« July 2003 | Main | September 2003 »

August 31, 2003

The "objective" press

I found this headline in today's NYT somewhat amusing: "Cries of Activism and Terror in S.U.V. Torching".   While it isn't fair to lampoon the author of the piece (Nick Madigan) for the headline (since these are usually written by editors), it would have been nice if the piece had included at least one quote from some environmental loonie willing to argue that burning Hummers is a valid form of political expression.   (Leaving aside the scientific question of the environmental impact of burning 50 cars filled with plastics, heavy metals and other environmentally sensitive compounds in an urban area.)

August 31, 2003 at 10:11 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 30, 2003

Why 9/11 is such a powerful symbol

Rereading excerpts from the recently released transcripts of 9/11 radio and telephone communications monitored by the Port Authority Police (see here or here, for example), it occurred to me why the collapse of the Twin Towers has such tremendous emotional impact for so many people.   Unlike, say, the horrific car bomb in Najaf which killed 82 people emerging from one of Islam's holiest mosques after Friday worship, or last week's suicide attack on the UN HQ in Iraq which killed 24 innocents (both of which were horrible, bloody crimes), the events of 9/11 have an emotional resonance not found in many other human tragedies.

Of course, part of the reason for this disparate emotional impact (for me at least) is that I am a New Yorker.   I was here in Manhattan that day.   I saw the endless stream of emergency vehicles heading down the FDR to that smoking ruin.   I walked, numb with disbelief, watching F-16 fighters flying combat air patrols over the NYC skyline.   I was intimately familiar with the area that was attacked; I used to have an office in one of the collapsed towers and had walked across the barren, wind-swept plaza at the base of the former World Trade Center more times than I can remember.   But there is more to it than just familiarity.

The recent bombings in Iraq, or the scores of similar bombings that have plagued Israel or Russia over the past few years, are violent, discrete acts.   A person or a car or a truck explodes, sending hundreds of pieces of red hot shrapnel exploding outward in all directions, tearing apart flesh, breaking windows, crushing cars.   But then there is silence, except for the screams or the moans of the survivors and, eventually, the klaxon sound of rescue vehicles approaching to aid those who are still capable of being helped.

But the events of 9/11 were different.   Events unfolded slowly, beginning with initial reports of a plane striking the North Tower, and television shots of a horizontal gash in the facade, with thick black smoke emerging from the impact site.   A tragedy, certainly, but a comprehensible one.   After all, in 1945, a B-25 bomber ran into the Empire State Building in a fog, starting a fire, killing 14 people, but it was a small event, an accident.   No one expected that this apparent accident was merely the first act in a human drama that would ultimately result in the collapse of both WTC towers, killing nearly 3,000 people.

Looking back on that September morning, the story has all the elements of classic Greek tragedy, where the chorus (and the audience) know what is going to happen to the hapless characters onstage.   Between 8:45am (when AA flight 11 from Boston crashed into the North Tower) and 10:05am, when the South Tower imploded upon itself in a massive cloud of dust and debris, there was time for thousands of individual human tragedies to unfold; the anguished phone calls between husbands or wives who suspected they were soon to die, the hundreds of acts of selflessness and heroism, the stories of miraculous escapes, and fatal mis-steps.

The slow motion evolution of the tragedy, and the time it gave people to react to events and contemplate their own deaths, recalls the story of the sinking of the Titanic; where hundreds knew they were soon to die because there were not enough places in the life boats for all the souls on board.   However, unlike the demise of the Titanic, which occurred at night, in the middle of the North Atlantic, the destruction of the World Trade Center happened on live television, in prime time for audiences watching in the US, Europe, the Mideast and East Asia.   I've never seen any figures, but it almost certainly must have been the most watched live event in human history.

But perhaps Osama and his co-conspirators did their job too well.   By perpetrating such a brilliant, but supremely evil piece of human theatre, they not only achieved maximum publicity for their misbegotten cause, but also created an incredibly powerful emotional symbol for their (self declared) enemies to rally around.   I know that for me, even two years after the event, images of that day, and the names of those who were murdered then, are capable of stirring me to great anger, sorrow, and resolve.

In this, I am sure, I am not alone.

August 30, 2003 at 11:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

A kindler, gentler Times?

Could an editorial like this ever have appeared while Howell Raines was editing the paper?

August 30, 2003 at 09:56 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 29, 2003

Things you should be sure to read...

Mark Steyn's excellent feature in the London Spectator on why it would be a huge mistake to let the UN take over running Iraq.

James Lilek's imaginative idea on how to really twist the North Koreans' tail...

August 29, 2003 at 11:36 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

News from the Dark Continent

I just finished reading Paul Theroux's latest; Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town.    Fans of Theroux's increasingly cranky style of travel writing will undoubtedly enjoy this one.

The story is of Theroux's trip by train, bus, car and dugout canoe from the Northern extreme of Africa to the Southern, taken sometime during 2002 (judging from his discussions of contemporary events).    It is a poignant journey for the author, since he is revisting Malawi and Uganda, where he began his literary career, teaching and writing for several years, initially as a Peace Corps volunteer.   (A rough version of his past experiences in Africa is detailed in his 1989 loosely autobiographical novel My Secret History.)

Unfortunately, the Africa he experiences in 2002 is much worse than the continent he lived in during the heady, post-Independence period of the 1960s.    People are poorer, more desperate, more degraded, and have less hope for the future.    For example, the secondary school where he taught as a Peace Corps volunteer has deteriorated to a shocking degree.    Visiting the colonial bungalow where he had previously lived, he finds the trees cut down for firewood, the backyard turned into a vegetable patch, and the current occupant (a teacher at the school), completely incurious about this strange foreigner who claimed to have lived there 35 years ago.    Similarly, the library, formerly well stocked with books donated by Western countries, has been looted, and is a dark, empty shell.

