Tuesday, July 31, 2007

News Corp. Extends Its Reach

The Wall Street Journal is now in the hands of the same man who owns millions of MySpace profiles, not to mention is taking a sizable cut of the profits from this week's #1 movie, and, of course, one of any dozen of his other worldwide media holdings.

Yes, according to The New York Times, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. has reportedly succeeded in its acquisition of the Dow Jones Company from the Bancroft Family, which owns the venerable Wall Street Journal.

While it's too early to say for certain how the move under the News Corp. banner will impact the editorial direction of the Journal, history provides an instructive lesson of how past, often storied papers, have fared once put beneath Murdoch's rabidly conservative thumb. In particular, this article from The New Yorker, by Ken Auletta (who has studied Murdoch's maneuvering as much as anyone) is a must read.

Auletta identifies that Murdoch distinguishes himself from other modern-day media barons is the manner with which he diversifies News Corp.'s holdings beyond "old media," (such as television stations and newspapers), taking major gambles on "new media," such as MySpace.com. This short video clip has Auletta's explaining the challenges that the MySpace acquisition represents for News Corp.

I won't hide the fact that I'm no fan of Rupert Murdoch. In fact, I see him as a bully and a villain, who uses his media control in the same manner as old newspaper tycoons, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, but with a much wider (and therefore more dangerous) reach. In short, he's a propagandist in the most negative sense of the word, who has turned every media outlet he has owned (from the once-respected The Times, to the never respected Fox News) into quasi-personal mouthpieces with sensationalist headlines, stubbornly conservative agendas, and a dearth of hard reporting that do little to inform, but much to entertain.

Speaking of propaganda, I just finished a very interesting book, Age of Propaganda (a short excerpt is available here) that delves into the quesiton of propaganda in the news. Despite the book being written almost a decade before the advent of Fox News, it correctly predicts today's cable news environment. Here's an excerpt I found especially prescient:
[In regards to the minute-by-minute coverage of a 1985 hostage crisis:] TV cameras offered viewers back home around-the-clock coverage of all aspects of the crisis, important and trivial alike. There were press conferences held by the terrorists, press conferences held by the hostages, intimate shots of anguished families, demands, counterdemands, pistol-wavings, outrageous statements, luncheon menus. The TV cameras did everything but follow the hostages into the restrooms. The drama was spellbinding.

The result is sound-bite news—a montage of brief visual images that play to the crowds. Each event and every idea must be part of a dramatic story amply illustrated with visual displays. Stories that are easily dramatized and visualized, such as a child trapped in an abandon well, are readily covered. More complex issues, such as the economy or regulatory policy, receive little attention unless they can be made concrete and visual. [...] In the long run, our seemingly insatiable desire for entertainment may succeed where Hitler and Pravda failed.
The authors explain that entertainment-as-news—a total lack of reporting and focus on the trivial—is also a form of propaganda. With the sale of The Wall Street Journal to Murdoch's News Corp. (which has made this entertainment-as-news their trade), there's good reason to believe that one of the last bastion's of objective mainstream news has been dealt a deadly blow.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Conakry: Then and Now

If there's ever any doubt about the quality of life in Conakry (and in Guinea, in general), this article published last week from the Associated Press should serve as a reminder of the desperation gripping the country. The report describes how chronic power shortages in the capital have driven students to airports and gas stations off the unreliable power grid to review their lessons before their end-of-year exams. In so doing, they routinely must travel long distances in packs to avoid gangs prowling the streets. Many often return to their homes late and stinking of gasoline.

While the news out of Africa is often of despair, this story is different in that it at least focuses on those who are finding ways to surmount the daunting odds stacked against them, all in order to improve their lives and the lives of their families. Anecdotally, I can confirm many of my own students possessed a similar resilience, some walking over 5 kilometers every day to school and back each day, and many more returning to the school in the evening hours to meet with other students to review their lessons together. Guinean perseverance always amazed me, as visible in the rural countryside as it appears to be in the big city.

Coincidentally, around the same time as I came across the above article chronicling Conakry's despair, I was browsing for images of Conakry during its colonial era (an obscure moment of history with little photographic account), and I stumbled upon Images du passé en Afrique de l'Ouest, featuring a treasure trove of colonial-era images of important French towns. Click here to see a large catalog of pictures of Conakry—a town that has undergone a remarkable transformation in less than a hundred years from tranquil port village to overcrowded modern-day slum.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Reuters Shocked Young Nigerians Use Laptops for Porn

Recently 300 laptop computers were donated to students in Nigeria through the One Laptop Per Child program—despite many students lacking the electricity to recharge them. But never mind that myopic oversight, we've got Reuters with this sensationalistic follow-up trying to pass for news:
The News Agency of Nigeria said its reporter had seen pornographic images stored on several of the children's laptops.
Heavens to Betsy! Excuse me while I smooth out my rumpled bloomers.
"Efforts to promote learning with laptops in a primary school in Abuja have gone awry as the pupils freely browse adult sites with explicit sexual materials," NAN said.
"Gone awry?" I would say a project to donate laptops "went awry" when you gave them out to a town without electricity. Of course, Reuters doesn't want to bother with such details; rather, its focus is on young Nigerians' apparent unnatural interest in sex.

A representative of the One Laptop Per Child aid group was quoted as saying that the computers, part of a pilot scheme, would now be fitted with filters.

Filters are all well and good (despite the fact they are easy to circumvent), but I just don't know what unrealistic standards Reuters or the Nigerian News Agency are holding Nigerian students to, given that perhaps 90% of children using the Internet between the ages of 8-16 have been exposed to pornography, and more than 40% of all Internet users admit to regularly looking up porn (according to this website); so, is it any surprise to discover the practice might go on among young adults in Nigeria, too?

