Tuesday, June 26, 2007

German DA Files Arrest Warrants Against CIA Agents

The District Attorney's office in Munich, Germany has filed international arrest warrants with Interpol for nine CIA operatives. This is a big deal. The Agents are wanted for questioning and potential charges arising from the illegal, CIA kidnapping of a Lebanese-born German citizen. This case has roiled already tense diplomatic waters, and following on the heels of a similar case in Italy, adds considerable new fuel to the CIA "renditions scandal." Even more astonishing, German investigators were able to use simple, Internet search tools without the help of the US Justice Department (of course, no surprise there) to identify key CIA players in this caper from hell. Now that's embarrassing. Read about it all here, in a very eye-opening Der Spiegel article.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Historical Revisionism - Everybody's Doing It

Historical revisionism is nothing new. The power elites have been re-writing history to suit their own ends for as long as humans have populated the earth. And people wonder if skepticism is hardwired; and if so, why. Uh huh, no brainer that. We've all heard the old adage that to "...ignore history is to repeat it." I guess that depends on just what "history" one refers to.

Today, discussions around inaccurate historical portrayals even extend to video games.

In the real world, the most visible and egregious historical revisionism is going on in Japan. Conservative lawmakers last week denied that there was ever a "rape of Nanking." No, the massacred Chinese must have died in some other manner 70 years ago this anniversary year. The Japanese Prime Minister insists that the Imperial army didn't use "Comfort Women;" and now, new textbooks that ignore the military's edict to loyal residents of Okinawa to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Americans have so riled the island natives that their parliament has issued a statement condemning the oversight by design. Read about it here. How is it that a country that makes such great cars and robots can get accurate historical reporting so wrong? Unbecoming at best, a PR disaster at worst.

And of course, Japan, China and Korea are engaged in a vocal and sometimes naval confrontation over several small groups of disputed islands that are largely uninhabited but hold some sway over fishing and oil/mineral rights. Each side has historical claims to buttress its arguments.

Holocaust deniers; apologists for repressive dictators; and, the obsessed with power and security are always - it seems - busy re-writing history for their own ends. Nowhere is this phenomena more prevalent than in long-running ethnic and territorial disputes. Take the Northern Irish "troubles," the Turkish/Kurdish wars; the Middle East morass; Tibet, and just about every case where indigenous populations were displaced by colonizers for example. And when potential war crimes are involved, the re-writing of history reaches a fever pitch. Wingnut Christian fundamentalists are even trying to re-write American history to ignore the animists, theists, Unitarians and agnostics among our founding fathers and their families. And I won't even get into the major historical debate recently stimulated by a fiction novel: The Da Vinci Code. There's no shortage of relevant contemporary efforts to re-write history.

Not to be outdone, the Bush administration has taken the trend to new heights. For this crew, history is a fluid, moving target that can be altered and substantially re-written on a minute-by-minute basis dictated by need. Reality does not play an important role in the equation. And the main-stream media appears to be willing participants in the charade. In this environment, it is encouraging to this observer that citizen journalism and bloggers have risen to provide alternative sources of information, analysis and opinion. Leave it to the grassroots to get it right, governments and the traditional media are doing a great job of proving that no-one else can be trusted.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Title Nine Celebrates 35th Anniversary

Title Nine is 35 years old today, and the world of youth sports in the U.S. will never be the same - thankfully. My eldest daughter, the serious jock in the house as I've noted in previous posts, reminded me of the milestone this morning. And of what still needs to be done to fully implement the spirit of the groundbreaking law.

To review, Title Nine prohibits federally-funded education programs and activities from discriminating on the basis of sex. Sounds simple, but of course it's not. Sports and a bunch of other programs in public education have always been unfairly focused on males. I can only think that this anachronism is a result of the puritanical fundamentalist view that only males matter and females are, after all, just chattel. It is important to remember that females now represent a majority of the U.S. population, are often wage earners, combat veterans and, well, you know the story. There's just no reason at all for any remnants of the exclusive, male-only fraternity to be holding on to any part of the old model. So happy anniversary Title Nine. Hoo-ya, have another micro-brew.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Spain's Musical Regions & Traditions

I was listening to my local NPR station the other day and to my surprise was treated to a story about my favorite Spanish band, Ojos de Brujo. I first discovered this group in a mesmerizing LINK TV video about a year ago. I was hooked. I was surprised to hear the NPR announcer refer to the band's eclectic and infectious style of music as Barcelona Bastardo. Didn't think the respectable Catalans would take a shine to this edgy sound. I was wrong (again). When asked, I describe this band as "Flamenco Fusion." With Gitano roots and a Flamenco soul. To this core, the band adds hip-hop; Andalus Arabic ornamentation; Cuban rhythms, even raggae. And it all works in a magical sort of way. Check out this video for a taste. Or this awesome animated music video.