He devotes a lot of time to discussion of the useless and even counterproductive foreign aid projects that are a major part of the local economy in the region.    The aid workers, driving new, white Landcruisers or Toyota SUVs, are painted as sanctimonious, isolated, and arrogant.    For example, when he is stranded in the middle of a dangerous part of Northern Kenya after catching a ride on a truck that broke down, he is refused a ride by a couple of American aid workers with a medical NGO riding in a nearly empty SUV, who reported that they "don't have space".

More to the point, the aid projects that they are supporting; whether it is staffing schools or feeding hungry children, seems to do little but encourage dependency and helplessness among the people they are seeking to help.    The real beneficiaries of the aid appear to be the well-paid aid workers themselves and the government elites that are largely funded by foreign aid donations. 

As someone who has lived and travelled in Africa, and studied the economies of the region and the influence of foreign aid upon local governments policies, Theroux's observations, sadly, ring true.    He does not offer any workable solutions to the problems facing contemporary Africa, but it is clear that he believes that until Africans themselves assume responsibility for promoting progress on the Continent, any foreign aid is, at best, palliative, and, at worst, contributing to the creation of even greater human tragedies in the future.

I would urge any of you interested in real people's lives in Africa today to read it.

August 29, 2003 at 10:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 28, 2003

NYC government idiocy

The NYT reported today that the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission has decided to end a year-long experiment with advertiser supported back seat video systems in NY taxis.   This has got to be one of the stupidest, though thankfully not very significant, government decisions ever.

These back seat color LCD display systems were pretty cool.   Why they did show advertising, riders could mute the sound and ignore them if they wished. Some (including the one I saw in a cab recently) were interactive and could provide news, restaurant reviews, movie times, and other useful information.

Most importantly, the providers of the system paid the City (and the taxi companies) to put these systems into cabs.   In other words, this program was completely optional for both the cab companies and the users, and paid royalties to the City government, rather than costing the taxpayers anything.   You'd have thought this would be a no-brainer, eh?   Not in this town.

Why, you ask, did the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) decide to pull the plug on this experiment?

"New Yorkers didn't embrace these units like they could have," Matthew W. Daus, the commission's chairman, said yesterday. "Our surveys indicated that those who experienced the units showed either indifference or negativity. We saw no compelling need to keep them around."
The survey Commissioner Daus cited was an online survey located on the TLC's website.   As anyone with IQ above room temperature knows, opt-in online surveys are completely unrepresentative, unscientific and very vulnerable to manipulation.   Even more absurd, this one doesn't even work.   When I tried to complete the form this morning, the system generated some error that I was submitting information from an invalid IP address or something.   The same thing happened when I tried to submit an online letter to the Commission protesting this silly decision.

Funny, I don't remember anyone asking the public's views about those annoying (and universally ignored) celebrity seat belt reminders that blare in your ears everytime you enter a cab...

Meanwhile, with the City running a huge deficit and seeking to reduce services and increase taxes at every turn, why is the administration cancelling useful programs that actually generate incremental revenues for the City?   I just don't get it.

August 28, 2003 at 08:20 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 27, 2003

Huge Bush foreign policy vindication in the offing?

If this report from CNN is accurate (and this Korean report suggests something similar), China may be strong-arming the North Koreans into stopping their WMD program.   If some tangible evidence of North Korean flexibility on the nuclear weapons issue emerges from the upcoming multi-lateral talks in Beijing, these developments will wholly vindicate the Bush administrations policy of insisting that any solution to the North Korean issue be handled in a multilateral forum, with representation for all regional powers.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed on this one.

(Hat tip to the Gweilo Diaries and Instapundit for the original links.)

August 27, 2003 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

William Tucker on the Grid

William Tucker has an excellent column in today's NY Sun discussing policy alternatives to improve the reliability of the US electrical grid.

August 27, 2003 at 03:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 26, 2003

Hardly surprising, but still bad news

The AP is reporting that trace amounts of weapons grade uranium have been discovered by UN inspectors at an atomic facility in Iran.

August 26, 2003 at 05:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Semi hiatus

It is the dog days of summer up here in Columbia County, and I have been all too sporadic with my blogging.   I promise to be more consistent after Labor Day.

In the meantime, here are some things I've been mulling over:

  • Quagmireistas are the last great hope for the various factions in Iraq (and the broader Islamic world) who are hoping to drive the Coalition out of Iraq and block the establishment of a moderate, secular regime in the Mideast.   While many quagmireistas are sincere in their beliefs and motivated by altruism, some are merely political opportunists.   Unfortunately, many of the latter appear to be seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

  • The problems with the North American electric grid are not due to deregulation, but rather poor and fragmented over-regulation.   Part of the solution is that the Federal government has to assume responsibility for regulating this important interstate function.

  • There was an excellent profile of Harvard President Larry Summers by James Traub in last Sunday's NYT magazine.   While I was not one of the admirers of his work at Treasury during the Asian economic crisis of the 1990s, and I was initially suspicious of him as a member of the Clinton cabinet, I have become a great fan of Summers for his work at Harvard.   His greatest shortcoming -- his arrogance and disinclination to care what others think about him -- is proving to be his most important asset in dealing with the left-wing academics who dominate Harvard's faculty.   He is making a difference, and in a good way.
In other news, some server-side glitches (i.e. stuff I have no idea about) appear to be preventing my GIF animation from animating.   I will try to get it fixed or find a workaround as soon as I can.

August 26, 2003 at 09:52 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack