May 31, 2010

Book review: The Alchemist

Up today: The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho.

I was the salutatorian at my high school graduation. My Dad helped me write my speech; he said it was a great opportunity to sneak a decent message into a ceremony that would otherwise be mostly "mind-numbing platitudes." He was right about the platitudes part, and I'd like to think that my speech was pretty good, at least by the standards of high school graduation.

I gave a similar message to the one Coelho continually clubs you over the head with in this book--follow your dreams. You might as well, right? A decent moral, I suppose, and one worth remembering every so often. (In my speech, I went on to add that while following your dreams is a decent idea, one should also have a backup plan as sometimes failure is inevitable. It was better than it sounds.) Unfortunately, The Alchemist is also shot through with gauzy New Age "spiritual" twaddle trying to pass itself off as profound philosophical wisdom. Example: "Yes, that's what love is. It's what makes the game become the falcon, the falcon become man, and man, in turn, the desert. It's what turns lead into gold, and makes the gold return to the earth." WTF?

Moreover, most of the secondary points are questionable. The "world's greatest lie," according to one of the characters, is "that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate." This is an odd contradiction to Coelho's idea of the "Personal Legend," what a person has always wanted to accomplish. "..when you really want something, it's because that desire originated in the soul of the universe." In spots the book reads like a cheap self-help manual from the depths of the self-esteem movement, complete with bulleted, capitalized main points.

Really, the spiritual message, so much as it can be discerned at all, is a bunch of pernicious rubbish. The universe has no plan for the unimaginably insignificant planet Earth and cares not a whit what we do with our lives. There is no "Soul of the World," and one can't figure out how to talk to the sun by talking to one's own heart like a disembodied spirit. I've always thought this brand of whitewashed spirituality to be essentially cowardly, disguising the fact that whatever purpose, plan, or passion one has must be created, sweating and straining, by main force.

Perhaps with training in chemistry, I was turned off by the very mention of alchemy. But this was a real clunker.

May 30, 2010

Article of the week

From Nicholas Carr; read it slow:
Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in moving information from working memory into long-term memory. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by varying the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer much of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of knowledge and wisdom.

On the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from tap to tap. We transfer only a small jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream.
He's definitely on to something. When I'm online, I'm usually doing seven or eight things at once, and my attention span is drastically shortened. (There's even an acronym for it: TL;DR--too long, didn't read.) I don't think there's much wrong with that, but it does sometimes come at the expense of my long-form reading time. It's important to make time for that sort of concentrated learning in addition to internet time. I just got a package from a friend back in the states, so I'm looking forward to recommitting myself to some books.

Peace Corps advice

I've been getting a few emails from people asking for advice about being a volunteer in Africa. (If you haven't gotten a response yet, fear not, I've been away for the last couple days and I want to answer thoroughly. A response shall be coming forthwith.) I encourage people to check out PCV central, where there is a great deal of knowledge, if you haven't already. If you have a question for me personally, I wholeheartedly welcome any questions on any topic, just send them to the address on the sidebar or post them in comments, and I'll muster up what little wisdom I possess.

May 28, 2010

Alternative medicine news

Both of these are from the NYT. The first is on herbal supplements:
Nearly all of the herbal dietary supplements tested in a Congressional investigation contained trace amounts of lead and other contaminants, and some supplement sellers made illegal claims that their products can cure cancer and other diseases, investigators found.

The levels of heavy metals — including mercury, cadmium and arsenic — did not exceed thresholds considered dangerous, the investigators found. However, 16 of the 40 supplements tested contained pesticide residues that appeared to exceed legal limits, the investigators found. In some cases, the government has not set allowable levels of these pesticides because of a paucity of scientific research.
The next is on Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor who was behind a discredited study linking autism and vaccines:
LONDON — A doctor whose research and public statements caused widespread alarm that a common childhood vaccine could cause autism was banned on Monday from practicing medicine in his native Britain for ethical lapses, including conducting invasive medical procedures on children that they did not need.

The General Medical Council applied its most severe sanction against the doctor, Andrew Wakefield, 53, who abandoned his medical practice in Britain in 2004 as questions intensified about his research and set up a center to study childhood developmental disorders in Texas, despite not being licensed as a physician there.

This American Life on Haiti

The episode this week was especially pertinent to development and NGOs. It was a look at the rebuilding efforts after the Haitian earthquake last year. One thing I didn't mention in my review of The Mbeki Legacy was his general skepticism of NGOs involved in race relations and HIV/AIDS. I don't know a great deal about NGOs, but they seem to make halting progress at best. Thoughts?

On a related note, This American Life episodes can be downloaded by entering this URL into your download manager:

http://audio.thisamericanlife.org/jomamashouse/ismymamashouse/408.mp3

Replace "408" with any lesser number and get the correct episode. Nice file structure, eh?

May 27, 2010

Dubya carved his initial into the economy

I am totally exhausted

I just got a new bike. My friend from Heuningvlei, who got the bike from the previous volunteer that lived there, didn't want it. But I had to ride it 56 km back from his village over hellacious washboards. It wasn't that hard, but boy it was long.

It's nice to have a free bike, but I'm a bit spoiled with a mountain biking hobby from back in the states. This sucker weighs about thirty pounds. It's got dual suspension, but it's basically one of those cheap Wal-Mart style jobs where the frame feels like it's made of solid iron. All I can say is that if it weren't for bike shorts I think I would be forever sterile.

Africa-related blog of the week

Aid watch. Check it out.

May 25, 2010

Book review: The Mbeki Legacy

Up today: The Mbeki Legacy, by Brian Pottinger. This book takes a hard look at Thabo (coincidentally my Setswana name) Mbeki, the president of South Africa from 1999-2008. The book, while noting Mbeki's relative success in providing macroeconomic stability and reasonable growth, is mostly savagely critical of the Mbeki and the ANC. The main fault, according to Pottinger, was "ideological overreach" in that policies were often either flat-out ridiculous, or appropriate only for a much more advanced country with a very competent bureaucracy (like Germany or Sweden, for example). Affirmative action (which Pottinger acknowledges as vital) was undertaken so quickly and haphazardly as to cripple public services; he gives the example of the electricity shortages and blackouts in 2008--when in 1998 Eskom (the public utility) had large excess capacity and extremely cheap power. In a panic, Eskom ended up hiring many white engineers, some over seventy, who had been dismissed years ago.

Another overreach is the explosive growth of the welfare state--more than quadrupled under Mbeki--to a size simply unsustainable by a middle-income country. About a third of South Africans say they are dependent on the government for survival. This leads to a society of dependency, entitlement, and grievance.

Pottinger also identifies a great deal of corruption and cronyism throughout the government, which is the main culprit behind the chronic lack of service delivery, and partially responsible for the massive crime problem here. He cites the dissolution of the Scorpions, South Africa's elite police unit with an 85% conviction rate, known for raiding homes of the ANC elite, for what seem political reasons. Six percent of reported crimes result in a conviction here.

The education system comes in as the worst problem in the country, contributing to every other problem. Right now in South Africa there is an immense skills shortage--twenty percent or greater vacancies in every public service department, for example. (This is compounded my emigration, mostly rich and white, from crime.) The tiny minority of private schools, plus those once called "Model C," produce most of the high-scoring graduates. Pottinger lays this failure on the national curriculum, which he says is totally inappropriate for South Africa, and excessive union power making it nearly impossible to discipline teachers. He also faults replacement of the traditional industry apprentice system with a dysfunctional bureaucratic boondoggle.

A quick side note--Pottinger says the educational fiasco is worse even that Mbeki's AIDS denialism, because the AIDS epidemic is only partly due to Mbeki's inexcusable foot-dragging. He says the AIDS crisis is mostly the fault of "an embedded culture of public irresponsibility, which virtually nullified AIDS educational campaigns; a systemic failure by a number of AIDS and TB sufferers to take medication, so as to prolong state welfare grants; and the incapacity of an uncaring bureaucracy to implement the [anti-HIV/AIDS] programme." (p. 160) I can't speak to that point, but it's ancillary in any case.

It's hard for me to judge the accuracy of most of these complaints, but his diagnosis of the education system matches completely with my own observations. It's not hard to take the government failure in that area and imagine them doing basically the same thing everywhere else. I too have wondered (as Pottinger describes) why South Africa seems to be treading water or falling behind where other African countries--like Rwanda and even Nigeria--are making consistent progress.