When most music lovers think of Spain, Placido's tenor or the guitar of Andres Segovia often come to mind. Perhaps a favorite Flamenco tune. Digging deeper, Spain has arguably the richest musical tradition in all of Europe.

The music of Andalucia in the south is influenced by the Moorish era and has distinct Arabic elements. Thanks to another NPR story, I recently discovered the music of Ghada Shbeir. A Lebanese singer with an Masters in Musicology, she has taken some time, effort and love to reconstruct the songs of Al-Andalus. There are few other opportunities around to hear thousand year-old songs. Not exactly easy listening, these pieces are however very valuable bits of Arabic and European history, reflecting a unique moment when the two cultures were at their closest. For the musically curious, this new CD is a real wonder. And yet another thread in the colorful tapestry that is Spanish music. You can hear a BBC interview with Shbeir and a sampling of her songs here. During Moorish rule in Spain, diversity was encouraged and common. The Spanish Jewish community flourished at this same time. I've posted before about the Ladino language music of the Sephardic Jews here.

Travel a little farther north and you're in the heart of Flamenco country. Gitanos, Spanish Gypsies, are the principal performers of Flamenco song and dance. Their colorful and musical festivals are a regular draw during the "Flamenco season." Here are some Flamenco artists of note.

Of course, the Castellanos of cental Spain have their own unique folk traditions outside the Flamenco space. There is no better exemplar of this kind of traditional music than the celebrated band: La Musgana. Check out a sample of their sounds in this video (Picao).

The Catalans in Barcelona have their own musical traditions and further west into the Pyrenees one encounters Basque country with a decidedly different musical tradition that pre-dates even the Moors. Basque music, often dances played by a small group including a diatonic accordion, Alboka flute, fiddle and a wooden percussion instrument, is rich in folk tradition with a unique sound all of its own. The group Alboka is building quite a substantial presence on the World Beat scene.

In the north, on the Atlantic coast of Spain is one of only two Celtic colonies remaining on European territory. (The other is Brittany on the coast of France.) Here's a piece of trivia that will win some free microbrew in a pub wager: The world's most popular bagpipes player, based on CD sales, is a Spaniard. That's right, as counter-intuitive as it may sound. Hevia sells more CDs of bagpipe music than any other recording artist. Who'd a thought? His video is stunning, set on the Spanish coast with a solitary dancer on the sand as he pipes from the cliff. Yea, that's what I'm talking about. Hevia is following in the footsteps of the greatest Galician piper of all times, Carlos Nunez. He performed at Celtic Colors on Cape Breton Island last year.

Then, of course, there's that sort of dreamy, new-age flamenco guitar thing. Since I'm not much on "new-age" music, I'll leave that alone.

Ah, Spain. The most "emotional" country I have ever had the pleasure of visiting - and I've been back on three occasions. One element that is common across all Spanish music I have heard, regardless of genre, is the passion and authenticity that is communicated through song, dance and instrumental performance.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Torvalds Lauds Open Solaris - Gets Invited to Dinner

Open conversations, like "Open Source" communities, are a wonder. There's an intriguing conversation going on right now online between Linux author/guru Linus Torvalds and Jonathan Schwartz, president of SUN Microsystems around Open Source Solaris. Solaris is, of course, SUN's wonderfully robust operating system.

For background, Open Source refers in this post to software that is by design open to public modification, enhancement and updating. Thus, Open Source code is generally released with very few copyright restrictions and collaboration is presumed. Torvalds is responsible for the LINUX kernal in the popular LINUX version of UNIX open source code.

Back to the story. Torvalds, a legend in the coding community, recently posted an article about Open Source Solaris from SUN where he expressed considerable enthusiasm, and some reservations about the company's future plans for making their services truly public. And, he made a couple of cynical predictions. Read his post here.

