanity and across party lines. Much, however, will depend on the climate; indeed, amidst some of the blustering at Davos, it was interesting that Qaddafi (of all leaders) presented an insightful argument for the one-state solution, in The NY Times of all places.

Although Israel/Palestine will continue to be a blight for Obama, I hope he will be vindicated from accusations of not exacting the change he proffered or straying from the foreign policy set down by Bush Sr. I still maintain that he has had to cave-in in these areas to consolidate his position, but that he will move further as he becomes more sure of his position. Meanwhile his fame continues to grow: now the Irish have claimed him and look-a-likes have gained fame. We can only hope that his accomplishments will equal his fame or at least be buoyed by it.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Future Now?

Toyota recently boasted, in a four page advertising supplement for the Venza, “Tell people you’ve seen the future and it’s got cup holders.” In general, I dislike these supplements as they are designed to deceive the reader — they’re in the same font and publication style of the “host” publication and only differentiated by opaque qualifications, such as “Advertising Supplement” — but I read on due to their bold proclamation. What I found, however, was not what I had expected: there was no mention hybrid-electric, bio-fuel, ethanol, or natural gas. In fact, the fuel economy was quite poor, 22 mpg (8.7 tons of CO2).

I wondered how such a car could be the future — sure it had plenty of performance, safety features, and cargo room, but shouldn’t such a pronouncement be reserved for vehicles like the Prius? I also puzzled at the disconnect between Toyota’s environmental image and this ad; after all weren’t they in the top five? No! Unfortunately, Toyota is ranked tenth well behind Mini, Honda, and Chevrolet (yes, Chevrolet) in first, second, and third for highest average fuel-efficiency. How could this be the case as they produce the Prius and Tacoma? The answer is they also produce a number of fuel-hogs in their lineup of 55 models and the Prius, the world’s best-selling hybrid, has only accounted for 1 million cars over 11 years. Even compact cars such as the Yaris and the Corolla, now numbering 15 million and recently surpassing Ford’s Model T for second most-sold automobile (the Beetle remains first by a long shot), cannot tip the balance. I never thought that Toyota would be behind a GM corporation in anything but sales.

The source data for these statistics on average fuel economy is actually quite difficult to come by, so it is better to stick with compilations by CNN, above, and blogs, such as Automotive Traveler and Ecogeek. The only disadvantage in doing so is the overestimation of Mini, which really only produces one car, although twelve models are listed. It is best to compare the Mini with Lotus and stand in awe of Chevrolet, which nearly equals Honda in efficiency and has over three times as many cars in its lineup; however, if one included Chevrolet with GM’s other brands these figures would plummet since GMC and Hummer are ranked as the tenth and ninth worst fuel-efficient manufacturers respectively.

For an enlightening production of the general phenomenon of widespread fuel consumption watch Who Killed the Electric Car?, a much more even-handed production than the title suggests. Nader sums it up best, that companies such as GM are "going backwards into the future." Another snippet of society’s prevailing distrust of alternate propulsion was Top Gear’s staging of a Tesla running out of charge while Jeremy Clarkson’s noted, “Although Tesla say it will do 200 miles we worked out that on our track it would run out after just 55 miles.” Although Clarkson can’t help being pompous, BBC could have avoided such a stunt. Nevertheless, everything worked out: Tesla was happy with Clarkson’s effusive praise on the car’s performance against a regular Elise and I was happy to witness Clarkson trying to transect Vietnam on a Vespa in a later show. (He was taken down a notch or two, though all in good fun, on this “barbaric” form of transportation.)

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

LEGO Heart

As a lover of Lego (I rarely regret the time spent with my kids constructing), I thoroughly enjoyed Christoph Niemann’s I LEGO N.Y. Here’s a few of my favourites:


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