My guess is that the "news" for Reuters is that an apparently altruistic computer donation has somehow been sullied by Nigerian students' baser instincts. Rather than call into question the wisdom of OLPC's plan to pass out free laptops without thought to sustainability, practicality, or supervision, the focus of the article seems to be underlining and subtly criticizing young Nigerians' sexual curiosity.

So now that Reuters has confirmed that, gasp, given the opportunity, some young Africans will seek out pornography, (just like their Western peers), perhaps the news agency can shift their coverage back to the real issues of the day, such as confirming the Earth still orbits the sun and humans require oxygen to breathe.

Meanwhile journalistic double standards are alive and well, and that's something that we'll continue hearing little about.

The Hidden Value of Data

Swedish Professor Hans Rosling may not be the most compelling speaker you'll ever hear, but he sure knows how to use data and statistics to reveal surprising trends in human development, and the disparity in health and economy between the western world and developing countries.

In the video clip below, presented during the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Conference held this week in Monterey, California (an interesting event in its own right), Rosling's demonstrates how "boring" data can be used to define and contextualize highly complex problems facing development.

While I wish he would have delved into more detail with some of the phenomenon he cites, I realize his real purpose is to espouse the power of data and to encourage disparate groups studying developing countries (especially the UN) to make their data available to all researches so that it can be compiled, shared, and used by all.

If you're interested in learning more about Rosling (including other video presentations), check out his blog here.

Thanks to Ton Oncle for cluing me into the TED video clip.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Room With a View at the Zoo

Organizers of this year's Festival of Pan-African Music (FESPAM) in the Republic of Congo drew criticism from human rights activists after housing a group of Baka pygmy performers in tents at the Brazzaville Zoo. While national Forestry Ministry officials claimed that the 20 musicians, including 10 women and a baby, were placed in the high profile and rustic accomodations so that they would not be removed from their "natural environment," human rights activists blame the maltreatment on a long-held perception of pygmies being less than human. Zoo patrons reportedly found it a noteworthy spectacle, video-recording the musicians as they collected firewood on the park grounds.

According to Roy Richard Grinker's In the Arms of Africa, the attention is not all negative, as "The Pygmies have long been called the premiers citoyens (first citizens) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a title that not only assumes their primordial existence in the forest but also accords them the privilege of not paying taxes."

Nonetheless, the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor has denounced the Congolese government for permitting pygmies to be "excluded from employment opportunities, social programs, and the political process, in part due to their isolation in remote forested areas of the country, their culture, and their stigmatization by the majority Bantu population.

Also, in a 2002 United Nations inquiry, rebels of the Congolese Liberation Movement were found to have "killed, raped, and robbed civilians, sprayed livestock with automatic fire, raided fresh graves to look for treasure, and eaten human flesh." Victims of these crimes were primarily Ituri pygmies who were accused of being forest scouts for rival forces. Although the accusations of the rebels' cannibalism were eventually rescinded, the inhumane treatment of pygmies was again brought to light and even the most atrocious stories are believable.

You can find the BBC story on FESPAM here.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Good Wine Turns Gunpoint Robbery to Group Hug

The calmative powers of a good wine cannot be overstated.

An impromptu wine-tasting broke out at a dinner party in Washington DC (not far from the old haunts of two
Mafé Tiga contributors) when a robber slipped into the outdoor soirée and held guests up at gunpoint.

Disaster was averted when a quick-thinking attendee offered the excited man a taste of a Chateau Malescot St Exupery. One sip of the
rouge so calmed the rogue's troubled heart, the corsair could only exclaim, "I think I must've come to the wrong house." Holstering his his weapon, he asked for another glass.

Soon after, what began as a robbery at gunpoint ended with apologies and a group hug—
and a memorable quote from the erstwhile brigand before he let himself out: "Damn, that's really good wine."

Read all about it here.

And, in a related story, Google really can help with anything.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Last Train to Nowhere

Mauritania is renowned for its extreme heat, sprawling geography of sand, and utter desolation. The three qualities are at their most inescapable as you ride atop the iron ore train that rumbles from the depths of the country's interior to the coastal town of Nouadhibou.

The train is a modern-day version of a Saharan caravan; at each stop, its ore-filled cars are assaulted by travelers too poor to afford the cost of more sensible forms of transport. No one pays them any mind as they leap aboard, tucking themselves into corners of the cars with their baggage and livestock, braving hours beneath the sun and extreme desert temperatures in order to peddle their wears on the coast. The train is only another example of how a project ostensibly dedicated to the extraction of natural resources simultaneously sustains a small shadow economy of merchants and their families.

I'll never forget the night my friends and I spent on top of the train, riding it fourteen hours to the coast. Huddled beneath a UNHCR blanket, pressed tight to each other for warmth. I passed the hours tracking the constellations moving in a slow arc across the sky. The Saharan winds incessantly tousled the frayed edges of my turban, and I was forever readjusting it. The chunks of iron ore dug into my back while the train tossed and buckled under its heavy load; at any moment, it seemed, the cars would overturn, the train derail, and that would be the end of our Saharan adventure. Of course it didn't.

Why the sudden nostalgia more than a year later? Ton Oncle clued me in to a New York Times article about the iron ore train, its perilous voyage, and the unique assortment of characters that rely on this unlikely lifeline. The article is short, but certainly worth reading. Check it out here.

Watch the train passing in all its glory (it's purportedly the longest in the world):

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

"Who's Now?" What's Next?

I'm taking a break from our usual all-Africa programming for a special, if unimportant, comment:

I cannot make it through more than thirty seconds of SportCenter's new segment "Who's Now?"