Possibly the weakest part of the book is the solutions at the end--not because they seem poorly thought out, rather that it's impossible to imagine them being implemented. The systematic problems are so deep, the one-party state so entrenched, that nothing seems likely to change. Here's hoping, anyway.

Overall, a truly excellent book and a razor-sharp look at the problems ailing South Africa today, though a bit disorganized in spots. Highly recommended.

World Cup!

I'm getting pretty stoked:

Israel, South Africa, and nukes

Israel is now proved to have nuclear weapons. They offered to sell them to South Africa in 1975:

Secret South African documents reveal that Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime, providing the first official documentary evidence of the state's possession of nuclear weapons.

The "top secret" minutes of meetings between senior officials from the two countries in 1975 show that South Africa's defence minister, PW Botha, asked for the warheads and Shimon Peres, then Israel's defence minister and now its president, responded by offering them "in three sizes". The two men also signed a broad-ranging agreement governing military ties between the two countries that included a clause declaring that "the very existence of this agreement" was to remain secret.

The documents, uncovered by an American academic, Sasha Polakow-Suransky, in research for a book on the close relationship between the two countries, provide evidence that Israel has nuclear weapons despite its policy of "ambiguity" in neither confirming nor denying their existence.

The Israeli authorities tried to stop South Africa's post-apartheid government declassifying the documents at Polakow-Suransky's request and the revelations will be an embarrassment, particularly as this week's nuclear non-proliferation talks in New York focus on the Middle East.

They will also undermine Israel's attempts to suggest that, if it has nuclear weapons, it is a "responsible" power that would not misuse them, whereas countries such as Iran cannot be trusted.

Another damaging report for Netanyahu, but I don't see how it will change anything.

May 24, 2010

US entry to 2010 Chinese Expo

Yglesias: US Pavilion at Expo 2010 is a National Humiliation
Our group was briefly taken today to visit Shanghai’s Expo 2010, which is kind of like a World’s Fair. The whole concept seems a bit goofy to my eyes, but it’s caused a lot of excitement in China and I think the way you have to understand it is that China’s at a level of economic development where most Chinese people can manage a trip to Shanghai to visit an Expo but don’t have the means to engage in any international travel. So their way of seeing the world is to visit the various national pavilions erected there. And I’m afraid to say that the U.S. pavilion, though hugely popular (visits thus far ranking just slightly below China) really isn’t up to snuff.

Apparently U.S. government funds weren’t appropriated to put the thing together, so the organizers had to raise corporate money. Which is fine, but instead of putting together a real exhibition about the United States and then slapping a nice “thanks to a generous sponsors” panel together, they really only managed to assemble what amounts to a series of advertisements for the U.S. brands who put up the money plus a couple of barely coherent movies. The mightiest nation on earth probably doesn’t need to brag, but it would be nice if one of those films said something—anything—about the actual achievements and history of the country. Instead, we get kids talking about the importance of innovation and a bizarre parable about a group of people coming together to build a community garden.
Ezra Klein chimes in:
Countries put some effort into the Expo: China spent about $50 billion building the infrastructure for the event. Saudi Arabia's pavilion is an elevated oasis complete with palm trees. Switzerland's pavilion is all sleek lines and metal brushstrokes surrounded by a soft netting of maroon spheres. South Korea's effort is an explosion of colors and cubes and contrasts. Britain created a planet of brushed silver and adorned it with more than 60,000 transparent rods. America? Well, we appear to have built a Circuit City.

The inattention to aesthetics might work as a signal of power and wealth, like Bill Gates being rich enough to wear denim when he goes to meet the queen. But then you get to the three videos that make up America's message to the word. Message? We're bad at languages, in hock to corporations, and able to set up gardens when children shame us into doing so.

The first video is six minutes of cute slapstick as Americans try, and fail, to pronounce Chinese words. If the Chinese thought they could overrun the U.S. and get us speaking Mandarin, this video decisively proves that at least half of that project will be difficult. The second video uses messages from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to bookend a long series of advertisements from the pavilion's corporate sponsors, including a representative from Chevron who tells us that oil will have to be part of our energy future and actually uses their marketing buzzwords "human energy." When Obama finishes, the screen dissolves to text thanking Citibank for its sponsorship. For good measure, that video plays in the Citibank room. The third video is an inoffensive parable in which a young girl galvanizes her neighborhood to plant a garden. That video was sponsored by PepsiCo, and shown in the Pfizer room.
He continues:
Citibank's sponsorship of the U.S. pavilion came pretty late in the process. From what I was told, it came when the United States basically needed a few more million at crunch time. That is to say, the donation happened recently. Recently, of course, being during the period of time when the U.S. government was a major shareholder in Citibank. And yet we still called the room "the Citibank room" and we still dissolved President Obama's face into a text screen saying the film was brought to you by Citibank. Maybe this was some subtle message about how we're so capitalist that we'd rather humiliate ourselves than act like we own a company that we do, in fact, largely own, but it's still silly. We couldn't have used our major shareholder status to demand they content themselves with a tasteful plaque?
Apparently it's part of some reporters' trip to China. I've always wanted to visit (like my friend D); maybe I'll get the chance sometime after Peace Corps.

The vuvuzela: it's really a trom-bat

The vuvuzela is a South African tradition:
But it is the vuvuzela, a cheap plastic horn, that may be the lasting South African symbol of the 2010 games, said Mr. Alegi, a scholar of soccer at Michigan State University. A stadium full of them make a racket so ear-splitting that the usual cheers and groans of the crowd are lost. And South African fans will undoubtedly be blowing their vuvuzelas, which are ubiquitous at South African soccer games, proudly, joyously, defiantly.
On the river, one of the traditions is a call to dinner, usually with some kind of horn. There are a few choices, the most elegant being a large conch shell with the very tip cut off to make a mouthpiece. If we're lacking one of those, sometimes we have the loudest person on the trip yell everyone in. One trip though, I remember one family had made an improvised horn by taking a plastic bat, sawing off the far end, and cutting a mouthpiece in the handle end. They called it the "trom-bat," and it made a plastic wheedling drone--exactly like one of these vuvuzelas. Imagine a stadium full of trombats. I'm bringing earplugs.

Artist of the week

Ladytron.

Parents and reading

The other day I monitored the Grade 4 as they took their home language (Setswana) test. Most of the test was questions about a very short paragraph. About half read slowly and with great difficulty. The other half couldn't read at all. Heartbreaking.

I got to thinking. I could read better than that when I was four years old, before I ever went to school. By fourth grade I was reading John Grisham. Yet it had practically nothing to do with innate talent; rather it had everything to do with quality parenting. My parents didn't just tell me awesome stories, they read to me on a nearly nightly basis. One of my earliest memories is sitting in my Dad's lap, book open before us, constantly interrupting him: "What's that word? What's that word?" So I just figured it out.

This isn't to say that the kids here are doomed to be permanently left in the dust, rather another reminder that a great deal of what gives me my station in life was total luck on my part.

May 23, 2010

The Story

[Front matter: this another story from my Dad. This is probably his second-best one (though still easily New Yorker-caliber), but it's my favorite, perhaps because I feature prominently in it. Very highly recommended. This was also published in a collection called There's This River.]

It's time for bed again. The Boy will need to hear another story. Preferably a long one; ideally one that doesn't end. Lucky for me I have this vast treasure of a tale that I've stored on the leaky floppy disk of my cortex; a story of Remote Glacier and the River Kleena Kleen, of Granite Mountain, Copper Canyon and The Maze. It's a tale all true, richly embellished, misty and more heroic in the soft focus of time, with a cast drawn from that pantheon of characters who were and are my friends: larger than life, bright and timeless as the stars, strong and wise and funny. All handsome men and lovely women who could perform the impossible with a wink and a laugh.

This is a story drawn from the most Golden of Ages, the best and worst of times. It is filled with crisp images of desert mornings and snowy mountain moonlight, of wet rope and rotten handholds, of longings deeper than the sea, of moments when there was no time for terror, of aching love and hate and beauty. These things are in my story. It think it best to introduce the Boy to it while he still thinks it natural for bears to talk.

More often than not, the stage is set in that most sublime of earth’s scenic spectacles, where the actions of men easily take on the grandeur of their surroundings, the Grand Canyon, where there was, once upon a time....

"...a trip where your Daddy was rowing the old “Roaring Springs.” She had a little bit of magic in her, that boat. I think it must have been in the left side hatch, 'cause rocks never got anywhere close to that, while the right front footwell, on the other hand—"

"Tell me the one about the 'Too-Cool Doctors in the Matching Gold Chains, Daddy.'"

"You just heard that one. Anyway we had made it down to Lava Falls, which some people call Vulcan, after the God of the Forge—"

"How about 'Andre's Big Water Run', Daddy? Could you really have thrown a cat through the hole in the boat?"

"A little one, but this is a better story. See there we were, and we'd been there for a long time. Everyone was getting jittery and it was late in the day, but it was a nasty water level."

"Way to the Ugly?"

"Yeah. But RD wanted to go. He needed to go. His markers had told him that the water wasn't coming up until the next full moon—"

"Did he brush the sacred cornmeal with an eagle feather?"

"No, that was another guy. But maybe we should have blessed a little Bisquick for him that day, for all the good his calculations did. Kenton said it was the same water level as when he got hurt going over the dome rock upside down. It had squeezed him pretty good, and conked him on the noggin."

"Did it bust Kenton's head, Daddy?"

"I don't think anything could do that. But Kenton didn't want to be punished again thataway, so he elected to watch a run. The rest of us were hoping the Dam would give us enough water to run the left side."

"Those sonsabitches?"

"Yeah, but don't say that, OK? Anyway, we sat up on the rock while RD and the raft went through. Regan always has the two biggest, strongest guys on his boat through Lava. For luck, I guess. But when Vulcan saw those big bruisers sliding down the tongue he must have thought it was three fatted calves. He flipped them over like this—plop—no up and down or spectacular sideways action. Just—flop—like a pig on a spit. Then they went over the dome rock upside -down with nary a lifejacket showing above the surface. That scared the devil out of everyone. We found out later that one guy got a little scraped up and the boat had a gouge on the deck from one side to the other; but it looked like they all three could have been pinched in half, like you might do to a red ant that bit you for no reason. The raft made it somehow but he went right over the domer too. We all thought that would wreck a dory."

"What did you do, Daddy?"

"Well, we all sat there with our jaws on our chests for a while. Then Kenton said he was going to run The Slot."

"But wasn't that closed, Daddy?"

"It was closed, liquidated, gone, pao, completamente finito. But Kenton saw it there. I stood on my head and crossed my eyes and couldn't see anything but a solid wall of water 75 feet high. Kenton said, 'There's a little tongue feeding through right....THERE! Did you see that?' Well, maybe there was a bucketful of water that wasn't falling back on itself but I think it was just evaporating in the terrible wind that hole was making.

"Kenton was going to try it anyway. Said he'd rather flip in deep water than go over that rock again, which made a certain amount of sense. I guess. Anyway, he told this one guy who wanted to go with him what to do, and they went out there. He lined up on the bubbles just like there was a run there, pushed twice into the throat of that thing, and while they were falling, he jumped onto the shoulders of the guy in the front seat—"

"What happened?"

"Well, conviction is a marvelous tool, buddy. Kenton manufactured a slot in that wave that was just big enough for the Emerald Mile to climb out of the bottom of the trough. When he got almost to the top, the wave exploded underneath him. The boat came clear out of the water and did two complete backflips, maybe three, it was hard to tell from where I was standing. But it landed right side up. Nobody could believe it."

"I don't believe it either, Daddy."

"Well, that's what happened. And the rest of us were still up there wondering what to do. It was Andre, Ren and me and we weren't going to try either of those runs we'd seen. But we had to try something. It was getting dark, so we went back to the boats and saw that the water was coming up. We decided to go across to the left side and check out the run from there.

"I had this woman on my boat whose name was Lydia. She had been down the canyon once before, but the last time she had walked around Lava Falls. It had been eating at her ever since. She really wanted to go but she was scared to death. When she saw RD flip, she had just caved in on herself, like a wounded swan. For some reason she had singled me out as the boatman with the qualities she required. She knew if she came across the river with us she would have to run the rapid 'cause we couldn't pick her up below on that side. The worry was wearing her down. She only weighed about 40 pounds by the time she got on my boat. She sat down, and said in a voice about this big: 'Can I go with you, Coop?' Well, I had a lot on my mind and was pretty much convinced that I wasn't going to survive the afternoon anyway, so I said sure. And we went across.

"Ren had put together in his mind this run that only he could have thought up. It involved four complete 360's, and oar-vaulting over one rock that was three feet out of the water. He wasn't as good then as he later became. Later he got this kind of ruthless concentration to him, like a gunfighter, and he was really good. But that day he was spooked. He didn't want anyone in the boat with him 'cause he was going to do all those pivots and that leapfrog stuff without going any further than 18 inches from the left bank. Thought the added weight might slow him down. He had a wild look in his eye, like a cornered weasel, and he went down along the shore to check out his run by himself.

"Andre and I went high to look at the regular left run, but mainly to let the water come up. It was almost dark, and Lydia was down to about 25 pounds. RD had flipped three hours before, and the rest of the group probably figured we had decided to hike out Prospect Canyon.

"Andre and I finally got up the gumption to run when Ren burst out of the brush like a flushed pheasant. 'Snake!’ he yells. Ren hates snakes. He's running to the boat waving his arms like this: 'Snake!' It was hanging in the trees, and he had come face to face with it. 'Snake!’ he keeps yelling like it's after him. He didn't even see the rapid. Since he doesn't have a knife he had to stop and untie the boat. Gone are all thoughts of pivots and twists; he's getting the Hell out of there.

"Then it occurs to him that he needs weight in the boat and someone to bail. 'Lydia!’' he screams. 'Get IN the boat!' I don't have the chance to explain to him that she is, by now, without mass. They are pulling backward down the tongue. Ren somehow gets the bow around and the last thing I see is the “Hidden Passage” on the face of the biggest hole on earth with Lydia plastered on the bowhatch like decoupage."

"What happened, Daddy?"

"Well, frenzy works too sometimes, son, and they made it. Went right through the bottom hole too, but we didn't get to see that because we were in the rapid by then."

"Did you make it?"

"Piece of cake. We had the water. Didn't even have to bail."

"Wow, Daddy. You must have been the best."

"Well, for a while there, I guess we all were."

"Tell me another story."

"Sure, buddy. I really only know this one story, and it doesn't really end. We'll pick it up tomorrow after you've had a good sleep."

"Can I go down the river someday too?"

"Hey, I'm making your boat right now and I'm going to put a little bit of magic in every hatch. I'll even put some in the footwells, too. Now goodnight."

Copyright 2010, all rights reserved. This work may not be reproduced, rewritten, broadcast, or published without the written consent of the author. Picture credit: Wikipedia/Creative Commons.

May 22, 2010

The Iraq war

The bloggers I read most frequently are four: Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum, Andrew Sullivan, and Ezra Klein. Yesterday, I learned that all of them supported the Iraq War. (I already knew about the other three.) All of them have recanted their previous opinion, and probably learned a great deal from it. (Drum, most satisfyingly, said it was really fucking stupid of him.) Yglesias and Klein were pretty young at the time--they're only a couple years older than me. Still, that's a fairly devastating thing to be wrong about. When my convictions developed a little more, I thought--and still think--that the invasion was the most boneheaded major policy decision ever committed by the USA. Not the most horrible or devastating, but just the rawest, most undiluted dose of stupid ever. Way dumber than Vietnam.

It got me wondering though...what did I think back then? I was a junior in high school, so it's a bit fuzzy in my mind. I was against the war, that much I remember clearly. I was seventeen and loathed Bush, the usurping bastard, but didn't know a great deal about Iraq. My AP English teacher had us answering questions while we watched the morning news about the war, and I remember looking over the answers a few years back. They were astonishingly foresighted questions, things like, "How long do you think the occupation will last? How much will it cost?" As I recall most of my answers were pessimistic, but not nearly enough as things turned out.

The one clear opinion I can recall was that the rationale behind the whole thing seemed bizarre. Hussein had been a running joke in school for years, getting his clock cleaned by the US every ten years or so, no threat whatsoever. Suddenly it was terrifically important to take this guy out. I remember thinking, What changed? Hussein couldn't beat Wyoming in a fair fight, and if he releases some biotoxin shit, then by God we'll nuke Iraq into a sheet of glass. If he's insane enough to do that, why hasn't he done it before? Cheney would have said 9/11, but as it turns out Cheney is really fucking stupid.

UPDATE: You know who else supported the Iraq War? Dan Savage, in an utterly brain-dead article for The Stranger. It has to be read to be believed.

May 21, 2010

Article of the day

In Foreign Policy magazine, there's a nice piece about the drug cartels in Mexico:
As the cartels have shrunk in number, the pressure on them -- from U.S. and Mexican authorities, and from their own competitors -- has increased apace, forcing the organizations to become better equipped and more violent. Today's Mexican cartels spend millions of dollars a year on assault rifles, explosives, armored high-end SUVs, and sophisticated intelligence operations, with the aim of avoiding interdiction and eliminating competitors.

This is the grand paradox of drug enforcement. Unless enforcement agencies can intercept virtually all of the drugs crossing the border -- something that approaches impossibility -- their efforts are likely to simply produce more formidable opponents. The cartels' profits will increase, and with them the dangers they pose to Mexican authorities and the Mexican population.
Worth a read.

Guest post: Oil Spill A Result of Government Regulations

[Front matter: this is an Onion-style piece from my Dad.]

Major oil companies Exxon/Mobil and Shell Oil today joined with British Petroleum in blaming Department of Interior regulations for causing the explosion and sinking of a deep water oil drilling platform that is still in the process of causing the largest human caused environmental disaster in history. The offending regulations, crafted by then-vice president Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force with assistance of a host energy industry representatives, were written on the back of used pizza box that appears to have gone missing for the last four years. “They probably said something about not taking all the pressure off before you plug the well, “said BP spokesperson Warren Miphalt. “How were we to know? Somebody should have said something.” Interior Secretary Mudge Salazar promised to have the oil industry come up with a new set of regulations for itself by mid-June. “So this never happens in quite the same way again,” he emphasized. Interior Department Deputy Don Telme, the only person responsible for enforcement of off-shore drilling regulations along 5,300 miles of US coastline, was unavailable for comment, having last been seen at the March 2010 meeting of the Petroleum Producers Association in the company of feather-boa clad oil-lobbyist Gina Lalapaloza and a magnum of Cold Duck.

Meanwhile, the leak has slowed somewhat as the latest in a series of bizarre engineering fixes seems to be working. “Obviously, we’re clueless,” said Miphalt, “We sure never thought this would happen.” The leak should be less obvious soon, he promised, as the toxic crude is now being treated with toxic dispersants that will cause the heavier fractions of petroleum to sink to the mile-deep sea floor where it’s really dark. “That should take care of it for the next thousand years,” he said. BP, the nation’s biggest oil producer, has always been defined by its senseless motto, “An energy company going beyond,” Miphalt said, but more importantly, produced profits of 6 billion dollars last quarter, selling America’s resources back to Americans. “We didn’t do that getting all misted-eyed over every crawdad on the Delta,” he said. Repair and clean up efforts have already cost the corporation six days of profits and could go higher.

Reaction of coastal residents has ranged from anger to resignation. While polls show that more than half of American citizens know that Lousiana has a coastline, many of these believe everything on it already ruined by pipeline dredging, hurricanes, the 500 square mile “dead zone” in the Gulf resulting from agricultural runoff, bad moonshine, jambalya or effluent from the Tabasco Sauce plant. The state was declared a Superfund site in 2005 and now smells like benzene and coal tar where it doesn’t reek of fetid swamp. Efforts are being made to coat the capital, Baton Rouge, with a protective layer of bentonite mud. Still, thriving communities of fishermen along the surviving coastline have counted on the bounty of the sea for generations. That way of life now seems in jeopardy. “My cousin’s got a souvenir ‘tarball from the biggest spill in history’ thing on Ebay that doing pretty good, “said one-time shrimper Ben Overabarel, “can’t eat that though. I told the BP guy these shrimp didn’t taste regular and he said those was the Premium ones. Got me a free tank a gas though.”

Suspicion remains that the explosion and fire might have been the result of sabotage by liberal extremists in an attempt to discredit the oil industry in a region that supplies a third of the nation’s domestic production. Representative James Inhofe (R- OK) stated that the oil spill was the “second biggest hoax ever perpetrated on he American people,” and that a clear connection had not been made linking the sunken deep-water drilling platform and the oil slick that happens to be in the same area. “Oil spill skeptics are being shouted down by alarmists and extremists,” he said, “and conflicting data is being suppressed.” He pointed out that remote images of the leaking pipe were being provided by “scientists” who tend to be oil slick “believers.” “It’s like a religion with those people,” he said. “I just want to see decisions made on a factual basis. If you think about it, why would Jesus want to lube up the entire gulf coast and parts of the eastern seaboard anyway? Does that make sense? The oil spill hysteria is part of a broad conspiracy to make everyone learn trigonometry.”

At a Tea Party rally in Boston ex-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin reminded an enthusiastic crowd of supporters that the Founding Fathers had not included a bunch of complicated regulations governing offshore drilling in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence or any of the other important stuff they might have written. “They used as their guide the Ten Commandments, which is all the laws we need,” she said, consistent with her own unique version of American History. She noted that these seminal documents were also mute on the issues of derivatives trading, health care and energy policy and that the time was now, she asserted to the cheering throng, to “take our government back. Back to the 1700s.” Dressed like a colonial Minuteman, tax protester Bhopal Revere, an early and outspoken advocate of two unfunded wars and a record breaking tax cut for upper-upper income brackets, told the assemblage that he would rather not pay for them after all, since they didn’t seem to do any good. The bank bailout was thing that really “frosts my codpiece,” Revere explained. “Better to let the whole rotten system collapse and keep your doubloons sewn into the lining of your waistcoat like I do. We could have gone back to potting away at revenue agents from behind a tree with this here second-amendment-covered squirrel gun.”

May 20, 2010

On paleoconservatism

Daniel Larison is one of my favorite bloggers. He writes at the American Conservative. It's probably because I have a weakness for views that are skeptical of human goodness or capacity for change that I like him; nevertheless he provides a fresh breeze on a lot of rather stale left-right dichotomies. It's nice to be reminded that the Klein/Yglesias/Drum trifecta are not right about everything.

Yet neither is Larison--witness this post from his old blog:
Kirchick’s “discovery” that I have belonged to the League of the South for many years will come, I expect, as no surprise to anyone who has been reading this blog for very long. On my sidebar are links to the League of the South’s webpage and its blog, I have written several times for Chronicles, which also links to the League’s site, and I have repeatedly defended the principles of secession, decentralism and constitutionalism that I regard as being an inseparable part of the political tradition of the Antifederalists, Jeffersonians and the Confederacy. I still belong to the League, but I am not active in the group. My statements about Lincoln over the years should have left no one in any confusion about my views of the War or its negative effects on the Republic. In essence, Kirchick believes that it is somehow disqualifying or unacceptable to reject the acts and legacy of an executive usurper and that it is wrong to sympathise with the people who fought for their constitutional rights against this usurper.
This is somewhat similar to the recent Rand Paul (the son of Ron Paul who recently won a primary in Kentucky) uproar. On Rachel Maddow he said that the Civil Rights Act should not have been passed--that it was an unnecessary intervention into a private matter. This is where I part company with that kind of conservatism. Government intervention, sometimes armed, has its place. I think Larison is much more sensible than Paul, but it's a similar argument.

The Civil War and the civil rights movement needed to be fought with the full armed backing of the government. Lincoln was no usurper and the cancerous racism of the South--still not fully excised--was what started the Civil War and Jim Crow.

May 19, 2010

Harry Potter language camp

As you can see with my halting attempt at Spanish reviewing, I'm fairly familiar with the Harry Potter series. I'm not a die-hard fan--in fact I found the staggering popularity (something like 400 million copies sold) rather bizarre, especially for the later books, which seemed to get worse and worse. Certainly other young fiction is comparable or superior.

In any case, one of the advantages of the that popularity of the series is the wide availability of the book in many languages--67 so far. My current rather feeble attempts at learning Afrikaans center mainly around deciphering dialogue passages in my translated copies. It's not a very effective way to learn a language, but as I don't have any native speakers on hand I have to make do.

Reading books is best practice for people who are already fairly good at a language, I think. If one has a decent vocabulary and grammar, pounding thousands of words helps build the instinctive knowledge that one needs to be truly fluent. For me, the Spanish was at about the right level. I know that if I were serving in a Spanish-speaking country I would be completely fluent by now (sigh). Reading the Afrikaans books doesn't help that much--yet. But I figure language learning is one of those things that rewards time and persistence more than technique. I'll keep after it.

Attention Daft Punk fans

This is just too fun.

May 18, 2010

On begging

The Peace Corps issues a handbook to volunteers called "A Few Minor Adjustments." It's a well-written and sensible guide to the kinds of problems one will face as a volunteer and upon returning home. In the section on accepting the behavior of host country nationals, they write this:
The next step in adjustment, then, is developing the ability to "accept" host country behavior. The word accept is being used in a special sense here; it does not mean liking or approving, and especially not adopting, but rather accepting the inevitability and logic of a particular behavior. of trusting that, irritating as it may be, the behavior is nevertheless appropriate in the other culture. you accept the behavior because you understand that it makes sense in the local culture, however rude, offensive, or strange the behavior would be in yours.

Just how do you come to such an understanding? The classic route to culutural understanding and acceptance has three basic steps:
-You become aware of the your own cultural assumptions and values.
-You accept the reality of your own culture conditioning.
-You accept the reality of the cultural conditioning of others.
Unlike the three parts of adjustment, the components of acceptance must be acquired in sequence. Until you believe that you actually have cultural assumptions, you aren't likely to accept that you've been conditioned by the. Unless you can accept that you have been conditioned by your culture, you're not likely to accept that others have been conditioned by theirs. As a rule, people rarely believe something to be true of others that they have not found to be true of themselves. You might accept such a thing intellectually, but you will probably not trust it emotionally. At the heart of successful cultural adjustment, it turns out, lurks a fundamental paradox: Only by seeing that foreigners are just like you in certain respects can you accept that they might also be different. (p. 29)
Yesterday I was teaching Grade 8. While rooting around in my bag for my Setswana-English dictionary, I mistakenly brought out a block of cheese that I had forgotten to put in my refrigerator. Immediately one girl burst out: "Mpha, mpha! Meneer, mpha. Meneer. Mpha. Meneer!" (Mister! Give!) etc. I said no, but she kept on after it for ten minutes, insisting that because I'm white I can buy more cheese, and that she was going to find my bag and steal my cheese. I finally had to threaten to kick her out of the class to get her to quiet down. Later that same day I was eating an apple, and a different Grade 8 girl appears. "Mpha."

This happens practically every day. I loan out pens to the kids who don't have them (loan because they will destroy any pens they own in a day or two), and I'm always fighting to get them back. "You have so many, give me one." There's an older guy who comes by about once a week asking for my hat. When asked why, he says that--you guessed it--because I'm white I can buy another one. "Lekgowa o na le madi," (white person has money), they say.

This drives me up the wall. I think I could handle practically any other behavior that might offend the average American. Corporal punishment doesn't really bother me. The rampant nepotism and corruption I can tolerate. Bargaining is fine. But the begging, especially combined with the racial stereotyping, pisses me off like nothing else. (Ok, it's a relatively benign racial stereotype--except for the muggings--but it's still a stereotype.)

I think I've made it through the The Peace Corps program for acceptance of a behavior for most things here. It's obvious to me now how I've been conditioned by my culture--particularly with respect to self-reliance, direct communication, tight-fistedness, and religion. I accept the large families here, the sleeping around, the drinking, the friendliness, and the unbelievably high volume of everyday life. I can even see where this culture of begging comes from: the stomping--yet subsistence support--of Apartheid, and the smoking remnants of Ubuntu.

But the begging just grates worse and worse. I hate it, I think it's pathetic, and I refuse to give anything to anyone. Some of this is irrational overreaction, but when my conversation with every third person is them trying to cadge a couple rand or whatever they can see of my possessions, I lose my objectivity. (I've had people trying to get the shirt off my back.) Furthermore, I don't believe it's a healthy thing for a person, especially children. Constant begging from those that aren't actually in dire straits encourages parasitism and dependency, which is a major problem here.

I sometimes wonder if other volunteers have this same problem. Thoughts?

Toy Story + The Dark Knight

= awesome.

Mearsheimer on Israeli apartheid

Ok, I promise I'll shut up about Israel after this. But John Mearsheimer had a bracing lecture some time ago about the endgame for Israel in the next decade or so:
The story I will tell is straightforward. Contrary to the wishes of the Obama administration and most Americans -- to include many American Jews -- Israel is not going to allow the Palestinians to have a viable state of their own in Gaza and the West Bank. Regrettably, the two-state solution is now a fantasy. Instead, those territories will be incorporated into a "Greater Israel," which will be an apartheid state bearing a marked resemblance to white-ruled South Africa. Nevertheless, a Jewish apartheid state is not politically viable over the long term. In the end, it will become a democratic bi-national state, whose politics will be dominated by its Palestinian citizens. In other words, it will cease being a Jewish state, which will mean the end of the Zionist dream.

[...]

There are two other reasons why there is not going to be a two-state solution. The Palestinians are badly divided among themselves and not in a good position to make a deal with Israel and then stick to it. That problem is fixable with time and help from Israel and the United States. But time has run out and neither Jerusalem nor Washington is likely to provide a helping hand. Then there are the Christian Zionists, who are a powerful political force in the United States, especially on Capitol Hill. They are adamantly opposed to a two-state solution because they want Israel to control every square millimeter of Palestine, a situation they believe heralds the "Second Coming" of Christ.

What this all means is that there is going to be a Greater Israel between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. In fact, I would argue that it already exists. But who will live there and what kind of political system will it have?

It is not going to be a democratic bi-national state, at least in the near future. An overwhelming majority of Israel's Jews have no interest in living in a state that would be dominated by the Palestinians. And that includes young Israeli Jews, many of whom hold clearly racist views toward the Palestinians in their midst. Furthermore, few of Israel's supporters in the United States are interested in this outcome, at least at this point in time. Most Palestinians, of course, would accept a democratic bi-national state without hesitation if it could be achieved quickly. But that is not going to happen, although, as I will argue shortly, it is likely to come to pass down the road.

[...]

What is truly remarkable about this situation is that the Israel lobby is effectively helping Israel commit national suicide. Israel, after all, is turning itself into an apartheid state, which, as Ehud Olmert has pointed out, is not sustainable in the modern era. What makes this situation even more astonishing is that there is an alternative outcome which would be relatively easy to achieve and is clearly in Israel's best interests: the two-state solution. It is hard to understand why Israel and its American supporters are not working overtime to create a viable Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories and why instead they are moving full-speed ahead to build Greater Israel, which will be an apartheid state. It makes no sense from either a moral or a strategic perspective. Indeed, it is an exceptionally foolish policy.
Mearsheimer touches on the real irony there at the end. If he's right--and I can't argue with any of his points--then the reflexively "pro-Israel" right is really helping the state commit seppuku. Where is the next Yitzhak Rabin?

UPDATE: Larison chimes in:
Nationalists here in the U.S. insist on uncritical support for our policies abroad because they see this as an expression of loyalty to their country “right or wrong,” and “pro-Israel” hawks insist on offering the same kind of uncritical support for Israeli policies regardless of their merits or their consequences.

Of course, nationalists typically have a defective understanding of loyalty and a distorted understanding of patriotism, and hawks have a similarly defective understanding of what constitutes real, effective support for an ally. Encouraging a government in its worst habits and instincts, remaining silent in the face of its abuses and focusing all of their energies on attacking dissidents and critics are not the acts of friends or supporters. They are instead the acts of the blindly loyal who ultimately contibute to the ruin of the state they claim to defend.

May 17, 2010

Book review: Ubik

Fans of Philip K. Dick (Dickheads, they're called) have told me Ubik is his most accessible work, so I queued it up on my mp3 player (due to a freak coincidence, I have seventeen Dick works on audiobook). I really liked it. It's set in then-future 1992 where psionic phenomena are common. Joe Chip, the protagonist, works for Glen Runcider's "prudence organization," which employs people with anti-psi talents, hired to negate the telepaths and "precogs" who infest other organizations. Runcider manages the company with the help of his dead wife Ella, preserved in "half-life." A big contract takes them to the moon, which turns out to be an ambush. Runcider is injured but the rest survive unscathed. After the return to Earth, strange events start happening. Cigarettes and food are decaying, and everything begins to revert to the 1930s.

I was reminded sharply of Kafka. I wouldn't call it Kafkaesque exactly, though there is a bit of the feel of Kafka, the hopeless and senseless paranoia. It was more the writing style--in particular the style of dialogue, which is convoluted and clinical. However, it's a lot funnier than Kafka, and the plot is far more resolved (not saying much, I know). It's also at times just balls-out terrifying, which I don't really associate with Kafka either.

Dick was clearly a man of ideas. The writing in Ubik was stripped-down, functional, designed to convey the ideas as quickly and clearly as possible but sometimes a bit awkward. This was an irritant at first, but the staggering imagination of Dick quickly bludgeoned down any building complaints. Overall a great and disturbing look at solipsism, paranoia, and one's perceptions.

Article of the day

Since I've been talking Israel a lot recently with the series of posts about Richard Goldstone, this seems like a logical succession. It's a look at the ideology and demographics of the American Jewish establishment:
Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled. Saving liberal Zionism in the United States—so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel—is the great American Jewish challenge of our age.
Really, really great read.

May 16, 2010

Guest story: An Exploration of the Little Colorado River Gorge

[Front matter: Here's another piece from my Dad. Stories like this make me wonder what the hell I'm doing with my life.]

Sitting in a courtroom on a hard chair is not my idea of how to spend a pleasant day in March. Particularly when it's the first day in what seems like months that it hasn't snowed or rained. Particularly when the courthouse is located only a few hundred yards from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Out there, with snow dusting the walls of the canyon and the air as clear as nothing—well, it looked pretty nice.

This morning in the newly-remodeled interior of the courthouse a federal magistrate is arraigning two haggard-looking young men from Flagstaff, Arizona, charged with violation of Federal Regulatory Code 7.4H(3). It's 10:00 a.m. The two men have already hiked up from the bottom of the mile-deep gorge in the slush this morning. They are dirty and worn out. They face a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a 500-dollar fine. Considering the circumstances, the two fellows seem to be in pretty good spirits. They are, in fact, happy to be breathing at all.

With the plodding precision of American justice, the magistrate reads the two men their descriptions, then asks for confirmation. Brad Dimock, male, twenty-five, blond hair, blue eyes, six feet, three inches, born in Albany, New York, professional river guide. "Is that correct, Mr. Dimock?" It is. Tim Cooper, male, twenty-five, brown hair, brown eyes, five feet, ten inches, born in Sacramento, California, professional river guide. That's me, I tell him.

Then, in terms that cannot be misunderstood, he reads us our rights, pausing occasionally to ask if we comprehend what's going on. We reply that we do, but truthfully I don't think that either one of us is paying much attention. We are undeniably guilty of running the Colorado River without a permit. If the judge ever stops talking, that's what we're going to tell him. How and why we found ourselves sixty-one miles and 3000 vertical feet into the Grand Canyon with little choice but to run the Colorado is something of a long story and of no concern to the law.

I check out the magistrate's enormous turquoise bolo tie for a while. Then I try to appraise the cost of the inlaid mahogany desk my elbows are on. Maximum fine might buy half of it.

It's a nice day for a walk. Down in the canyon it would be cool and bright. The Colorado River would be running muddy like it should, a rich, red brown that its name suggests. Most of the time anymore it flows clear green due to the 750-foot concrete plug upstream that made an immense settling pond out of Glen Canyon.

The red silt in the river that day was being contributed by a flooding tributary downstream of the dam. Called the Little Colorado River, it's the largest tributary to meet the main Colorado within the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park. Normally, the upper reaches of the Little Colorado River are dry as a bone. Normally, you'd have to walk forty-five rugged, twisting miles to get from Blue Springs to the Standard Oil outpost at Cameron, Arizona. You'd be walking through a canyon that few people have seen from the bottom, a narrow defile that snakes through the flatlands of the Navajo Reservation at depths up to three thousand feet. Normally, it would be a long, dry hike.

The winter of ‘77/’78 wasn't a normal one, however. During most of the month of March, there rolled through the Little Colorado Gorge a torrent of snowmelt and rain that stained the mighty Colorado red. It became, for a while, an honest to goodness river: steep, muddy, littered with boulders and congested with driftwood and flotsam. With the naturally erratic flow of a desert river, it was prone to tremendous fluctuations in volume and likely as not to disappear overnight. The Little Colorado runs through one of the most spectacular gorges in the canyon country, every bit as deep as the Colorado's canyon at their confluence, but more than three times narrower. Sheer walls drop hundreds of feet into the river, making the prospect of walking the bank through the gorge a very dim one. If you wanted to get through the Little Colorado Gorge while the river was there, you'd have to do it in a boat.

There are a number of difficulties that immediately present themselves to anyone anticipating a boat trip down the gorge. First off, there is seldom any water in it. Secondly, when the river is there, it is fifty-six miles long and choked with rapids whose difficulty cannot be determined until you are down there. At those few places along the rim where the river is visible, narrow rocky rapids bend out of sight in either direction. Rumors are heard of fifty-foot vertical falls that cannot be avoided. Thirdly, though the entire section of river that we wanted to run was on the Navajo Indian Reservation, the mouth of the river marked the beginning of Grand Canyon National Park. Travel in the park is illegal without a permit. Private boating permits are handed out once a year in a lottery with little better odds than the Irish Sweepstakes.

These are problems that warrant careful consideration. For several weeks while the snow and rain poured down on Arizona, Brad and I studied topographic maps and talked about the gorge. We drove into the desert and peered over the rim. We compiled a list of needed gear. We consulted the Bureau of Reclamation, which maintains a gauging station on the river, about water levels. They were no help. Meanwhile we talked and studied and thought while the rain poured down.

Someone had been down there before. A river guide named Jim Norton and a partner started down the gorge during the last big flood in 1972. They had inflatable open kayaks and three days worth of food. Norton watched his friend almost drown on the first day. They repeatedly punctured their boats and ran out of patch material. They ran out of food. The fickle river dried up beneath them. In nine days they reached the confluence carrying their boats.

They had made it though. It wasn't impossible. Most of Norton's problems, we thought, could be avoided by using highly maneuverable slalom kayaks.

Our route plan was full of holes: nobody knew how long the water would last; nobody could say how long it would take us. We had a good prospect of having our boats removed from the park by a large motorized raft on a commercial trip, but we didn't know when. It didn't seem as if further study of these matters was going to clear them up, and every day we pondered was another day's water under the bridge.

So, early one morning, we loaded two kayaks and ninety pounds of gear into the truck. It had snowed the night before, and the sky still threatened. Driving against a brisk wind to Cameron, we slid our boats into the water and started into the gorge.

The water of the Little Colorado is absolutely opaque. During its journey across the soft shales and mudstones of the Painted Desert, it picks up as much sand and silt as moving water can hold. The locals say it is too thick to drink and too thin to plow. When it splashes on my glasses, it leaves the lenses looking as if they were ground out of adobe. This is going to be a major headache for the next few days.

If the geologic work of the upper Little Colorado is moving the desert grain by grain into the sea, at Cameron the little river takes on a task that might stymie the most stalwart general in the Corps of Engineers. Uplifting of the earth's crust over a period of millions of years has interposed a rock barrier three-fifths of a mile thick between the sources of the Little Colorado and where it wants to go. The river's response to this obstacle has been to entrench its course, established when it meandered across ancient lowlands, deep into the earth. It hasn't been easy work. The rocks are the same sequence of resistant sandstones, limestones and shales that form the upper walls of the Grand Canyon. To keep pace with uplifting, the Little Colorado has had to maintain a gradient more than three times as steep as the river into which it flows.

The gorge starts slowly, cutting through the top limestone layers without developing any major rapids. The walls rise steadily around us, and the wind continues to blow upstream.

We travel in patchy sunlight and easy water for about five miles before we encounter the third rock stratum called the Coconino Sandstone. It funnels the river into a passageway so narrow that it will not fit my four-meter kayak through sideways. Soon there are sheer sandstone walls on both sides a couple hundred feet high. From this point on, there is no way out but downstream.

Still there are no rapids of consequence, and we paddle cheerily along commenting about the increasing beauty of the canyon and the on setting numbness in our fingers. My hands are freezing but this isn't so tough. I ask Brad how his boat handles when laden with forty-five pounds of food and contingency gear. “Like paddling a dish rag," he says.

Seven miles into the gorge, the rapids suddenly start in earnest. Rounding a corner, the river can be seen to drop steeply into a forest of angular sandstone blacks. Like most of the rapids we are going to encounter, this ones bends around a corner out of sight. The rumble of what would usually be whitewater is deafening. Here the rumble is of brown foam.

Brad leads in, picking his way among the rocks and holes. I catch up to him a short distance down river sitting in an eddy behind a boulder. There is a huge block below him directly athwart the current. I can't see around it. Brad shouts something I don't catch as I go left around the boulder. A second and third house-sized rock confronts me in quick succession. The rapid continues, careening off one wall, then the other, dividing into channels, foaming and gnashing over more boulders than there is time to count. I can't stop to consider which way to turn or what channel to take. For perhaps half a mile there is only time to stroke and turn, paddle and draw. I finally arrive in calm water with my heart pounding like someone is beating on my sternum with a mallet. Brad paddles up and looks me straight in the eye. He says the first dead serious thing I've heard him say in several years:

"We could drown."


There's another rapid just downstream, not much different from the first. Then a third and a fourth until they begin to run together in my mind as a continuous stretch of rocks, walls and rushing mud. By mid-afternoon we are exhausted and stiff with cold. Camp.

In a dry wash we build a fire and warm up our hands enough so that we can get the top off the brandy. It's stowed in a plastic bottle and tastes like polyvinyl chloride. Brad christens the brew Xylene. Because of its probable toxicity, we drink only half.

What a camp! The wall at our backs climbs unbroken a thousand feet to the rim. The sun hasn't shone down here since the late Pleistocene. It's cold and windy, remote, magnificent and pristine. There's not a single Vibram track on the beach, no pop-tops or cigarette butts to grumble about and stuff into pockets. We're delightfully alone under the murk of the sky, the sole occupants of this particularly neglected piece of useless territory. If I've had to sprint through the Devil's entrails to get here, well the trip has kept the riffraff out and put a little iron in my blood. The brooding walls seem to be recharging us a little. Them and the brandy. The fire goes out. So do we.

By morning the river has dropped six inches. We can't stand for much of that. Hurriedly, we cook up some cereal and mix instant coffee with hot mud. The first rapid is a hundred yards from camp.

Unlike rapids in the Grand Canyon, caused by outwash from flash flooding tributaries, these hummers are the result of landslides and rockfall. There is no pattern to them, just confused jumbles of rock and water. We go as slowly as we can, feeling our way.

It's begun to rain and the wind has a new force. In spite of my wetsuit and paddling jacket, mittens and helmet, I'm getting cold. My fingers have lost all feeling. How long can it keep up like this?

After a short breather, the river slides into Hell Hole Bend. That's what it says on the map. Hell Hole Bend. I watch Brad paddling furiously against the current to avoid something I can't see. Then he's gone. I go into Hell right behind him. For an indeterminate amount of time my boat and I are pummeled on all sides by dark water. We're thrashed with unprecedented violence. I use up my adrenaline ration well into the 1990's getting around the Bend.

We clamor out of the boats and build a fire on the bank where the next flood will wash away the ashes. There's a powerful curiosity and apprehension about what waits around the corner, but we're too cold to continue. There may be a dozen more Hell Holes. There may be nothing. Uncertainty thrills the heart and broadens the parameter of fear. We've put ourselves here purposely, somewhere in the wilderness out of touch.

Downstream on the Colorado the crush of people, 17,000 of them running the river each year, has forced the Park Service to become an agency of regulation and control. The Grand Canyon is a "managed resource" in which the Little Colorado is an "attraction site." My mind balks at these designations. There's no room for the absurdities of bureaucracy in the wilderness; it has retreated further and further into the seldom-traveled places. The very seldom-traveled places. The well-nigh inaccessible places where the mass of humanity cannot or will not go, where the bighorn sheep watch their step and the contrived laws of men are as useless as a garbage compactor. There's a big piece of wilderness breathing quietly in the perpetual twilight of the Little Colorado Gorge. Its only rules are the inflexible requirements of the canyon.

Once we're thawed out a little, we slide our boats back into the water and bounce through a few more rapids bound for Blue Springs, the next topographic feature we should recognize. The water relaxes for a moment in a hallway of limestone riddled with caverns. Small springs of clear water pour out of the walls. We must be close to the big spring, but it is hidden under muddy water.

When there is no water in the upper canyon, Blue Springs transforms the last thirteen miles of the gorge in to a series of azure pools and cascades. The color is due, at least in part, to the heavy solution load of calcium carbonate the water picks up on its long journey through the Redwall Limestone. When it flows out into the hot desert sun, water begins to evaporate, super-saturating the solution and causing the precipitation of calcite crystals. The result is a rock called travertine that commonly builds up from the bottom of the river. The walls grow higher as more travertine is deposited on top until a dam is formed. A hundred miles away at Havasu Canyon these dams reach heights of well over a hundred feet. We've heard that this stream too forms dams, and we have spent considerable time worrying about their existence.

Soon after Blue Springs we come to one. It stretches across the entire river and is all of sixteen inches high. Big deal. Just downstream is another one with two tiers of one and three feet. Brad hangs up in some rocks at the top and I flip over at the bottom. We both recover.

Another dam. This one is multi-tiered with a total drop of about fifteen feet. Brad hits the pool at the bottom with such velocity that he does a submarine reverse end-for-end flip and surfaces upside down. I hit the same place so hard I feel like I've been dropped from the rim. Slightly flabbergasted we push on.

The next one is awesome. A steep slope leads to a vertical falls of perhaps eight feet. Water tumbles over into a cauldron of boiling mud that seems to go nowhere. There is no current; if a kayaker didn't develop enough momentum to blast through the mess, he'd be trapped below the cascade and hammered by tons of falling water.

We stare at it for a long time, so cold we are both shivering like a dog passing peach pits. The wind is draining the last ergs of strength from our bodies. Brad decides to try it before he freezes to death. I crouch on the bank with a camera in the faint hope that I'll be able to capture him going through the rapid at thirty miles an hour on a dark day while shaking like a leaf.

Brad is an excellent boater. He hits everything perfectly, paddling ferociously until the water gives way to air and he drops like a stone into the roiling pool. But this time, it's not going to work. He braces in the froth with his paddle, trying to move downstream but the current has him. He's slowly sucked sideways under the falls. It flips him over and the boat disappears. Horrified, I can only watch. His paddle and arm reach into the air, and he tries to roll up. No good. Again. No good. Oh God Brad, get out of there. Swim for it. Another attempt to right himself, then he vanishes for a long time.

Under the water Brad has pushed out of his kayak and is searching the rumbling depths for a current that is moving downstream. There must be one or the river would stop at this point. No air or light to see by. Panic is leaning on the doorbell. He's smacked into the jagged travertine bottom and thrashed about like a cat in a Maytag. Several thousand heartbeats later he surfaces thirty yards downstream of the falls and hollers with his first breath, "Don't try it!"

I don't. Blue with cold, Brad helps me carry my boat around the rapid. We've had enough. Brad's intro to drowning erased the last traces of bravado. I'm ready to take a hot shower and climb into bed, but the river will have none of it. Continuing downstream we find another and another falls to descend. We crash through them bracing and turning by instinct. This has to stop soon.

Just before dark it finally does. Like two survivors of a shipwreck, we drag ourselves up on the bank and grope around in the gloom for the remaining Xylene. That night I become convinced that Hell is cold.

Brad's gear was thoroughly soaked in the falls and mine is soon in like condition from the pouring rain. Rocks crash down from the cliffs around us and land in the river. We huddle together in the inky blackness waiting for dawn.

When it comes, we pack hurriedly and get on the water. It can't be much farther to the confluence. On the right bank a mile from camp is a carbonate dome twenty feet high. A pit in the center of the dome is filled within a few feet of the top with bubbling pale green water.

This is the Sipapu, a place sacred to the Hopi Indians. According to their mythology, the Sipapu is the entrance to the underworld from which their ancestors emerged and to which the dead return. Feathers dangle from twigs lodged in the side of the pit. The translucent water seems to glow with its own light. It's an eerie spot, as likely a place for man to have birthed as some electrified Precambrian sea. We stare into the pit. It wouldn't surprise us to see the Father of all Hopis loom up from the depths of the pit, long black hair streaming behind him. It wouldn't surprise us but it might scare us to death. We hustle back to the boats.

The rapids are difficult but not deadly, and we are soon in familiar territory. On the left bank, built on the site of an Anasazi Indian ruin, is the cabin of Ben Beamer, a would-be prospector and farmer who scratched a living from this area around the turn of the century. It's a regular stop on Grand Canyon tours. Nailed to Ben's door is a yellow sign, telling anyone interested that the cabin and litter of nineteenth century cans and broken glass around it are protected by the American Antiquities Act, and fines, imprisonment or both are available to those that might feel compelled to mess with them. Familiar ground.

With a whoop and a holler, we paddle the last few strokes to the Colorado. How exhilarating! It's over and we survived. I'm so happy I almost stop shivering.

Now to get out of here. Standing on the bank just inside the perimeter of the park we examine our options. There's the possibility of burning our kayaks and hiking, taking the ashes, out the Salt Trail, a rugged path that rims out in the middle of nowhere. "Nix," says Brad. "Fires are prohibited.” Okay, we could stash our boats here, walk to the Tanner Trail by sometime tomorrow and be on the rim in another day. "We don't have a hiking permit," Brad reminds me. Well, we could paddle down the Colorado for 26 miles to the bottom of the Kaibab Trail and be out of here by sometime tonight. "That's illegal," says Brad. "In fact, it's illegal to be standing here. Shall we walk over there where standing is legitimate?"

The choice is easy. I'd trade my watch, car and boat for a warm place to sleep; throw in my Bachelor's degree for a pair of dry socks. We run down the river and afoul of the law.

At the head of Hance Rapid there are boats tied to the bank. A couple of them have "Park Ranger" written in large green letters on the side. My heart sinks. Mr. Ranger, you cannot possibly want me to not be in your park half so bad as I wish I weren't. Shall we wait until they leave? Should we paddle up to them, crawl up on the bank and insist that we are near death, which is not far from the truth? Shall we wave legally and paddle into Hance, one of the worst rapids on the Colorado, blind?

We wave. They wave back. Someone shouts for us to pull in. "This is a big one," they say. You're telling me. It soon becomes apparent that we're not going to stop. Someone in a green hat and shirt scrambles for a camera and points a lens at us as long as my arm.

Hance is a comparative piece of cake. There are several big water rapids between the trail and us, but they don't hold a candle to Hell Hole Bend. We bomb through them without missing a stroke and reach the trailhead long before dark. It's raining hard, and there's a lot of snow on the rim. Shivering our teeth loose, we bury our boats in the sand and try to get some clothes on. "Let's give ourselves up," Brad suggests. "I bet it's warm in jail." A voice from the rocks above us makes the choice for us. "That's it. You're busted." Paddling as fast as we can is nothing compared to the speed of radio waves.

In the morning I find myself pondering the expensive new woodwork in the federal magistrate's place of business. These are serious charges against us. The laws were designed by good men to preserve and protect the canyon. These people aren't kidding, but somehow today my mind is still clouded with the roar of the river and the beating of my heart. I'm having difficulty just paying attention to the decision of my fate. All the rivers still run into the sea, and we're in one piece. What more could anyone ask? Though we violated the law, we didn't violate the canyons and that, at bottom, is what matters. Isn't it? If I risked my fool neck, well it's my neck and it was worth it.

I feel like a man who's gotten a speeding ticket after just being passed by a Cadillac doing 109. The federal government, the magistrate's employer, destroyed the riparian environment along the Colorado in 1963 by constructing Glen Canyon Dam. With one clumsy blow they killed the native fish, drastically altered the riverside vegetation and eliminated the periodic scouring action of spring floods. That ill-conceived hunk of concrete has done more damage to the canyon than an army of renegade boaters bent on destruction could do in a lifetime. I have a pang of righteous indignation.

We enter a plea of guilty. The fine is 100 dollars apiece plus fees for helicopter evacuation of the boats. Could have been worse.

In need of a shower and two days sleep, I've already got my hat on when a man dressed all in green stops me. "We'd like to ask you a few more questions, Mr. C--,” he says. It seems I look a lot like a man wanted in Florida for parole violations. I can't believe it. Standing beside the green man is a junior ranger I've been acquainted with for years. We started out with the same river outfitter way back when. This is ridiculous and he knows it. Still, Ranger Kojak is serious as cholera, and he wants me to roll up my sleeves to prove I'm not the Tampa Terror who has tattoos all the way up to his shoulders.

Lucky there were no tattoos. I'd still be in jail.

Copyright 1994, all rights reserved. This work may not be reproduced, rewritten, broadcast, or published without the written consent of the author. Picture credit: Wikipedia/Creative Commons.

Chart of the day

Not to keep bemoaning the chumpitude of Nicholas Sparks, but Cracked.com has an excellent how-to guide:



They also had a contest for the best fake Sparks cover. My favorite:

Nicholas Sparks: history's greatest monster

Nicholas Sparks earned my undying hatred when, while watching the movie A Walk to Remember, Mandy Moore's character drops this quote: "Einstein said the more he studied science the more he believed in God," in support of her whitewashed Joel Osteen-style fundamentalist dogma.

It turns out Einstein actually said this, but he was not a Christian (or an atheist):
It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal god and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. (p.43)
It's the worst kind of pseudo-intellectual sockpuppetry. Einstein said it, so it must be true. (The same goes for atheists who would do the reverse, but that's beside the point.)

Whatever. The anger might have had something to do with dating a fundamentalist Christian myself at the time. It's been a long time and Nicholas Sparks is free, like Plato, to use whatever geniuses he likes to his nefarious--what's this?
Sparks says: "I'm going to interrupt you there. There's a difference between drama and melodrama; evoking genuine emotion, or manipulating emotion. It's a very fine eye-of-the-needle to thread. And it's very rare that it works. That's why I tend to dominate this particular genre. There is this fine line. And I do not verge into melodrama. It's all drama. I try to generate authentic emotional power."

[...]

"Of course!" Sparks says. "I write in a genre that was not defined by me. The examples were not set out by me. They were set out 2,000 years ago by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. They were called the Greek tragedies. A thriller is supposed to thrill. A horror novel is supposed to scare you. A mystery is supposed to keep you turning the pages, guessing 'whodunit?'

"A romance novel is supposed to make you escape into a fantasy of romance. What is the purpose of what I do? These are love stories. They went from (Greek tragedies), to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, then Jane Austen did it, put a new human twist on it. Hemingway did it with A Farewell to Arms."

That's one of his favorites, and he points it out as he walks the aisles of the bookstore.

"Hemingway. See, they're recommending The Garden of Eden, and I read that. It was published after he was dead. It's a weird story about this honeymoon couple, and a third woman gets involved. Uh, it's not my cup of tea." Sparks pulls the one beside it off the shelf. "A Farewell to Arms, by Hemingway. Good stuff. That's what I write," he says, putting it back. "That's what I write."

Cormac McCarthy? "Horrible," he says, looking at Blood Meridian. "This is probably the most pulpy, overwrought, melodramatic cowboy vs. Indians story ever written."

[...]

Asked what he likes in his own genre, Sparks replies: "There are no authors in my genre. No one is doing what I do."
Some would say Sparks is entitled to dislike any book he likes. Bump that. This assembly line technician cranking out barely-distinguishable bodice rippers where, judging by the thickness of the book, one can guess the location of the death of a major character to within three pages has no business even licking the boots of McCarthy. (Sure, McCarthy is kind of cocky too. I don't care.) As Roger Ebert says, Sparks writes "soft porn for teenage girls."

But that's not even the worst part. Writers are egotistical, no doubt, but this is new heights. This guy is mentioning himself as in the same league as Hemingway, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus. It's like Michael Bay comparing himself to Orson Wells and Francis Ford Coppola, or Vanilla Ice comparing himself to Mozart and Liszt. Tools of Sparks' magnitude are thankfully rare, like asteroid impacts and pandemics. The world can only take so much.

This guy's head must be bending reality-- one would need the General Theory to describe the gravity well.