Friday, May 30, 2008

The Globe: Good News from Burma

It's actually good news mixed with bad, but we'll take it.

The good news is that the junta has approved all pending visas for foreign aid workers, so finally the people in the isolated parts of the Irawaddy Delta should begin getting some help.

The bad news is that the regime is now using cyclone survivors as forced labor to do the clean-up and reconstruction.

Yet the intersection of these two pieces of news can only be a good thing. Burma is a country with a laundry list of ills, but forced labor has long been one of the regime's hallmarks. The fact that the generals are bold (or stupid, or desperate) enough to carry on with their old ways while the country is filled with foreign aid workers, and while the whole world looks on, may turn out to be a good thing.

In fact, if you were wondering why a regime would be so reluctant to let outsiders come help, you're now about to see the exact scenario the generals feared playing out. My fervent hope is that the international community and the press will stay on this story and continue to expose the brutality of the regime -- exactly as they have not done for the past 40-odd years, as this kind of forced labor has been a regular feature of life for ordinary citizens in the country.

Here are three accounts of forced labor as told to me by Burmese citizens who I interviewed last year. As you read them, bear in mind that forced labor is far from the problem with this regime; it is only one out of many. I will add posts in the future to help round out the picture of this dictatorship's profound insanity.

Sai Ba Htay
Interviwed at Mae Tao Clinic, Mae Sot, Thailand, 8 April 2007

I am from the northern part of Shan State, which is in the northeast of the country. I’m a member of the Shan ethnic group. I’m 28 years old.

I left Burma by myself. Why did I leave? Wow, there are so many reasons. Mostly economic. In Burma, you have to pay an incredible amount of taxes. My mother, my younger brother and I had a rice farm. The government would buy the rice from us, but at a ridiculously low price. It’s really impossible ever to make any money for yourself, because you have to give 75% of what you make to the government. That just leaves you with enough to survive. There’s no benefit at all to the farmer. This has been going on for a long time, but life inside Burma is becoming more and more difficult.

Sometimes you have to leave your own work to do forced labor for the government. It’s very organized. There’s a rotation system, and two kinds of forced labor. One is “formal” forced labor, where you are called once per year to help on construction projects and so on. The other is called “informal” forced labor, where you’re just called suddenly to come do work. I started getting called when I was 16 years old. I have had to go plant krow, an edible plant that the army sells to finance itself, and I’ve had to go into the forest to cut bamboo and build walls for a military base.

Your village will get called to do forced labor, and each village has a car – that they have to pay for – to carry workers to the project site. When you go to forced labor, you bring your own food. When you arrive, they say, “Okay, you have to complete this area. You can’t go home until it’s finished.” If you’re sick or weak and can’t go do the forced labor, you have to rent someone to go do it in your place. Sometimes the site is ten miles from your village, so if you get sick while the project is going on, you have to wait until it’s finished to go home and get treatment. They give you one hour per day to rest and eat the food you brought with you – then back to work.

The SPDC is very verbally abusive toward the workers, but I never saw anyone get beaten. They don’t have to beat you, though. You see their guns and you know what they’re capable of, so everyone tries very hard to please them. Sometimes they threaten to shoot you if you don’t work hard, and they actually fire their guns to scare you.

Maikhon Thein
Interviewed at Mae Tao Clinic, Mae Sot, Thailand, 8 April 2007

I am from a small village called Nam Sam. My parents are tea farmers there. In 1999,like many people in Burma, I was forced to porter for the SPDC for three days. When the SPDC is doing a construction project, or sometimes when troops are moving through the jungle, they force ordinary civilians to carry equipment or weapons for them. They made me carry guns. Each day we were given one handful of rice to eat. We had to walk with these loads all day in the heat, and if you didn’t keep up, you were in trouble.

A friend of mine went with me. He was too small to carry much, so the SPDC got angry with him and began hitting him hard on the head with the butts of their guns. He didn’t die, but he is crazy now. He lives in the street and eats strange things. He is not the person I used to know.

Forced portering has been happening for a long time in Burma. When I was small, my father portered for one month. On top of the loads they were forced to haul, they had to carry their own food. They were also forced to dig foxholes for soldiers. When he came home, he was very thin, and he started beating my mother. He never used to do that.

It is very, very sad, what is happening inside my country.

Kaun Caan Kaee, age 31
Interviewed in Mae Sot, Thailand, 13 April 2007

In my last year of high school, I was walking to the school, carrying my books, to take my final examinations. I came across a group of SPDC soldiers, more than I could count. I thought because I had my school uniform on, they wouldn’t stop me. But I was wrong. They captured me and forced me to carry heavy loads for them.

This happens a lot. The SPDC will come to a village and tell the head man, “We need 200 men to carry loads for us.” But the people know that this is happening, so all the men go and hide. Sometimes when the SPDC comes to a village and can’t find any men, they will capture women and children and hold them until men show themselves, for exchange. Once the men show up, the soldiers are angry, and they beat the men. This happened once to my father. Another time, when I was six or seven, my father was portering and he got sick of it and ran away. The soldiers caught him and severely beat him again.

There were other civilians forced to porter with me. There was one old man who had no energy. He couldn’t carry anything. I watched as one soldier stabbed him through the midsection, killing him with his bayonet. Later the soldier had to pay 3,000 kyat [about $450] in compensation to the old man’s family.

We went up into the mountains and stayed in villages. The villagers were good to us. They gave us really good rice to eat – but the soldiers took the good stuff the villagers had given us, and made us eat bad rice.