Not to be outdone, and ever mindful of the power of public discourse, Jonathan quickly responded with this post, and invited Linus to dinner. Sweet. It *is* important for these guys to talk. At least to users, managers and IT professionals everywhere. Read the posts for yourself and decide: Solaris, really open? Or not? Leave me a comment.

As with many of my peers, I confess that SUN is a particular interest and sentimental favorite of mine. I've posted about the company and its products before, here and again, here. We're all depending on Java a lot these days, and I often wonder if users really appreciate the role that SUN had in making that important technology widely available. Sure, they're competitive (What successful company isn't?) but the company also has made substantial and long-lasting contributions to the industry.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Obit: Mr. Wizard Dies

I learned today of the death of an individual who, more than any American I can think of with the possible exception of Ben Franklin, was responsible for stimulating our interest in science.

The Los Angeles Times today runs the obituary for Don Herbert, known to an entire generation as Mr. Wizard. His famous television program, Watch Mr. Wizard, helped an army of future scientists discover the wonder of the real world and scientific investigation. Today, with science and intellectual thought under assault from the religious right, it is appropriate to take a minute and celebrate the life of this modest man of learning.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Predatory Business Practices

Did you know that almost one-half of the profits made by banks and wireless cell-phone carriers come from fees and penalties? Surprised? I didn't think so. But a recent study by two Harvard Business School professors confirms our worst nightmare. It's not big brother that's out to get us, it's big business. And they are getting us, in case you haven't already noticed. Fleecing us good, robbing us blind. SFGate.com and San Francisco Chron columnist David Lazarus writes about the abuse here. Thank you David.

It wasn't long ago that the customer was king. Now, we're told (when we can get a real human to talk to us) to shut-up and consume. Buy now, and buy big. There's always plastic. You know the story, it goes something like this: "...and for everything else there's Mastercard." Or, "Visa...everywhere you want to be." The message is clear: don't hesitate, you can have it now. But make one late payment, on any card you may own, and you'll pay a steep price. Forever. These predatory business want to own your soul, and that of your spouse, children and living relatives. Just look at the recent sub-prime housing mortgage scandal if you need more proof than your monthly credit-card statement.

First, the banks float the idea that anybody can own a home. Anybody. Doesn't matter if your credit score is below 650 and you're barely scraping by. No, "buy now" was the message. You can always sell for a profit later. Now, the American dream has been lost for a huge number of well-meaning, working-class folks who trusted their banks. Hey, how many of *you* read every word in your home mortgage agreement and did all the math?

And cell-phone companies are habitual offenders. Like insects sucking the blood of their customers with fees, charges and penalties; they actually design their programs to confuse their customers and increase their profit potentials in the process according to the Harvard report. That's what I'm talking about: Predatory business practices that seek to dupe trusting customers with disingenuous products and services that are actually designed to rip us off. This kind of corporate behavior is now the rule, rather than the exception. And we tolerate it. We hold for hours; patiently negotiate online forms; and submit multiple inquiries, requests and volumes of documentation to no avail. Give me a break. This model, as the academics correctly note, is not going to win friends and create loyal customers in the long run. But we're talking a feeding fenzy here. I can find no evidence of any long-term planning at all, just a wild, greedy rush to profit in any way possible.

This is a long rant, but there are so many examples that beg attention. Large Pharma refusing to develop new antibiotics because they're concentrating on drugs that people need to take every day. It's a profit thing, after all. What an excellent argument for nationalized, single-payer health coverage. Airlines devaluing their frequent flier programs, overbooking to excess and then tolerating delay rates approaching 70 percent. And don't even get me started on the insurance industry. When you have to sue your provider to recover from a hurricane, you're not in good hands.

I think we need a good, old-fashioned consumer revolt sometime soon. Buy local, support only ethical businesses, and vote with your wallet or pocketbook. It's time to heat up the tar and start collecting feathers. No wonder Halliburton moved its corporate headquarters out of the country to Dubai. Angry consumers (like this one) are spoiling for a fight. We could use a sympathetic big brother to watch our backs. So let's make sure to elect one next time around.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Rhetoric & Costs of War - Make Love not Stress

As candidates for president parade for the cameras and conduct their first series of presidential debates, the war in Iraq is never far from the surface. No wonder. The entire country is reeling from the human and financial costs involved and our very reputation as a world power is being called into question.

In this scenario, the Bush White House is rushing to shape perceptions, control the message and frame events in a positive light - only to have reality on-the-ground lay waste to all their efforts. Can you say: poetic justice? Mark Danner, professor of journalism at UC Berkeley and author of a number of books on war and the war in Iraq recently delivered the commencement address at the University's "School of Rhetoric." In that address, reprinted in its entirety in the Asia Times, he holds forth on the rhetoric of war and how politicians manipulate language to their own ends. The upstart is, in this case, that reality has outpaced the administration's ability to frame events and control the message. It is a very long piece, but way worth the read.

One of my favorite online sources of opinion and news, the Asia Times also takes a much-needed look at "Financing the Imperial Armed Forces" of the US. The hard-hitting and fact-filled piece notes that we're going to spend $1 trillion this year alone, in the absence of any credible threat. Living in a county that has just closed all of its libraries due to cutbacks in federal timber subsidies (hey, we take care of the roads and steward the land), I can tell you that this kind of expense is hard to justify. The country is suffering financially, with millions of families and children without health insurance and a decaying transportation infrastructure, and we're sending this kind of money overseas. I recall Paul Bremer, the first Duke of Iraq, reporting that he gave away billions in unaccounted for cash that was literally loaded onto palates in bundles for distribution. A government investigative report issued in 2005 found that under Bremer's leadership, $9 billion in reconstruction funds (taxpayer $$) just plain disappeared. Uh huh.

What has this staggering investment bought us other than a host of deceased young men and women and countless misspent dollars? Certainly not the end of terrorism as we know it, which has fed on our folly. And if you believe as many do that Bush is on a crusade against Islam and you buy into the "Clash of Civilizations" scenario, consider this: Muhammad is now the most popular name for newborn boys in Great Britain, and maybe in the entire world. That's right. Check it out.

On a lighter note, Der Speigel reports today on the dangers of all work and no nookie. German scientists (bless their hearts) have finally established a direct link between a lack of sex and increased stress. Flip side: the more sex, the less stress. Like we didn't know that. But the study went further, indicating that postponing resolution of sexual frustration leads to more work - and even less sex. Read the study, there are some thought-provoking observations as well as a few wickedly clever lines.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Global Warming - Street View & New Software

While the most senior White House aide since Reagan (interesting juxtaposition) is declared a felon and sentenced to 30 months in prison, president Bush is in Europe trying to convince a skeptical public and colleagues in the G8 that he is serious about finally recognizing global warming and doing something about it. He's not, of course. Not this president. He's all about image and PR, sticking to his reactionary guns, and never listening to advice that doesn't come to him from his trusted inner circle of yes-men and yes-women. So his conversion is immediately suspect.

We are well advised to critically examine what Bush is actually doing while he's posturing for the press. One recent revelation puts his conversion in some perspective. While he calls for new "studies" (god forbid we should have actual emission targets), his administration is practically eliminating the country's ability to track global warming with its array of weather satellites. Now that's intuitive, don't you think? Give me a break. Check out James Hrynyshyn's great post on the subject here. This president is all about oil, coal, consumerism and he's more than willing to live with the consequences.

The Germans appear to have him figured out. Der Speigel calls attention to "The Emperor's Green Clothes" here. And speaking about Germany, the same source has a fantastic article about what really is possible. A farming village collects its waste products, converts them to methane for power, then transfers the resulting heat to a variety of local settlements for free or very low cost. Read about it here.

Another controversy appears to be unfolding around Google's new Street View app. I know I'm coming late to this, following posts on Boing Boing and a firestorm of opinions, comments and net conversations. I submit, however, that the focus of these conversations is misplaced. Street View is not the issue, the images are in not in real time and the convenience of having 3-D views of areas mapped is profound. Again, Google is very good at balancing access to data with reasonable privacy concerns. They've built-in flagging capabilities and have a very easy procedure for removing offending images. The real issue here is around privacy in the digital age, the utter loss of anonymity and the ability of large commercial concerns to build deep profiles and share intimate personal data about customers. The National Academy of Science explores the issue here. So let's leave Google alone and take a look at the Pentagon, large corporate data-mining practices and archives, and the kind of "interception" that may be employed to grab our email correspondence, net-surfing patterns and personal data without our knowledge or permission.

Finally, some real competition for Microsoft Office and the new Google online office apps. Robert Scoble's post first attracted my attention to Zoho and their new suite of surprisingly robust office apps. Check out this hot new desi company and their equally hot software.