ESPN wastes enough time nowadays as it is with non-sports "entertainment," but tonight, as I'm wading through the hackneyed catchphrases of ESPN's on-air "talent" for my fifteen seconds of Twins' highlights, I was forced to watch Stuart "Bojangles" Scott and three stooges knock heads as they "debate" the merits of who's more now: Steve Nash or Serena Williams.

And how does one go about establishing who's now? You'd imagine some complex statistical metrics behind that one, right? Not quite. Here are some highlights from tonight's Nash/Williams "debate" before I had to turn the TV off: plentiful generalizations ("he's flashy on the floor!"); who's dating whom ("she's been seen with LeBron!"); and non-existent insight ("not a lot people know him off the court..."). And the point of these four men's twittering? To establish which athlete generates the most buzz (a poor excuse for a word)...in other words, ESPN presents: A popularity contest. And it's like a month long.

While Scott and cronies sat around in a sleek, dark blue studio discussing their picks, I couldn't help but imagine a more appropriate setting would be a Jr. High girl's bedroom, where these four supposed men could lay on their paisley bedspreads beneath posters of unicorns while circling faces in their yearbooks and giggling about who should ask Belulah Lamprey to homecoming.

O! ESPN, to what depths can you sink?

I suppose the only real competition for most asinine excuse for sports entertainment with "Who's Now" is that other ESPN show I caught last year where their football "analysts" spent, like, eight hours previewing imaginary playoff match-ups from a season yet-to-be played in August. That particular idea was so bereft of value I recall the on-air talent couldn't even hide their shame (or laughter) as they broke down a fictional Superbowl between the Patriots and the Seahawks. And to imagine people watched this! And to imagine who they could be!

I guess sports journalists weren't held in low enough regards already, now they will actually sniff athletes' jocks and vote on whose smells best.

In other words:

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Gaddafi Calls for a "U.S." of Africa

"For 40 years all the [African] summits have failed[...]Our micro-states have no future," proclaimed Muammar Gaddafi, the president/dictator of Libya, during his stop in Conakry last week. Gaddafi, longtime enemy of American presidents, recently embarked on an overland trip across sub-Saharan Africa drumming up support for the idea of a United States of Africa. Sleeping each night in a tent and holding rallies in the capitals during the day, Gaddafi is pushing the idea of a United Africa as an economic and military counterweight to the United States and European Union.

The Libyan president is a longtime proponent of forming disparate African countries into a cohesive political and economic force that would push back for fairer trade agreements with western countries and integrate globalization to Africa on African terms. He even calls for the creation of a two-million man African army that would protect any African nation threatened by external invasion. He cites as an analogy Luxembourg's participation in the EU, saying that under its protection "not even China can invade."

The idea of a United States of Africa is not a new one. In 1958, a newly independent Guinea under Sékou Touré briefly took part of the first incarnation of an African United States. It was the brainchild of Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana. Touré went so far as to declare Nkrumah "co-president" of Guinea, though there's no evidence this was any more than a mi casa, su casa rhetorical flourish on the part of Touré. The union extended to eventually include Modibo Keïta of Mali, until he was disposed of in a coup. When Nkrumah was summarily removed in a similar fashion a few years later, all talk of African unity came to an end with very little in the way of actual results.

As this entertainingly written journal kept by a BBC reporter who traveled with Gaddafi reveals, the issue of African Unity this go around is one of "hares" and "tortoises." Gaddafi (who considers himself a hare), wants a United States of Africa now; unfortunately, Gaddafi's arrival in Accra, Ghana, as part of a three-day African Unity summit illustrates he is outnumbered by so-called "tortoises" to integration, such as Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, who failed to even show up to the event, and Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, who slept through a large portion of the summit's opening ceremonies.

While Gaddafi has been well received by crowds and officials at every stop so far during his cross-country tour, there is little evidence of actual accords taking place between African governments to put any of his proposals into action, even on a small scale. This opinion piece by Nkrumah's son, Gamal Nkrumah, suggests that while the dream of a United States of Africa lives on, African leaders have yet to confront and reconcile their staggering differences that would make such a dream a reality.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Trouble with Africa(n Aid)

African Update has posted an interview with author, Robert Calderisi, who spent three decades working on international development, most of it with the World Bank where he held several senior positions. (Read his critical opinion of former World Bank president, Paul Wolfowitz here.) He is the author of The Trouble with Africa.

Check it out here.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Precarious Prefets

Guinean Prime Minister, Lansana Kouyaté, fulfilled one of his long-promised governmental reforms yesterday with the nominations of seven new governors and 30 new prefets for Guinea (out of a possible 33). The decree, signed by President Lansana Conté, effectively reverses almost all his previous governor and prefet appointments to date.

Aminata.com has a more detailed report available to read (in French) here.

Two initial observations on my part:
  1. The president's acquiescence is a positive sign that perhaps a smooth transition to democracy will be possible in Guinea, and that Kouyaté's government is, in fact, legitimate.
  2. While only one of the new governors and three of the 30 prefets nominated are women, this should be considered an improvement from the previous total of zero.
So, what does a prefet do, anyway? For those of you not familiar with the byzantine layers of complexity of French bureaucracy (which has been painstakingly maintained in Guinea even after its independence), he essentially functions as an administrator of an area comprising 100,000–500,000 people, coordinating various functions at a local level, as well as effecting policy edicts from Conakry. To the ordinary Guinean, however, a prefet is most recognized as the patron ("boss") in flowing boubous who lives in a mansion and swoops in and out of town in a shiny new SUV

Since independence, but especially during the reign of Conté, prefets have become known in Guinea as some of the largest perpetrators of the corruption and graft that has earned Guinea's ranking as most corrupt country in Africa. They often earned their positions through their connections to Conté or to the party.

During my time in the préfecture of Tougué, I got to know two prefets (who also happened to be my next door neighbors). The first, Mouctar Banti Diallo, was so embroiled in any number of scandals involving the re-routing of money destined to fund projects in my préfecture, that it became something of a town joke to cite him as the prime suspect in every theft, from missing cows to missing chalk. He eventually was sent to Pita (where he was run out of town for similar shenanigans during the January riots).

Banti's replacement, Boubacar Baldé, wasn't much better, getting the plum appointment after heading up Conté's reelection efforts (you know, the one where he got nearly 100% of the vote). He spent only a scant few months in Tougué before falling terminally ill and spending the next year in Dakar and dying back in August of last year. Incredibly, Conté hadn't named a successor until yesterday's decree.

The fact Kouyaté has, in one fell swoop, replaced almost every single one of these corrupt do-nothings, suggests that he, too, recognizes the inherent corruption at all levels of Conté's government, and understands the need for fresh blood and capable administration on a local level—to regain the confidence of the Guinean people, if nothing else.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Guinea Gets an "F"

Foreign Policy released its 2007 failed states report, and guess who made the list.

Of course, Guinea isn't the most spectacular failure of a country (that honor goes to Sudan). Guinea ranked 9th on the list, compared to 11th last year—a surprisingly small change considering the recent level of unrest that has racked the country. Then again, considering it was facing stiff competition from war-torn countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, so perhaps its position is about right.

The embarrassing result comes as the latest in a string of ignominious honors for a country so gifted in natural resources, water sources, and rich soil (another being Transparency International's corruption survey in which Guinea was named the 2nd most corrupt country in the world). The ranking also serves as another ringing indictment of Lansana Conté's nearly 25 year-old regime that has utterly failed to institute the smallest meaningful reform since assuming power.

One would hope that the government formed under newly appointed Prime Minister Lansana Kouyaté will be given sufficient latitude by President Conté to institute the reforms Guineans so desperately need. Such optimism is tempered, however, by a recent interview with French television station, TV5, where an ever-stubborn Conté reaffirmed that "Il n'y a pas de transition ouverte. Je suis le chef, les autres sont mes subordonnés" ("There is no open transition. I am chief, the others are my subordinates"). He goes on to minimize the significance of the bloodiest protest Guinea has known during Conté's reign in January and February, in which more than 100 Guineans were killed by army and police actions:
"Quel est le pays qui n'a pas connu d'événements comme ça, d'événements douloureux ? [...] Ça arrive à tout le monde d'avoir des moments de difficultés, d'incompréhensions entre la population et le pouvoir"

("What country doesn't know events like this, painful events? [...] These sorts of difficulties, these misunderstandings between the population and the government happen to everyone.")
Lest there remained any doubt, Conté has made it clear: he's still captain of the S.S. Guinea, even as it sinks beneath his staggering corruption and intransigence.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Untapped Markets of AIDS, Malaria, and Famine

Libertarian Kenyan economist, James Shikwati, has made a name for himself by providing a counterpoint to the conventional wisdom that increased aid from western countries is the only antidote for curing Africa of its poverty malaise. He advocates putting an end to "this awful aid" he sees as responsible for maintaining African nations in perpetual states of poverty and for Africans to capitalize and profit from "the untapped markets" of AIDS, malaria, and famine.

So who is James Shikwati, and how exactly has he risen to prominence? As this article in the New York Times explains, he's the creation of Lawrence W. Reed, a conservative thinker and economist. Reed "discovered" Shikwati when the Kenyan, a former rural high school teacher who had been rejected for numerous graduate school programs in America, emailed him with a simple question: “Do you assist individuals who would like to know more about the free market and individual liberty?”

Reed sent books, reports, magazines, tracts — even occasional sums of money" to encourage Mr. Shikwati to pursue his capitalist education with a passion. Today Mr. Shikwati is considered "a one-man think tank," who has created the Inter-Region Economic Network, giving speeches on five continents and even being toasted at a dinner at the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC.

What, exactly does Shikwati propose? Here is an excerpt from his interview in Spiegel Online two years ago:
Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa's problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn't even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit. Which is why they maintain that the world would stop turning without this development aid.
Rather than refocus aid and redirect towards those who need it most, Shikwati would have us believe that all aid is bad, that its only salvation for Africa is to open it to free-market capitalism. Along these lines, Shikwati proposes that rather than considering those dying from AIDS, famine, and malaria to be blights on Africa's economic prospects, Africans should consider them uniquely African "untapped business markets" that Africans should be profiting from.

Jeffrey Sachs, author of The End of Poverty, noted economist, and longtime proponent to African aid describes Shikwati as “shockingly misguided, amazingly wrong," adding, “this happens to be a matter of life and death for millions of people, so getting it wrong has huge consequences.”

Shikwati's proposals have had little traction in his home country of Keyna; however, The New York Times correctly points out that his greater influence may be abroad where capitalists can use Shikwati as the African mouthpiece for their "the freer the market, the freer the people" agendas.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Household Slavery

It was an all-too-common sight during my time in Guinea: often when I visited my neighbors, I'd be introduced to a young girl I had never seen at the school ironing clothes, making dinner, or sweeping the foyer. When I would ask the girl her name, she would inevitably smile shyly and turn away, not understanding my French. These girls, household servants, were not directly related to the family—they were confiées, given awat by poor families to richer ones in bizarre and complicated forms of exchange I never understood even after two years in the country.

Now, Human Rights Watch has recently released a new report on Guinea focusing on this long-standing injurious practice: the wide-spread abuse of adolescent girls in the form of household help. The report, impressive in tackling a rarely talked about issue of West African culture, is available for download here. The report includes short accounts from the victims of this servitude-bordering-on-slavery. Here's an excerpt:
Sometimes my employers beat me or insult me. When I say I am tried or sick, they beat me with a whip. When I do something wrong, they beat me too.… When I take a rest, I get beaten or am given less food. I am beaten on my buttocks and on my back. —Rosalie Y., age 9
The report only stumbles when it comes to making its recommendations. The report calls for the new government, led by Lansana Kouyaté, to take the initative in combating the abuses of child household labor in Guinean society by strengthening the judiciary and supporting police efforts to follow-up on reports of household abuses. That's a tall order for a government and police force that has yet to gain the respect or trust of the population (especially after the murderous rioting of January and February), but such are the always-idealistic-rarely-realistic recommendations of Human Rights Watch.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Sarkozy, Unplugged

Who ever said the French don't know how to have a good time? Looks like the meeting with Vladimir Putin during the G8 conference a few days ago went well beyond the staid diplomatic chit-chat:

Approximate translation from the French:
Ladies and Gentlemen, I apologize for my lateness, due to the length of the dialogue I just had with Mr Putin (vomits in mouth). So, how should we do this? You want to ask me questions? (smiles and sways like a birch in the breeze) Are there any questions? (nearly cracks up) Yes, yes, well, um...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Mr. Wizard, dead at 89

I have fond memories of Mr. Herbert as I grew up watching him on Nickelodeon. His show was always entertaining—especially the one where he made the volcano blow up. He almost, but not quite, made me appreciate science.


The last couple days I've been turned on to several different strange and funny things that I figured I ought to share. No, they don't have anything to do with Mr. Wizard, but as long as I'm updating the blog, I thought I'd mention some of them here.

1.) First up is this strange video of Johnny Depp being assaulted by piano-playing, sword-wielding pirate children on a Japanese talk show. Obviously, something is lost in translation:

2.) The next link is to another website called "Overheard in New York" that captures random bits of interesting conversations that, you guessed it, were overheard in The Naked City. Here are a couple examples:
Street hawker: Take it -- slit your wrists with it, roll your drugs in it -- I don't care. Just take it.

--43rd & 7th
Comedy promoter: Colorful paper! Free colorful paper! Use it to wipe your ass!

--Times Square
3.) Our third and final link comes from a forum for Student Doctors in which each poster takes a turn at describing things they learn from their patients. Apparently, they are true stories. I liked these in particular:
When I volunteered in an ED, this was my favorite line of questions/answers with teenage females:

1. Is there any chance you could be pregnant? No.
2. Do you take birth control? No.
3. Do you have unprotected sex? Yes.
4. When was your LMP? 3 months ago.
5. Now, let me ask you again, is there any chance you could be pregnant? No, I told you that already.
If somehow a ping pong ball should make its way into your rectum and you cannot retieve it, do not mix yourself a cement enema--as this will only make your problems worse.
Read more here.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

“From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

You may have seen news reports (like this one) on Friday how multi-billionaire, Bill Gates, the Harvard dropout, finally received his degree from his alma mater.

Like you, I didn't pay the story much mind of the story until I had an opportunity to read Gates's actual remarks, available here.

Gates begins his commencement address by joking about his (lack of) college experience, but the mood quickly turned somber when he expressed his one big regret about his time at college: "I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world," adding that it took him "decades to find out" about the unbelievable levels of poverty and disease that only grow worse in developing countries.

Gates spends the next twenty minutes expressing his disbelief at the levels of inequity he has experienced in the world and of his efforts to better understand the issue and raise awareness through advocacy. Here is an excerpt:
If you believe that every life has equal value, it’s revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to ourselves: “This can’t be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving.”

So we began our work in the same way anyone here would begin it. We asked: “How could the world let these children die?”

The answer is simple, and harsh. The market did not reward saving the lives of these children, and governments did not subsidize it. So the children died because their mothers and their fathers had no power in the market and no voice in the system.

It's an impressive speech made all the more powerful by the fact that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has an endowment of more than 33 billion dollars. Of which they recently gave more than 10 million to Purdue University to improve food storage techniques in ten African countries.

Video of the afternoon commencement exercises (with Gates's speech at the end) is available for download here.

Friday, June 8, 2007

30 minutes for Guinea

Between losing a war in Iraq and myriad other crises punctuating the Bush administration (where Bush's recent approval ratings have tied his all-time low at 32%), Condoleezza Rice took a break from arranging the deck chairs to receive Lansana Kouyaté, the new prime minister of Guinea, for a brief thirty minute rendezvous at the White House.

Aminata.com reports (in French) that the issues on the table were America's continued commitment to ensuring a stable transition of power in Guinea (if we've been seeing America's commitment, I'd hate to see its apathy). Rice also hammered home that any economical aid will only come with concrete evidence of Guinea's continued political reform.

A spokesperson for the State Department explained that the U.S. will watch closely the Guinean legislative electives tentatively rescheduled for December for indications of the next steps to take in tightening Guineo-American relations.

Some steps are already being taken, however; former volunteers have been told by Peace Corps administration that the organization plans to return to the country in a few months, barring any further countrywide protests of the sort seen in January and February.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Kennedy has come back"

The French seem to have suddenly fallen under the spell of the new president, Nicolas Sarkozy. This article in the International Herald Tribune talks about how after a contentious election, Sarkozy's approval ratings (at 65%) have already shot as high as any president this early in his election under the fifth republic.

How to describe the Sarkozy mania? The French magazine, Le Point, puts it this way:
Kennedy has come back. He's named Sarkozy. Never has a president shown such a relaxed nature, such an absence of complexes.
Such an absence of complexes was in display when Sarkozy met with one of his ministers, Alain Juppé, whom he addressed with an informal "tu" instead of the formal "vous." According to the Herald Tribune, Juppé, a former prime minister in the formal Chirac era, seemed so flummoxed by the informality that he replied in a convoluted formulation, avoiding both "vous" and "tu." forms.

He also has invited the media to accompany him and his new prime minister, François Fillon, on their regular jogs. A recent photo of Sarkozy in Nike training gear (a notion once unthinkable in French politics) hopping up the steps of L'Elysée set both tabloids and conventional media outlets aflutter.

But the evolution in exercise and grammar is only window-dressing compared to Sarkozy's radical changes at the ministerial level: He named seven women and a socialist to his fifteen-person cabinet, streamlining the organization to half the size of that found under Chirac's government.

Time will tell whether France has reason for its newfound optimism.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The revolution will no longer be televised

Last week, Venezuelan president and avowed socialist, Hugo Chavez, took another step in radicalizing his country's socialist revolution by shutting down the country's oldest private television station. The private station, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) often led off its news broadcasts by announcing that Venezuela was in crisis. Here are some examples of typical lead stories by the station:
"Inflation is soaring...There are acute shortages of milk, eggs and meat...Violent crime is taking more than 100 lives every week...The government is in chaos...Corruption is draining the country's oil wealth."
The troublesome, anti-Chravez RCTV has been replaced with a new "public service" station run by Chavez appointees.

Chavez and RCTV have long endured a tempestuous relationship. Chavez has never forgiven the station's support of the 2002 coup attempt on his presidency. During the coup, the station openly supported the removal of Chavez from office, failing to maintain any semblance of journalistic integrity in its biased reporting on the event (including inexplicably failing to mention the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who manifested their support of the president), and blaming Chavez's government for the ensuing violence that racked the city when it was later proven to have been instigated by those responsible for the coup.

Chavez has never been shy about courting controversy. If you're not familiar with the man's story, you owe it to yourself to watch this video chronicling the aforementioned short-lived coup attempt on his presidency. In fact, the video highlights the roots of the row between Chavez and RCTV, pointing out how RCTV's biased media coverage helped lend credibility to a thinly guised coup possibly supported by the CIA.

The station's closure highlights a disturbing turn in the regime's politics. More than 70% of Venezuelans polled opposed the closure (and only 16% approved)—though most cited losing their favorite programs rather than erosion of free speech as the reason. Chavez's popularity in the country, however, remains high, at around than 65%. There were large protests in Caracas over the past few days by those both supportive and opposed to the decision. Chavez's soldiers have reportedly fired on RCTV supporters.

As this editorial in The Guardian points out, Chavez is resorting to dictatorial means in order to effect his high-minded political ideals, illustrating that the "Venezuelan people's will" is, in fact, nothing more than Chavez's own political agenda in which he stifles any opposition to his policies through increasingly authoritarian means.

Friday, May 18, 2007

"I expect that I will be talked about at the end of 1,000 years."

Far too many hours in Guinea were passed with fellow blogger, ñamaku, and me lounging on the stained cushions of the Labé regional house reading to each other excerpts from the modern day classic, Chinaman's Chance, a novel the New Yorker(!) claims holds "enough plot to overwhelm a trilogy, and the Washington Post(!) calls "A classic of the genre" by "master storyteller" (and possible spy) Ross Thomas.

Namaku and I would laugh ourselves silly with characters, such as "The man with the six greyhounds" and "The pretender to the imperial throne of China." If you at all doubt Thomas's mastery of the English language, just read the book's opening line: "It was while jogging along the beach just east of the Paradise Cove pier that Artie Wu tripped over a dead pelican, fell, and met the man with six greyhounds."

Despite appearances, the story is apparently intended as a serious thriller. Even today, the author has a small, almost polite following, none of whom, apparently, see any humor in the story's ridiculous set-up, nor in Thomas's over-the-top schlock. Their loss.

Thomas, of course, isn't the only purveyor of dime-store doozies, nor are ñamaku and I the first to poke fun at their expense: This article from The Telegraph describes how C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and Mark Twain, among other authors of the time, would, as a sort of joke, read out loud to each other the works of a certain Amanda McKittrick Ros, a woman so convinced of her greatness that she believed her works would "be talked about at the end of 1,000 years."

And what would we be talking about? Lines such as these, perhaps:
"The living sometimes learn the touchy tricks of the traitor, the tardy and the tempted; the dead have evaded the flighty earthy future, and form to swell the retinue of retired rights, the righteous school of the invisible and the rebellious roar of the raging nothing."
Well played, McKittrick, but you've still got nothing on Thomas's economy of line.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Army of Darkness

Guinea appears once again on the brink of chaos as soldiers have taken to the streets in recent weeks demanding new uniforms, promotions, and long-promised wage increases by firing their weapons and marching on the presidential palace. According to the Guinean government, the nationwide demonstrations have resulted in the death of at least six Guineans, and the injuries of at least 70 others.

Conakry has turned into a ghost town since h
undreds of armed soldiers mutinous began marching from Camp Samory Touré, near the internationl airport, towards downtown, seeout of the control of government and senior military officials. This report from IRIN describes how even President Lansana Conté's personal Presidential Guard was forced to flee from the armed mutinous soldiers.

As Lansana Kouyaté explains in his public address to the citizens of Guinea, the government is attempting to meet the demands of the soldiers, but calls for soldiers to first cease their violent demonstrations.

Soldiers' protests in Guinea are held in haphazard, dangerous fashion, usually involving random rifle fire in the air; the stray bullets inadverently hit human targets as they fall back to earth.

Today, the ailing president Lansana Conté (a former army colonel, and self-appointed "general") has met one of the protesting soldiers' demands, purging three of the top ranking generals in the army. However, he has so-far refused to demission Kerfala Camara, the man responsible for the infamous martial law in Conakry during the second round of nationwide rioting in February; and neither the president nor the prime minister have given any response to salary demands. According to the BBC, Kouyaté's government may find it difficult to find a solution since the government lacks any obvious means of meeting demands outside of printing more money—a potentially dangerous move given Guinea's 30% annual inflation.

According to someone close to the U.S. Embassy in Guinea, U.S. personnel remian under a security watch and her personal opinion is that there may be another evacuation of Embassy personnel if the situation doesn't stabilize in the coming days.

Privately, foreign diplomats wonder how much longer Conté can cling to power in an increasingly unstable and volatile political environment where even his own military demands change. The ease with which the disgruntled soldiers reached the Presidential Palace demonstrates the fragility of the regime, and the ease with which a potential coup could be effected.

It appears that hopes for a new, calmer Guinea will have to be put on hold, once again.

Friday, May 4, 2007

May Day Mêlée

You may have heard about the nationwide May Day immigrant protests a few days ago.

While most were peaceful, in Los Angeles, things got ugly. The protests were interrupted by a police crackdown on McArthur Park which resulted in the reported beating of several protesters.

Now some video of the protests in L.A. have emerged and we can see for ourselves how the police conducted themselves as they cleared the park and then the streets block-by-block of protestors.
Watch it here.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Elections à la française, Part Deux

In a few days, France will choose its next president.

Last night, French citizens had their first opportunity to see the two opponents duke it out head-to-head, without pause, for more than two-and-a-half hours. You can watch it in many little parties on YouTube starting here. Sorry, no subtitles.

The New York Times
offers an even-handed review of the proceedings here suggesting that neither candidate came out on top. Another review disagrees, saying Royal came out on top. She has to as she still trails by four points in polls taken before the debate.

Royal needs to nab about 60% of the voters who chose Bayrou in the first series of elections in order to close the gap. Bayrou refuses to endorse either candidate, though he has reserved his strongest criticism for Sarkozy.

I didn't have such a balanced view of the proceedings; I watched this debate at my university in France with about 40 other students. From my vantage point, it seemed as though the room went from supporting Royal in the beginning, to laughing at her missteps and Sarkozy's continual jabs. I was surprised to hear loud clapping for Sarkozy at the end while only a muted response for Ségolène.

The major turning point in the debate seemed to be when Sarkozy baited Royal with an anecdote about the injustices faced by the disabled in France. Royal bit and lost her top claiming Sarkozy was lying about his efforts while in office and calling him immoral or something like that.

The exchange went a little bit like this:
Royal: "[Your words are] the height of political immorality....describing the plight of children with a tear in your eye.”

Sarkozy: “Calm down.”

Royal: “No, I will not calm down.”

Sarkozy: “Do not point at me with this finger, with this—"

Royal: “No. Yes.”

Sarkozy: “With this index finger pointed, because frankly—”

Royal: “No, I will not calm down. No, I will not calm down. I will not calm down.”

Sarkozy: “To be president of the republic, you have to be calm.”

Royal: “Not when there are injustices. There are angers that are perfectly healthy because they correspond to people’s suffering. There are angers I will have even when I am president of the republic.”

Sarkozy: “Madame Royal, would you allow me to say one word? ...I don’t know why the usually calm Madame Royal has lost her nerve.”

Many of the students in the room at the time seemed to echo this sentiment, clucking and sighing in exasperation, or laughing at the suddenly furious Royal who seemed to stumble right into the trap Sarkozy laid for her.

I support Royal in theory but I would feel like I'm in a tough spot if I was a French voter. During the debate, Sarkozy hammered his points with an often-bewildering array of facts and numbers while Royal couldn't respond but to say that Sarkozy was wrong, rarely specifiying how and drifting from the questions posed by the moderators; when pressed for precision, she fell back on vague promises of "we'll see how negociations go." Her propositions seem like they would only enhance the oppressive socialist structure (especially the 35-hour work week) that's already strangling France's economic development.

Sarkozy, on the other hand, appears to have some idea of what he wants to do, which carries with it some appeal when the country considers itself in the midst of a growing crisis. Royal failed to press on issues where Sarko is vulernable (such as immigration), and even though I don't really care for a lot of his policies. He seems vaguely self-obsessed and confident to the point of arrogant; however, I have to hand it to him: he stayed on point and remained calm throughout the debate.

My Verdict: Sarkozy led the debate from the one-hour mark to the conclusion; though he verged on bullying Royal, who withered and postured as the debate wore on—and then, most worrisome, lost her cool, he never came off as anything but confident in his politics, which he supported with facts, something Royal often failed to do.

French voters have a tough choice coming up this Sunday.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dying for Change

Human Rights Watch, one of the few NGOs doing good work in Guinea (though I can't comment on the controversy over their reporting in Israel), published their report on Guinea's recent riots a few weeks ago, interviewing more than 115 eyewitnesses to the country-wide riots.

The incredible eyewitness tesitimonies from those chaotic days in late-January and early-February make the report a must read.

For those who don't know all the background behind the strike, jilted union leaders galvanized in January to launch an unlimited general strike to absolutely paralyze all activity in the country (after having launched two smaller scale strikes last year). A good summary of the events leading up to the strike can be found here.

The goal of this strike was to see that government promises of wage increases and price controls on basic commodities (rice, kerosene for lamps, and gas for transportation) be met so that Guineans could continue to work and feed their families. The strike launched peacefully on January 10th, but the government made it clear early on that it was unwilling to make concessions; strike leaders decided to make the strike political for the first time in recent years, demanding sweeping government reforms, demanding that President Lansana Conté and his entire Congress step down from power.

The government's unwillingness to meet the strike leaders' demands is not hard to understand: Guinea is bankrupt, the result of decadent and systematic corruption over recent years that has earned it the reputation as the second most corrupt country in the world: Those who own posts of power steal money destined to fund projects and development to buy themselves mansions and Mercedes. In short, the country languishes in poverty and fails to provide basic services, such as electricity and running water, in its capital and major cities (the vast majority of the country has never been electrified and is without running water).

On January 22nd, tens of thousands of ordinary Guineans spontaneously took to the streets, carrying banners such as "We are ready to die for change." President Conté obliged them, ordering the army to open fire on protesters on the crowds. More than 60 people died that day.

I'm posting a segment detailing the bloodiest day of protests on January 22nd only as encouragement to read the entire 66-page report:
According to the government’s own figures, the brutal crackdown resulted in at least 129 dead and over 1700 wounded, hundreds of them by gunshot.
The massacre traces its origin to an economic collapse, and rampant corruption such as the president Lansana Conté securing the release of two of his rich friends who had been arrested on charges of embezzlement in which he
"...traveled to Conakry’s central prison with his motorcade and personally secured the release of two close allies charged with embezzlement from Guinea’s Central Bank, reportedly telling his entourage, 'Je suis la justice' ('I am the law)."
This story, which was to be widely circulated around the country in the following weeks, would prove to be "the final straw" for trade unions who were utterly exhausted with Contés promises. Of the massacre, we now have extensive eyewitness reports, including testimony from the vicitms themselves:
The day I was shot, I was going out to try to find some rice to eat. ...I saw a group of youths protesting on the street. Some of them were throwing rocks at a large group of nearby policemen, who immediately started shooting at us. I felt a sharp pain and looked down and saw blood flowing from my leg and I fell down. I couldn’t walk. ...The police came up and I heard one of them say they should kill me. Then one of them kicked me in the face and I felt the blood start to run. The police left me there...
On January 22nd, one of the largest protests ever seen in Guinea—a veritable "human tide"—took to the streets. In the words of one of the protestors: “When we came out on Monday, we were determined to change the system in place. It’s been 48 years since independence, and we have nothing.”

The scene came to a head that morning near central Conakry. Testimony from one of the eyewitnesses:
During the march on January 22, I was one of the stewards. Our role was to keep marchers from throwing rocks and engaging in acts of vandalism. We wanted to improve upon the marches of January 17, where some youths had thrown rocks and wanted to insult the police....so it was important to calm things down. Those playing this role were just organized informally, and were older guys from the neighborhood who the youth respected. We didn’t get orders from on high.
Nonetheless, security forces did not respect the non-violent nature of the march. Another eyewitness account from the 22nd:
When we arrived in Hamdallaye, there were lots of police and gendarmes and there was lots of firing in the air and lots of tear gas. But it wasn’t frightening people, so they fired straight into the crowd. There was no stone throwing at Hamdallaye. Nothing. Two died there that I saw. One was hit in the forehead, and the other in the chest. I don’t know if it was a policeman or gendarme who fired those particular shots. We took the bodies and put them on a piece of corrugated tin and carried them on our heads. The security agents backed off as we approached with the bodies and we passed forward towards Bellevue.
The scene came to a head at Le pont de 8 novembre ("The Bridge of November 8th"). Another protestor's testimony:
As we neared the bridge, we were chanting, “We don’t want Conté anymore.” We also had a Guinean flag. We had no stones, no arms of any kind. Our only weapons were little tree branches that we were waving above our heads. Around 2 p.m., we arrived at the bridge. There were police, gendarmes, and Red Berets there. The police were there in strong numbers. There were fewer Red Berets, but I tried to stay closer to the police because the Red Berets were firing more. I saw the Red Berets firing straight into the crowds and several people fall on the ground. We panicked and tried to flee. As my friend was trying to climb a wall into a nearby cemetery to get away, someone fired and hit him in the shoulder. He fell town and tried to climb again, and they shot him again in the lower back side. I knew if I tried to climb the wall they’d shoot me too, so I ran towards the police because they weren’t firing as much and they captured me. They struck me with their rifle butts on the back and arrested me.
A foreign diplomat on hand to view the carnage corroborates this accounts:
From what I saw of the march of the 22nd, security forces were firing on an absolutely peaceful march. The protestors had no stones or arms of any kind. At first, security forces did use tear gas to try to push people back. But then the first wave of protestors that was advancing toward the bridge got closer and closer. One protestor was carrying a Guinean flag. A group of protestors got down on their knees in a non-threatening position in front of the soldiers. But the soldiers fired at the one in the first row holding the Guinean flag, as he stood there on his knees. They literally fired directly into the crowd. The Red Berets were firing, but so were the police and gendarmes. Several were wounded at the bridge, hit in the stomach, so they couldn’t have been firing in the air. I saw police kick those who were already lying prostrate wounded on the ground, so the security forces were clearly over-excited. Groups of protestors would disperse in all directions only to come back again. I don’t know why the demonstrators kept advancing. Maybe they thought because they weren’t armed, they wouldn’t be hurt.
For much more, including descriptions from doctors at the local hospitals, families whose homes were sacked by marauding soldiers, and accounts from the strike leaders themselves (who report having been threatened with murder by the president himself), see the report.

If you're still wondering why you should care, even if you've never visited or even heard of Guinea, Guinea visits you every day. The country is the world's second-largest producer of raw aluminum (bauxite); so the spoon you use to eat your cereal or the car you drive to work have been, in a sense, carved from its red rocks. As citizens of the world, we owe it to the people of Guinea to inform ourselves about this tragedy that has unfolded in the country over the last few months. Their loss is our own.