It was rice that the soldiers were making me carry. An enormous bag that probably weighed 50 kilos. And I only weigh 54 kilos! So when no one was looking, I cut a little hole in the bottom of the sack so that rice would leak out to lighten my load.

On the third day, we entered the village where my school was. My teacher saw me carrying rice for the army, and he went and talked to the soldiers. He told them I was a student who was supposed to be taking my examinations, so they let me go.

But that wasn’t the last time I had to porter.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Politics: FEMA Trailer Outrage

The direct consequences of the Katrina disaster continue to play out in the lives of hundreds of American children, with health problems that will dog them for the rest of their days.

Remember the tens of thousands of plain white RV trailers ordered up by FEMA as temporary shelter for evacuees? Remember how anyone who believed there was something wrong with those trailers -- something that may have killed one man and seemed to be making children sick -- was dismissed for a time as a conspiracy theorist? 

According to a story today by the Associated Press: 

. . . [T]ens of thousands of youngsters . . . may face lifelong health problems because the temporary housing provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency contained formaldehyde fumes up to five times the safe level.

For the record, other stories have put the number at up to 75 times the safe level.

Formaldehyde is a probable carcinogen. The children now are suffering from severe asthma, but experts fear that within 10-15 years, they will begin seeing cancers in these kids.

What's particularly disgusting about all this is the foot-dragging and cover-up that have gone on on the part of the government. According to emails that surfaced through a class-action lawsuit, FEMA knew of the health problems way back in 2006 but took no action -- not because they were lazy or ineffectual, but because they were callously neglectful:

On June 16, 2006, three months after reports of the hazards surfaced and a month after a trailer resident sued the agency, a FEMA logistics expert wrote that the agency's Office of General Counsel "has advised that we do not do testing, which would imply FEMA's ownership of this issue." A FEMA lawyer, Patrick Preston, wrote on June 15:  "Do not initiate any testing until we give the O.K.  . . . Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them." (Washington Post, July 19, 2007)

Once testing was conducted, it was rather baffling in its particulars: 

A CDC study released May 8 examined records of 144 Mississippi children, some of whom lived in trailers and others who did not. But the study was confined to children who had at least one doctor's visit for respiratory illness before Katrina. It was largely inconclusive, finding children who went to doctors before the 2005 storm were still visiting them two years after. (AP, May 28, 2008)

Efforts to expedite the removal of these families from the toxic trailers only began in earnest this February.

Fourteen trailer manufacturers have been named in the lawsuit. The suit alleges that the manufacturers -- contracted by the government to produce 100,000 trailers ASAP -- may have cut corners. Formaldehyde is used in composite wood and plywood panels. Typically, during the manufacturing process the materials are baked and the formaldehyde is sealed in. At least one expert has suggested that perhaps this part of the process was truncated during the manufacture of these trailers, which, according to the lawsuit, sometimes were built in ten minutes flat.

What do the manufacturers have to say? According to MSNBC, a spokesperson for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association . . . .

 . . . [A]knowledged that the high heat and humidity in the Gulf Coast could increase the rate of formaldehyde "outgassing" from wood products trailers, but added that ventilation should quickly take care of any problem.

"You can get it to dissipate very easily if you just ventilate it," he said. "People may just need to be shown how to open the windows."

Yes, of course. We all know about those sub-human Gulf Coasters, not bright enough to crack a window when they're being choked by formaldehyde fumes.

As I sit and type this, a colorful string of Mardi Gras beads hangs here in my office just an arm's length away. It takes me back to a couple of days I spent in a FEMA trailer with a beautiful family who had lost everything and who were struggling to continue on with dignity. They were very brave, but occasionally the emotion broke through and they had to stop and regain their composure. They had chosen to stay on there in the trailer parked in front of their semi-gutted house, which had been flooded with nine feet of water. They were toiling away at stripping down their house to rebuild it. All the vegetation in the back yard had died, and they were burning out a tree stump. Their eight-year-old son, who whipped off his shoes and tromped around barefoot whenever he slipped out of sight of his mother, was fascinated by the burning stump, and spent hours "tending" it. After two days of hearing their story and getting to know them, my photographer and I pulled away in our rental car. In my rearview mirror I saw the barefoot boy running in the road behind us, motioning for me to stop. He came up to our windows and handed each of us a string of beads as a memento. We thanked him and continued on our way. In my rearview mirror I could see him standing in the road, barefoot, waving us off, as we turned off his street and continued past many more miles of devastation.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Family: Memorial Day Weekend

Cousin Vanal arrived over the weekend, along with his Mom and Grandma Betty. Vanal and Stillman got along famously. Vanal was eager to interact with the Boy, and pitched right in with holding him, feeding him, and even changing diapers! Because Vanal and TLS have always been extremely close, we wondered how things would go. But Vanal was fantastic. The closest thing to any rivalry came when Stillman got an unusual amount of attention for having produced a rather spectacular bowel movement, upon which Vanal assured me that when he was a baby, he had done one that went not just up his lower back, as Stillman's had, but darned near up to his neck.

My other favorite Vanal quote this weekend came at a quiet moment when we were sitting together on the couch feeding the Boy. Vanal says, "He isn't very brown, is he?" Then he was quiet for a moment and looked over at me and said, as if thinking of it for the first time, "Are you brown?" So I guess it's true that kids really are blind to race, since Vanal is incredibly bright and never misses anything.

Blessed with beautiful weather, the whole gang took a stroll down into the village.

Then we dropped off Stillman and TLS so they could nap, and the rest of us continued up to Lehigh Gorge State Park and the beautiful Glen Onoko hike, which rises steeply up along a cascading stream. Grandma Betty impressed everyone by hoofing it up through some pretty tough terrain. We all had a blast, especially Vanal -- although you wouldn't know it by the photo below.

We descended down to the river, and Vanal and I spent nearly an hour working on our rock-skipping. 
The gang left yesterday but will be back tomorrow. Mom and Grandma Betty will return to South Carolina and leave Vanal with us for two weeks. We've got lots of plans. Back to the gorge so we can make it all the way to the top next time. There's a tunnel where the train used to pass through a mountain, which we need to explore. There's a train store down in the village. Some excellent biking to be done down by the river. And, of course, the woods behind our house, to see if we can find any bear sign.

Baby: One-Month Photos

Well, the greatly anticipated one-month photo shoot was far less spectacular than all the pre-press would have led you to expect. The shoot was done here in the vast Jim Thorpe offices, and the Boy was not so much in the mood, plus we had company. We never even squeezed off a shot of him solo, just a couple quick snaps of The Blogger and TLS holding him, with only the merest nod toward capturing the same poses as had been posted here a month ago (The plan had been to hold the same poses so that you the reader could, with scientific precision, track his zucchini-like growth over the past 30 days).

The Blogger promises great things come two-month.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Baby: A Month!

Yep, Junior will be a month old tomorrow.

He went for his checkup today, and now weighs in at 11 pounds -- which means he's gained two pounds in two weeks (in a couple of days he'll have achieved my birth weight, which I try not to be too smug about with him). He's healthy in every way. Strong. Happy. We feel awfully lucky.

Tomorrow he will sit for his one-month photos, which will be posted here pronto, so stay tuned . . .

Also, Cousin Vanal will be arriving tomorrow, the first relative Stillman gets to meet from his mother's side. Vanal will be with us for a few days, go back home to South Carolina, then return next weekend to spend a whole two weeks with us. The Blogger is very much looking forward to getting Vanal out onto the local hiking trails. Many adventures await . . . .

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Family: Cheers for my Father

Congratulations to my father, Dale, on the publication of his book Hopkinton: The Second Hundred Years. It's the history of the small town in the northernmost tip of New York state where he grew up, and just a few miles from where he still lives today.

The book is finally in print, the culmination of many years of loving effort, somehow fit in between raising six kids, teaching high school, working a small farm and holding various leadership positions in his church. I only hope I can manage the same kind of balance in my life, and pass on to my son the love of the written word that was such a huge part of growing up in my father's household.

We're all very proud of you, Dad. Can't wait to get a copy in my hands!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Music: The Pop List

Thanks to everyone who contributed to the discussion regarding the perfect pop song. Your suggestions were wide-ranging and fun, and you exposed me to a lot of new stuff.

There were several of your suggestions that I didn't agree with, but that's part of what made this so much fun. For anyone who cares, my top picks among your suggestions were "Come Dancing," "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic," and "Something So Strong" (a song I didn't realize I liked as much as I apparently do until it came up in this context).

I know some of you must have been sleepless with anticipation, but here's the song I've been holding in reserve: "Faith" by George Michael. Surprise! But come on, you know you like it, too.

Or if you don't know that yet, go to the ultimate pop playlist which you helped create, and check it out (Sorry I wasn't able to get all of your suggestions on there, but I did my best).


Economy: Confessions of a Subprime Rock Star

For anyone who's wondering just who these people are who were responsible for the subprime meltdown, check out this brief piece from June's GQ magazine. Magazine/sausage-making analogies aside, I think there's enough truth here to be instructive:

I was a Subprime Rock Star
-> The story of Glen Pizzolorusso, who had everything and lost it all. As told to Alex Blumberg

I was working at WMC Mortgage buying subprime loans from mortgage brokers. We'd package loans into big pools and sell them to Wall Street: Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch. We were doing about $3 billion a month, and you know, we were making about 5 percent of that, so you do the math. I personally was making between 75 and a hundred grand a month.

I was 25, 26 years old. I had five cars: a couple of Mercedeses and Porsche. I had a family house in suburban Connecticut, a penthouse on East 70th Street, and a house I'd built on the water in Fairfield, Connecticut. We're going out, spending five grand at dinner, five grand at the club afterward, you know, a couple of times a week. I remember this one night, we went out to Tao, four of us. Tao is one of the most exclusive restaurants in the city. It was in Sex and the City. So we go to Tao and we're sitting next to Tara Reid and a couple of her friends. On one side of us are a bunch of players from the Yankees, on the other side players from the Red Sox. Everyone's friends. All talking to each other.

Then we go out to Marquee, a club, another of my stomping grounds. Rolled up -- there's a line of 500 people outside -- walked right up to the door, said to the doorman, Give me my table. Get inside, order three or four bottles of Cristal, a thousand bucks a bottle. Christina Aguilera is doing some I'm-Christina-Aguilera-and-I'm-gonna-get-up-and-sing kind of thing. Cuba Gooding Jr. is there with that kid from Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive. I had a great time. You know? I was a rock star. At the same time, I also realize how stupid it was. Why would anyone spend $1,000 for a bottle of champagne to impress people in a club?

I think I noticed things were changing when I got my first paycheck for $25,000 for the month. I know it sounds obscene, but I'm sitting there thinking, I just made more than most people make in six months, and it doesn't even cover my expenses.

You could just feel it winding down. And it was scary. So I sold the cars. Got rid of the penthouse, sold the house in Fairfield, which totally sucked. I bought it for like $1.375 million. I put down like 10 percent, and I dumped probably another $250,000 into it. And then when I sold it, I had to come to the closing with an additional $35,000 just to sell the stupid thing. Just to get rid of those payments. It was unbelievable.

The rest of the piece consists of boo-hoo, I really learned my lesson.

My heart bleeds for you, rock star.

Meanwhile, drought in Ethiopia. 125,000 kids already suffering from malnutrition. Gee, if only there were more money in the world. But alas, there's just not enough to go around.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Baby: Boy Bathes, Boxes

The Boy's belly-button chip got drier and nastier and finally fell off -- or to be more accurate, we found it stuck to his undershirt -- a couple of days ago. That meant we could finally bathe the lad, which is something I'd been really looking forward to. 

He took to it quite well. We thought there would be screams or at least some general form of protest, but as you see by the photo below, while he didn't exactly have his guard down, he remained open-minded about the experience. And he has agreed that bathing might as well become a fairly regular part of his future.

Do you see how he's got his hands up in perfect self-defense posture? I don't want to be one of those dads, but I know a future middleweight when I see one. So I've started giving him lessons (Lesson one had to do with putting on your game face and psyching out your opponent). Below is a rapid-fire sequence of him swinging his first real punch. Tell me the boy isn't a quick learner.

Entertainment: CGI Can't Take it Anymore (Updates I and II below)

Being of a certain age, TLS and I were both excited at the prospect of the new Indiana Jones movie -- until we saw the trailer on TV. When the frenetic 15 seconds of fast takes and blurry action clips had ended, we looked at each other and said, "Oh. Well, forget about it, then."

Why? CGI. Computer-Generated Idiocy.

Not only have I come to loathe it, I am, frankly, baffled by it. Why in the world does it hold such appeal, both for filmgoers and for filmmakers? It is enormously expensive for directors to use, yet they persist in it as though it were the one thing that can guarantee their movie's quality or its success at the box office.

I know filmmaking is a business, but I like to pretend it's not. I like to pretend it's about creating an aesthetic experience. So I won't pursue any economic argument against CGI, and will limit myself to the following question: Does the use of CGI make for a better moviegoing experience?

One of the things you often hear said on this subject is, "With computers, you can create any reality you want. You can do ANYTHING." Which, to my mind, is one half of the argument against it. Movies, of course, have always been about fantasy, about creating new worlds or portraying unlikely scenarios in this one. Yet in order for all of that to succeed, real limits -- laws of physics, basic reflections of reality -- have to obtain. Otherwise, the spell is broken.

And lately Hollywood seems intent on breaking its own spell. Remember the thrill of seeing those magnificent set pieces in old historical epics with their casts of thousands? Compare that experience to the battle scenes in "Troy" or the "Lord of the Rings" series. Ho-hum. Your brain knows what you're seeing. Otherwise how could TLS and I have known, given the fraction-of-a-second takes we were offered in the Indiana Jones preview, that we were seeing computer work instead of the real deal? (I'm still not sure what I even saw in that preview, but I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that it was CGI). I think that in the not-too-distant future, people will look back on this age of digital special effects with the same campy nostalgia that we look back now on 1950s monster movies and those old Sinbad the Sailor flicks with their claymation horrors.

The problem with CGI, just like with claymation, is that it leaves its fingerprints all over the screen. When an actual stunt man used to jump off a building, your mind registered, "There goes that actor, or somebody dressed just like him, jumping off a building." With CGI, a part of your brain stops the flow of the story and says, "They did a nice job with the special effects here." But "a nice job" is never a good enough job, because it inevitably leaves out little details, whether it's the wind in the hair or the play of light on the leather jacket, enough to cue you in on the nature of the effects.

So what, then, is the point of CGI? Oh, that's right. With CGI you can do ANYTHING.

All right. So now not only does the character jump off the building, but he lands on his feet, unhurt. At this point, not one but two things have gone awry in the viewer's mind: Not only were the little details wrong (wind in the hair, play of light) but so is the whole upshot of the scene ("That could never happen."). Thus CGI does itself a *double* disservice: It offers up outlandish scenarios, then calls attention to their outlandishness by getting the details wrong.

You may be thinking, "Yes, but digital effects are getting better and better all the time, and once they're perfected, they won't get the little details wrong anymore." To that, I say, "Fine. Then go off and perfect them somewhere, but until they're ready, stop ruining my moviegoing experience with them."

Yet getting the details wrong is only half the problem. An over-reliance on digital effects is eroding filmmakers' narrative judgment as well.

In the old days, we had outlandish scenarios, but filmmakers allowed us to suspend our disbelief by cutting away, by leaving something to the imagination. To stick with Indiana Jones for an example, in "The Last Crusade," when we see the tank go over the cliff with Indy presumably still on it, the filmmakers cut away at the last second and then, from afar, we see the tank fall into the canyon. If that scene had been shot today instead of 19 years ago, I'm pretty sure we'd have stayed with Indy all the way over the precipice, blurry CGI backgrounds and all, to try to milk every last thrill out of the scene. From a narrative point of view, it would have accomplished nothing: It would have just explained exactly how Indy survived the incident, rather than allowing for the (however unlikely) possibility that our hero had died. As hokey as the scene was in the 1987 original, at least the That-Could-Never-Happen reaction was not quite so immediate. Why not? Because it's left up to you, the viewer, to construct the details of how Jones might have survived the fall after you see him come struggling up the cliffside roots ("Well, maybe he jumped off just before the tank went over the edge and caught that root; or maybe . . . ."). In the world of digital effects, such considerations -- essential to effective storytelling -- are made obsolete: "This, viewer, is exactly how it happened; except of course it could never happen that way, as you can see by the fact that the visual details of this scene are out of whack with what you know to be reality."

Thus, CGI fails in its basic promise, that which supposedly justifies its existence: instead of offering us ever more fertile narrative possibilities, digital effects rob us of them.

Please, directors. Rent a couple of helicopters. Hire a thousand extras. Blow up car or two. Feel free to treat me like I'm willfully gullible, just not like I'm stupid.
* * *
A quick amendment to this post. Yesterday at Cannes, Spielberg was holding court with journalists and made a couple of relevant comments (from Andrew O'Heir on Salon):
The secret of the Jones movies, he said, was to "shoot a compact and economically told story ... and do it with real stunts and real people. We don't say we'll go and make the most amazing chase scene ever. We ask what the story demands and how we can make that funny and exciting."

Fair enough, and even in its inflated and creaky fourth incarnation, the Indy series retains a certain unassuming quality, at least compared to Hollywood's recent monstrous productions. Ford is rarely called upon to run more than a few steps, but he's a capable and athletic 65-year-old star who performs his own stunts. Until the film's ludicrous conclusion, which involves a big spinning hoobledy-whatsit full of supernatural thingummies (I think that's officially not a spoiler), there are relatively few digital effects. As Spielberg put it: "There's no inspiration when the director and actors walk onto the set and it's nothing but a blue screen. I wanted to be in all these wonderful booby-trap sets, which are built nearly to the scale you see on-screen, and get my ideas for great shots from the sets themselves."
So perhaps there's hope after all. Yet if it's true, one really has to shake one's head in disgust to think that whoever produced the film's trailer saw fit to include the "relatively few" digital effects as a selling point to the masses.

*   *    *
Update II:

In Comments, Tim and Tierney mention CGI-intensive films that they like.  I have to say that digital effects have their place; I just wish directors didn't currently think that that place was everywhere.

Regarding Tim's point about "Ratatouille," I have to share my observation that when it comes to animation,  CGI seems to serve the exact opposite purpose it has in most live-action film: It brings the fantastical closer to reality, rather than vice versa. Thus the animated Parisian skyline gets digitally enhanced to look more like the real Parisian skyline. So the digital effects aren't working to plunge the everyday further into the fantastical, but to elevate the fantastical back toward the everyday. Having plumbed the vast reservoirs of his wisdom, The Blogger (who, perhaps predictably, pines for the supple textures of the old hand-drawn cartoon features) will issue this pronouncement regarding the role of CGI in animation: Sometimes it's a good thing; sometimes it ain't.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Globe: Burma (Updated Below)

There's not a whole lot to be said at this point about the hell that is playing out in Burma. If you've been following the story, you know that the death toll is likely to reach 130,000. You know that millions of residents are, as we speak, begging for food, stranded, and watching their loved ones succumbing to disease and starvation. And you know that only a tiny fraction of international aid is making it in to the people (and that there have been reports of military units stealing a lot of it) -- because the military government is doing a heckuva job all by itself.

Nothing quite summarizes the junta's disgraceful role in all of this better than the following two sentences:

"We have already finished our first phase of emergency relief. We are going onto the second phase, the rebuilding stage," state television quoted Prime Minister Thein Sein as telling his Thai counterpart this week.

Underlining where its main attentions lie, the junta this week announced an overwhelming vote in favor of an army-backed constitution in a referendum held on May 10 despite calls for a delay in the light of the disaster.
* * *
I wanted to respond in the main part of this post to Virginia's comment about China rather than keeping it to the comments section. She said:
"The crazy thing is that the situation in Burma makes China looks like a good guy. Reporters are traveling around there, citizens are speaking to them, some of them even have the balls to say that their government isn't doing enough. Aid and supplies are reaching people, soldiers are digging families out of the rubble - some things are happening the way they should in some parts of the provinces affected."
Very true, especially the "crazy" part. The contrast between the relief efforts in the two countries masks a very, very important irony: To a great degree, the Myanmar junta owes its hold on power to China. When I interviewed the UN's Special Envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, I kept pressing him on why the international community couldn't gain more traction in pressuring the dictatorship. He, of course, is an accomplished diplomat and thus would never come out and state that China is the biggest obstacle to progress in Burma, but again and again, the conversation came back around to China. Whenever the UN Security Council tries to pass a resolution against the junta, China is there to block it. Why? Of course you know: Money. Trade. Energy.
[Of course the rise of China also ties into much else that has been discussed on this blog, regarding the economy -- and to much which hasn't, including the genocide in the Sudan. But that's a post for another day].
And what is the latest news on the struggle to get aid to the people of Burma?
China Backs Myanmar in Resisting Demands to Take Aid
By Demian McLean
May 17 (Bloomberg) -- China is backing Myanmar as it resists pressure from the U.S. and other nations to admit more relief workers and supplies to help as many as 2.5 million cyclone victims at risk of disease and hunger.
Other countries must show ``due respect'' to Myanmar, said Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, at a briefing yesterday. ``Myanmar is a sovereign country. In the end, rescue and relief work will have to rely on the Myanmar government and people.''
So the really disgusting thing is that, with its history of keeping the people of Burma poor and oppressed to satisfy its own rapacious capitalism (China is communist in government, capitalist in economy), China gets credit for taking care of its own people -- while supporting the Myanmar junta in its decision to refuse outside aid.
Oh, and of course China itself is accepting international aid to deal with its earthquake.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Family: Miscellaneous (with photos)

The presses are back up and running at Gesh's Globe, now that the pace of things has slowed down slightly here in the vast Jim Thorpe offices. The Blogger is still, would you believe it, toiling away at another phase of that project that looked to be done last week. But I assure you that very soon The Globe will regain its near-daily status, and the content will be more scintillating than ever.

