May 2007

Former Soviet Union:
♦ In Kyrgyzstan, the Sec-Gen of the Russian-led CSTO, Mr. Bordyuzha described NATO involvement in Central Asia as part of a Western plot.  In part because of increased drug traffic from Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan has asked for Russian/CSTO assistance in controlling borders.  Ironically, NATO’s inability to get a handle on Afghanistan’s poppy trade has created an opportunity for the CSTO to barge in, but the rhetoric is not about inability, but uberpower.  Things once again look poor for the future of Ganci AFB in Manas.

♦ Big drama in Kazakhstan, where former First Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliev, demoted to the position of Ambassador to Austria, is now recalled and fired by the President, who also happens to be his father-in-law.  There’s more to this than meets the fanzine description I just gave, including future elections, control of the domestic media, and Kazakhstan’s banking business.

♦ The Litvinenko scandal just gets worse and worse.  And overall, a Russian skepticism over the EU matches EU skepticism over Russia.

Latin America:
♦ Colombia has come a long, long way since the days of the Medellin cartel, but maybe not as far as we thought: In trials this week, Colombian death squad members have testified to ties with government, political and military leaders, and implicated them in drug trade.  This is a well-referenced must-read by Daniel Graeber over at FPA War Crimes blog.  Colombian military personnel are also training poppy-rich Afghanistan’s security personnel in security procedures.  Let’s hope that’s all they’re learning.

♦Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador each have repudiated part or all of their World Bank participation,  And five former Finance Ministers from the region called for Mr. Wolfowitz’s resignation from the World Bank.

Middle East:
♦At the World Economic Forum, King Abdullah II of Jordan warned that increasing water pressures will lead to future conflict , as land grabs become river-grabs. 

♦ In the meantime, Lebanon’s conflict conditions resume; the al-Hariri investigations  are a top discussion area at the UN; and the Israel-Palestine conflict continues ugly.  It’s going to be another hot summer in the Near Middle East. 

♦ Afghanistan’s drug eradication issues discussed before dinner? The gap just continues to widen between theory and practice.  And President Karzai appeals to President Ahmadinejad to repatriate Afghanistan’s refugees more gradually. 70,000 have already been expelled.

♦ Mr. el-Baradei of the IAEA reports that Iran is 3-8 years away from nuclear capability.  Both this expert and Russia’s Atomstroyexport think Iran’s nuclear capability is far from imminent.  Iran owes Atomstroyexport money for Bushehr construction, a project that began under the Shah.

♦ In Iraq, the boys are back in town: Moqtada al-Sadr is no longer lying low, and his return brought tears of joy to his followers.  You can pay people to come to rallies, but you can’t pay them to be emotionally spontaneous.  It is this emotional attachment which makes al-Sadr a force to reckon with. 

♦ Crude oil prices jumped USD 1.02 and are now back over USD 65 per barrel.  B.S. from the public sector: Congress has once-again threatened to pass anti-price gouging legislation, to rein in oil company greed.  This is a waste of all our time; gouging has little or nothing to do with prices in this high-demand, supply-constrained market.  Congressional interference won’t do much to change price, with Mexico at top production in its dwindling Cantarell fields, Nigeria’s insurgency, Iraq oil law stalled, Iran’s disinvestment woes and larger international issues, and Caspian region geopolitics.  Supply is going to continue to be tight.  Which means prices will continue to rise.

♦ Then there’s the B.S. from the private sector.  Oil companies are warning that biofuels will affect gas supply because investor uncertainty in the wake of new biofuel production will cause a dearth of new refinery investment.  This is where Congress could actually make a difference, by commissioning some easements that allow strategic refinery placement and a better regional distribution plan–not to aid oil companies per se, but to increase energy security.  All we’ve done so far is patch up the ones on the Gulf Coast, right where they are when Katrina hit them last time.  This article is also a signal to the auto industry to increase fuel efficiency. I’m not holding my breath for Detroit to take the hint, either. 

Cultural Intelligence:
♦ The New York times has two great articles by Nicolai Ourossoff.  The first is on the EU’s development of green architecture.  This is not a softly sentimental concept any longer; many forward thinking engineering solutions  have been devised–and work.  The second article is also on modern European architecture: The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision.  The article has a picture gallery well worth viewing.

♦ New book release: Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Note: I’m going to do this round-up weekly, and I owe Joshua Foust over at The Conjecturer for the format.  He was gone last week . . . honestly I don’t know how he does this on a daily basis . . .  and I will not be able to cover the Pentagon with the care and attention he gives it.  Thank you Mr. Foust!

The news stories about melamine-substitution and concentrated rice-protein in pet food and the number of pet deaths have come in thick and fast, as pet owners all over America are up in arms.  More recently, word of toothpaste manufactured in China that has diethylene glycol in it has been on the news. 

Diethylene glycol is the main ingredient in automobile anti-freeze.  It has been substituted in some factories for the more-expensive, non-poisonous glycerine.  I have even read a story that said the substitution is not so very dangerous, because after all, people do spit out toothpaste rather than consume it.  Leaving aside questions of trace amounts of d.g., it seems pretty obvious that whoever wrote this has never been responsible for child care.  I would not at all be surprised to hear that children eat toothpaste regularly.

Before Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, and popular sentiment drove Congress to write its first consumer-protection laws, many American cookbooks listed ways to assess foodstuffs that came through intermediaries rather than straight from the farm. Furthermore, you can read a cookbook as an indicator of scientific, technological, and commercial history–even the ones you buy today.  Early cookbooks covered far more than food–it also covered the making of flea spray and cures for pertussis; the distillation of cordial wines; and how to train kitchen help.  New cookbooks emphasize the wealth of choices we have in world cuisine, indicating the extent of our global intercultural relations, as well as the number of appliances we deem necessary for civilized life.


American ObesityThe New York Times has again featured a great story on the American diet by Michael Pollan.  This one is called: You are what you grow.  A researcher goes to the supermarket to check calories per dollar, a way to measure how low-income families make food choices.  This is not to say that every poor person reads the nutrition sidebar on a package in order to maximize calories.  It’s more the task of assuaging today’s needs–what will “go around” the dinner table more than once, and satisfies everyone  enough that their stomach doesn’t growl when they try to sleep at night.  The second part of this shopping is that processed, value-added food products convey status or identity: the choice of one breakfast cereal or soft drink over another.  Yes, it starts early.  The third thing, not mentioned by Mr. Pollan, is that food preparation of fresh food is more time consuming than popping a TV dinner into the microwave.  And it’s not just the cooking, either, but the cleanup, the management of the refrigerator, and so forth.

Citrus FruitI’ve noticed this myself: you can buy a box of sixteen corn dogs (8-16 meals) for four dollars, or a box of microwaveable pastry sandwiches for your office lunch (four to a box) for two dollars.  With that can of soft drink you purchase for $1.50, that’s a two-dollar lunch for four days of the week.  Same with the fast food dollar menu: one sandwich + one soda is Two-plus-Tax.  Never mind that it’s not good for you: the trans-fats have already come out, so why worry?

Mr. Pollan relates this sad state of American cuisine to U.S. agricultural policy, which does not subsidize the production of fresh fruits and vegetables, but rather those of corn (ergo, corn syrup), soybeans, and wheat.  And as he said in an earlier article “Unhappy Meals” for the NYT, we need to substitute real food for “nutritious” food products: “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”

This is difficult to do for the poor: Mr. Pollan notes that fresh fruit and vegetable prices have risen 40% between 1985 and 2000, while the real price of a can of soda has declined 23%. 

Not only are subsidies a large cost in the federal budget, this policy continues to affect the prices of health care, (think diabetes management, for just one) public health, environmental issues, and energy use.  The energy cost of making a snack cake is a lot larger than the cost of producing a bag of apples.  Our farm bill is an unsustainable piece of legislation.  It’s past time for all of us to write our legislators and tell them to change priorities.  We might even get to eat a decent lunch.

Photos: MSNBC; Neptune-LunarPages; University of Maine

All this from John Jacobs, collector of Celtic Fairy Tales (1892), illustrated by John D. Batten and written for the schoolroom.  According to Jacobs, this is the earliest fairy tale of modern Europe, told about the eldest son of the Irish King Conn, the hundred-fighter (123-157 A.D.).  Story on pp. 1-5; notes 263-266.  It starts here:

Connla of the Fiery Hair was son of Conn of the Hundred Fights.  One day as he stood by the side of his father on the height of Usna, he saw a maiden clad in strange attire toward him coming.

“Whence comest thou, maiden?” said Connla.

“I come from the Plains of the Ever Living,” she said, “there where is neither death nor sin.  There we keep holiday alway, nor need we help from any in our joy.  And in all our pleasure we have no strife.  And because we have our homes in the round green hills, men call us the Hill Folk.”

The king and all with him wondered much to hear a voice when they saw no one.  For save Connla alone, none saw the Fairy Maiden.

Coran the Druid was called to silence the Maiden, but she returned after a month:

Frontispiece by Batten“Tis hard upon me,” said Connla; “I love my own folk above all things; but yet a longing seizes me for the maiden.”

When the maiden heard this, she answered and said: “The ocean is not so strong as the waves of thy longing.  Come with me in my curragh, the gleaming, straight-gliding crystal canoe.  Soon can we reach Baodag’s realm.  I see the bright sun sink, yet far as it is, we can reach it before dark.  There is, too, another land worthy of thy journey, a land joyous to all that seek it.  . . . If thou wilt, we can seek it and live there alone together in joy.”

When the maiden ceased to speak, Connla of the Fiery Hair rushed away from his kinsmen and sprang into the curragh, the gleaming, straight-gliding crystal canoe.  And then they all, king and court, saw it glide away over the bright sea towards the setting sun, away, and away, till eye could see it no longer.  So Connla and the Fairy Maiden went forth on the sea, and were no more seen, nor did any know whither they came.

This myth always makes me think about parents whose children do not share their  dreams.  Tir na n-og represents destiny to me: sometimes something as tragic as heroin addiction, or something that leads to adventure and accomplishment.  The sadness and loss in this story belong to the parent, who must eventually let go.

I don’t have a television, and except for the times when people talk about what they watch, I never miss it.  There are plenty of other things to look at and talk about, and almost all of them require more interaction than the passive reception one falls into in front of the television screen.  That’s not to say there haven’t been programs that I’ve enjoyed in the past.  And I might also mention, telling people I don’t watch TV does have a way of detouring conversation.  I become a confessor to which justifications of certain programs are made, and television-watching sins are told.  It’s okay out there: I just would rather read a trashy novel or listen to the radio for my non-intellectual entertainment.  I have a lot of books, and no doubt some of them need justifying to you too. 

I’m on the road, metaphorically: finished with my Masters degree in international relations and looking for meaningful work.  Taking Russian instruction and still working on those phrases needed at the airport.  I study energy markets and former Soviet states daily to keep up with my Masters.  I also have a degree in Fine Arts, with minors in  philosophy and writing.  I also have a degree in fashion production.  My goals with this blog is to make a kind of magazine that features these disparate subjects, to entertain and engage others and myself.

These different avenues of intellectual or practical pursuit have a grand consistency, which is one of enduring interest.   Rather than thinking of their disparity, I look at them as the rambles of a rich life.