Many topics to catch up on:

I. An impromptu family visit. Young Stillman got to make the acquaintance of a few more relatives when they suddenly descended upon the house earlier in the week. Grandma Burnett and Great Uncle Al came down from the north; Aunt Lue and Cousin Lauren came from the south; and then, the very same day, they were gone. Stillman seemed to like them.

Aunt Lue was only here for a couple of hours, so she wasted no time in hypnotizing the Boy and muttering phrases like "favorite aunt" and "never mind those others," and so on. I just thought it would be fair to disclose that, in case any other aunts are serious enough about this to make a trek down here and do what they can toward winning him over.

Lauren is the first cousin he had the honor of meeting. They seemed to hit it off quite well. She, of course, has a way with children and will no doubt be a big part of his life.

The Boy was happy to see his Grandma Burnett again, and proved it by peeing on her while she was changing him. Kind of for old times' sake.
There was a quiet understanding between Stillman and his Great Uncle Al. Neither said much, just enjoyed a companionable silence, apparently quite comfortable in each other's company. I hope the Boy gets to spend as much time with his uncle as I did. He can learn a lot from a man like that.

II. Follow-ups to a couple of posts.

My post regarding the perfect pop song prompted a lot of discussion, and lots of song nominations. I'm eager to track them all down and sample them. And I'd love to hear from more of you. As I mentioned in the Comments section, I think it would be great to compile the best of the best into one playlist which we could use to rule the world. Molly, I'm glad "Fati Mata" is growing on you. After your first post, I was going to suggest you turn it up. Maybe that's what you did. Tierney, I knew you'd have nominees, and you didn't disappoint. And Gilly's Son. For all of you who might have missed it, please, please go to Gilly's Son's comment and follow the link. It will make you a better person.

Prepare yourselves in the coming days for stunning follow-ups to "Great Depression: The Sequel" and, yes, "Economy: An Epidemic of Entitlement."

And, sadly, there is still much to write on Burma, and now China.

III. Bears. This is what my garbage looked like this morning:

Neighbor lady says she saw the bear come down and do it last night, and that this particular Slewfoot is enormous. She says 500 pounds. Her five-year-old grandson estimates it at four pounds; I'm guessing it's somewhere between the two. Not sure how I missed it last night, but I'm sorely disappointed. Tonight is trash night, when the bears usually come down to nose around, so I'll keep an ear out. I hope one of these days to have a nice picture of the animal and not just the animal's good works.

IV. Baby!

Our boy. We are in bliss. Pure bliss. We both feel like we're in a dream. He's becoming a little person. He's got likes and dislikes. Habits. To wit,

He LOATHES being restricted. He put up with swaddling for a few post-partum days, and then that was it. This evening we were heading for a stroll, so we put him into a harness so I could carry him on my chest. No, sir. He howled and screamed like we were murdering him. This preference for freedom of movement goes a long way toward explaining the extravagances he performed while still in the womb.

He burps like a man. Or like a trucker, as TLS puts it. I'm serious. A few of you have heard this over the phone and can vouch for it. 

Today, he peed in his own ear while I was changing him. He didn't seem to mind much. He does this sort of thing with some frequency.

He and I have developed a routine of dancing together after supper, and he quite enjoys it. Even if he's fussy, if I turn on some music and start dancing with him, he goes calm and limp and just lies back and savors it. I can't think of anything I've ever enjoyed more than bopping around the living room while my son stares up at me with those big soft eyes of his.

And, best of all, he's smiling! Not gas smiles. Actual, like, "Hi, Mom!" kind of smiles. We weren't sure at first, but we studied it throughout the day and determined that that's what's going on.

I have photographic evidence . . . . .

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Globe: Burma Update

So, true to form, the "Myanmar" government has seized aid shipments, refused international help, killed 36 rioting prisoners, and focused on its laughable constitutional referendum to the neglect of the general unraveling that's taking place as people run out of food and water and the thousands of rotting corpses begin contaminating water supplies. One international humanitarian official says the real effects of this cyclone are yet to be felt, and will undoubtedly spread beyond Burma's borders.

But hey, at least now nobody can say the country didn't vote for its constitution, right?

My friend Tun Tun, who is from Rangoon but is now living just across the border in Thailand (and who was once temporarily "disappeared" and interrogated for a month) has been in touch with family members in the cyclone-affected area. He sent me photographs which I will not post here -- suffice it to say that there are bodies everywhere. He reports that there is no electricity and that people are out of rice and water; the price of rice has doubled, that of water tripled. Instead of delivering aid, members of the SPDC (the government's Orwellian name for its army: State Peace and Development Council) stood in the streets intimidating people to vote -- and vote Yes! 

When I was a child, I believed in evil as something inherent; as a young man I ceased to believe in it at all; now I believe it is a contagion that passes from person to person, that comes and goes and snowballs and multiplies itself and then fades. Sometimes it concentrates heavily in certain people and places, but it is impermanent and seldom absolute. A cloud of it seems to have settled over Burma. I am speaking metaphorically, but not by much.

Music: The Perfect Pop Song?

So the Boy and I were doing some dishes, and grooving on some fine African sounds while we worked. And I got to thinking. Couple of weeks ago, VH1 was doing one of their tried-and-true nostalgia/countdown shows -- you know, where clever/hip/ironic C-listers give their two cents about the songs, videos and artists. I don't recall what this particular show was about, but one of the videos that came on was Wham!'s song "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." One of the talking heads opined that this was "the perfect pop song." She didn't elaborate.

But I began to wonder. What elements would the perfect pop song have to have? I came up with a list of three elements, with which you may or may not agree:

1. It has to be catchy and easy, with a melody that seems familiar and yet is fresh and original. This is tricky -- the perfect pop song, when stuck in your head, does not drive you to madness (See "Achey-Breaky Heart," "That'll Be the Day," "Mickey," etc.).

2. It can't be about anything much, lyrics-wise. No politics, no doom, no gloom, no Cats in the Cradle, Bricks in the Wall, &c. This is tricky, too -- it can't be utter nonsense (See "Stand" by R.E.M., "Mmm-Bop" by Hanson, "Hey-Ya" by Outkast).

3. Because of the combination of elements 1 and 2, it withstands repeat listenings, for years and even decades. There are plenty of truly great songs which I pray never to hear again before I go to my grave ("American Pie," "Old Time Rock 'N Roll," and pretty much whatever else is playing on your local classic rock station).

So what's my choice for the perfect pop song? Well, it isn't "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." Not that there's anything wrong with that.

My pick is a song you've never heard before called "Fati Mata" by this guy Sam Mangwana, a Congolese superstar and one of the old masters of a musical style called soukous. I know what you're thinking -- The Blogger is being deliberately obscure, perhaps seeking to impress with his globalist tastes. I swear I'm not (I have a more mainstream runner-up, which I'm going to hold in reserve).

So why Fati Mata? It fits my three elements. Groovy without seeming like a fever dream, innocuous in content ("Your kind of love/It ain't pretty/It ain't nice"), and it's got legs. I've had it in rotation in my music collection since the mid-90s and am not sick of it yet. In fact, it still lifts my spirits when it comes on. I could listen to it all day. 

Give it a listen and tell me what you think of my choice. Then tell me your pick for the perfect pop song, along with the reasoning behind your selection.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Family: Weekend Visit

Grandma Burnett spent the first out-of-hospital week with us. It sure was a joy to have her around -- not just because she baked bread every day, or took plenty of turns changing diapers, or saw to it that neither dirty dish nor crumby floor ever besmirched our kitchen on her watch, but because her company is such a pleasure. We got her addicted to Ninja Warrior, as I had long suspected we might. She explored the wooded hills behind our house where dwell the black bears who raid my garbage barrel. She borrowed my mountain bike and went charging up the streamside trail. We did a little exploring by Jeep. She was great company for The Lovely Sophia, and she got some good hang time with the Boy. We were very sorry to see her leave.

The nice thing was that Grandpa Burnett, Aunt Chrissy, and Great Aunt Di came to pick her up over the weekend. On Sunday evening we all gathered around our bed, sprawling-family style, some kneeling, some seated, looking at old photos, reminiscing, visiting, and opening gifts brought from home (Thanks, gift givers! You haven't heard the last of us). It was the pleasantist time I've had in ages. We even ate black-raspberry ice cream cones.

Great Aunt Di ratchets up the favorite-aunt competition.

Grandpa Burnett almost loses some fingers.

Baby/Housekeeping: Apologies and Photos

The Blogger would like to apologize to his loyal readers for what must seem from the outside to be a lull in the action. In truth, things are really hoppin' at Gesh's Globe. The Blogger's fecund intellect continues to teem with all manner of subject matter, none of which is to be entrusted to the interns, analysts and researchers who flutter busily about the grand Jim Thorpe office suites.

Monday morning, the Blogger faced a mountain of 50 interviews -- some of them approaching 40 minutes in length -- that needed to be transcribed by the end of the week. He has been transcribing like a madman at all hours of the day and night trying to meet this deadline, with scarcely time to coddle his Boy, let alone adequately oversee the editorial functions here at the Globe. You will be happy to know that as of this posting, he has halved the pile of interviews and is on his way to making an adjusted Monday morning deadline, after which time both life and the editorial calendar of Gesh's Globe ought to return to normal.

Meantime, photos of the Boy:

Now, I ask you, in all modesty: Does that look like a two-week-old kid to you?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Globe: Burma Cyclone

The Blogger is currently overwhelmed by an assignment and will be toiling all through this night and probably the next couple, trying to earn diaper and formula money. But I did want to point your attention to the disaster currently unfolding in Burma, a country close to my heart.

A cyclone ripped through on Saturday, and the international community now fears that the death toll will reach 100,000 -- a massive, massive calamity in a country of 50 million. The catastrophe included a tsunami-like wave that floored low-lying areas and swept boats and houses and people out to sea.

I was in Burma about a year ago to report on the litany of human-rights abuses the country's people have suffered under 40 years of brutal military dictatorship. I met with former political prisoners, ex-child soldiers, internally displaced people, landmine amputees, refugees to Thailand, rebel soldiers and underground aid workers. The stories they told me are heartbreaking and unforgettable and, sadly, quite typical (I will be posting them here in the near future). Now it is likely that the coming months will see famine added to the people's woes; the cyclone appears to have devastated the rice-growing region that feeds the country.

So far, the military dictatorship has gotten low marks for its response to the disaster, and appears to be more concerned with clinging onto power when it holds its kangaroo constitutional referendum on Saturday. Already some dissident groups and geopolitical observers are speculating hopefully that this disaster will finally topple the government. But I think that's unlikely (Wasn't the post-Katrina fiasco supposed to be the undoing of the Bush Administration?). Instead, the very vulnerable people will go on suffering and the junta will have the cyclone as cover and distraction when it finalizes a constitution that was never meant to do anything but solidify the generals' power over the beleaguered, weary, and now storm-shocked masses.

For those considering making a donation, the Red Cross is always a good place to start.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Globe: Great Baby Plunge

At a Muslim shrine in western India, babies are dropped 50 feet for good luck.

Check out the video (thanks, North!).

I can't spend much time on this post, because I've got to get up to the roof with Stillman and a bath towel before The Lovely Sophia arises from her siesta.

Economy: Great Depression, The Sequel

An interesting thing has been happening lately: Sober people have begun using the phrase "since the Great Depression" with surprising frequency. As in, "X economic marker hasn't looked like this since the Great Depression."

Americans' personal savings? Lowest rate since the Great Depression.

Housing slump? Worst since the Great Depression.

Proposed overhaul of Wall Street practices? Most sweeping since the Great Depression.

This recession we're in? Predicted by some to be the worst since the Great Depression.

Mortgage crisis? Worst financial shock since the Great Depression.

Are we actually heading toward a sequel to the Great Depression? I'm obviously not qualified to say, but the possibility is at least being talked about in polite circles.

So what I've been wondering about is this: If we were to enter another depression, what would it look like? The world has changed a lot since the 1930s. Even people living in poverty tend to have big-screen TVs, iPods and decent computers. It's hard to imagine that a 21st-Century depression, in its physical particulars, would look much like the 1930s depression did.

We've been baking bread lately. No, not for purely economic reasons -- The Lovely Sophia can't get Jamaican hard dough bread out here in PA so we've been baking our own -- but it is much cheaper than buying store-bought bread. In a new depression, will people bake their own bread? Will restaurants fail? Will we begin seeing mostly older cars on the road as the depression wears on and people stop buying new ones? Will styles and fashions change to reflect the new economic reality?

I'm interested in your thoughts. Tell me what you would imagine a new great depression to look like.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Politics: An Old Outrage Revisited

If you rely on network television for your news, chances are you've missed a hugely important story recently which goes a long way toward explaining how we ended up in Iraq.

Last Sunday, the New York Times published an expose implicating the Pentagon and several news outlets in what amounted to a brazen propaganda campaign in the run-up to the Iraq war. Specifically, the so-called "independent military analysts" -- those familiar high-ranking ex-generals who appeared to be giving their objective point of view on the invasion -- were not independent at all but rather had significant ties to pro-war political groups and/or defense contracting companies and were part of a well designed propagandistic "Pentagon information apparatus." The news outlets who hired them either failed to do due diligence in discovering those ties, or knew about them and ignored them (Most likely the latter, since at least one magazine uncovered those ties and asked NBC News for comment back in 2002).

Lest this be dismissed as wild conspiracy theory, you should know that there is a Congressional inquiry under way and that the Pentagon has suspended its program since the story broke.

So why haven't you heard anything about it? Because the news networks have effectively blacked the story out. They refuse to cover a story of such national signficance because it involves gross malpractice on their part.

I highly recommend this post from Glenn Greenwald's blog, which goes further than the New York Times in detailing the conflicts of interest of some of the generals, and which offers great examples of the pro-war chatter offered up by these "analysts" as the Iraq war began to unfold.

The following facts may seem obvious, but I think they're worth pointing out in the light of this controversy.

1. The role of the media is, ideally, to speak truth to power, to hold the decision-makers accountable, to make government transparent to its citizens. The press freedoms enshrined in the 1st Amendment derive from democracy's need for an informed citizenry, and the public airwaves are lent by the American people to private companies with the understanding that those companies will provide a public service in exchange (rather than using them for exclusively commercial gain). The free press ought to function in an adversarial role, asking the questions that keep government officials honest. When instead they simply echo the government's lines and become war cheerleaders without asking hard questions, they undermine democracy. They may spout the party line because of conflicts of interest (see NBC/General Electric/war profiteering) or simply because of cowardice -- an unwillingness to appear unpatriotic during wartime -- but the effect is the same: they fail, utterly, to protect your interests.

2. The myriad failures of our free press before and during the Iraq war are amply documented.

3. We are in a very troubling place. Take a step back and look at the situation: As the Bush Administration banged the war drum, the press jumped onto the bandwagon almost wholesale. The media (the Fourth Estate, which supposedly represents "the mob") was the last best defense to puncture the government's shifting rationales and divert us from a war that has now left thousands dead and millions displaced. Instead, its talking heads blithely and admiringly chit-chatted with government propagandists on air, cheerleading the way to war. Now it refuses to so much as acknowledge this reprehensible conduct. And we live in an era in which their behavior has become so normalized as not to raise an eyebrow. They will not be held accountable because there is virtually no public expectation for them to be adversarial. To the contrary, when they are, they are pilloried and taken off the air for expressing unpatriotic views.

Irrespective of your political affiliation, you ought to find this state of affairs deeply unsettling, especially as we move toward an election in which a major candidate has expressed -- sometimes in song -- his hawkish tendencies toward Iran.

Baby: Photos Trickle In II

Stillman acquaints himself with Aunt Chrissy, who has a reputation for being an extraordinarily popular aunt:

Mother and child resting up after some extremely difficult toil:

The Papa could use some sleep:

Those are eyes in there:

I now know why some people say "bundle of joy" and mean it: