Sunday, January 29, 2012

I Pledge Allegiance to the... Internet?

In time, fewer and fewer people will identify themselves by their nationality and more by their ideas. In a globalized, mass communications world, where ideas are shared instantly and people can find others with similar interests, organize, and communicate with complete ease, the idea that you are where you are born will resonate much less. Allow me to twist Descartes slightly: I think, therefore I am what I think.

There are signs all around. Take this article in the New York Times:

The idea that products are exported is becoming antiquated. No longer are they made in X and sold in Y, but now they are made in X and Y and sold in Z too! Commodities are a Made in the World.

I don't see individuals with access to vast resources at their fingertips maintaining an allegiance and self-identification to the place where they were born. It seems unnecessary.

It's early and I'm tired. I'll rewrite this later.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A well argued, sober perspective on tensions with Iran:

In the Spirit of Brotherhood

Check out this article on the West's need to calm down about the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian elections.

Indeed, fear of the aftereffects of the victory of the Muslim Brothers in the Egyptian elections is shortsighted and a tad naive. To begin with, there wasn't a real "opposition" during Mubarak's reign-- except for the well organized, popular, and not-quite-underground Muslim Brotherhood. Considering their organizational skills, it should come as no surprise that once elections were held, the MB did very well as they were one of the few groups that could actually "get out the vote".

I'll allow myself the vanity of making a few predictions:
1. The MB will not Islamize Egypt. They will be moderated (not that they are extreme in any respect) by working with other organizations in parliament. In fact, I have high hopes for their ability to help the Egyptian populace. The following is from the Gallup website:
"The same Gallup surveys that showed Egyptians shifting toward the parties found their opinions largely unchanged in terms of their views on key issues. Egyptians most often mentioned inflation/lack or shortage of money, lack of jobs/unemployment, and safety issues as the most important problem facing their families in multiple surveys through 2011, including in December. Few -- 1% or less -- mentioned moral decay. Further, despite the increase in support for the Salafi party, 95% of Egyptians in the December survey said they have confidence in al-Azhar University, an institution that is openly and historically hostile toward the Salafi movement."

Egyptians are not looking to Islamize Egypt. They want jobs, money, and safety for their families-- just like Americans.

2. Should the MB not deliver results, they will not stay in power. With time, other parties will become more organized, more vocal, and more popular. The MB's victory was a foregone conclusion; the next round of elections will show the true feelings and aspirations of Egyptians.
3. Don't expect a sudden change of policies regarding Israel. Keeping the Sinai demilitarized is in everybody's interest. To suddenly ratchet up the anti-Israeli propaganda wouldn't be a wise move. Expect that to come from the Salafist camp, which gives vent to popular frustration, but is distant enough from the MB to keep their hands relatively clean.

The Muslim Brotherhood is presented with a wonderful opportunity: They can dispel the fears that many in the West have of Islamic organizations and the popularity of Islamists in elections. They have responsibly attained power and they will hopefully responsibly use that power for the good of Egypt and the Middle East and the world.

The ability to define the Arab Spring rests upon their shoulders.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Squash the Carbs!

In an effort to shed the tummy pouch that I've acquired over the past few months, I'm giving up carbs for a few days. I'm still in that envious state of development where I can lose a couple of pounds pretty much at the drop of a hat. Believe me, I'm thankful.

Considering my excursions into the culinary arts over the past month or so, I decided I wanted to try something a little different. A stir-fry is too tame and a salad sounded plainly uninspiring. But, with the helpful coaching of a co-worker (Blair), we came up with tonight's dish:

Spaghetti Squash Marinara

Halve a squash, scoop out the seeds and membranes, and pop it in the microwave in about 1/4 cup of water for 12 minutes. That's that.

For the sauce:
1/2 red onion, diced
4 cloves garlic
a good bunch of basil
tomato sauce

I sauteed the onions and garlic, then added the can of tomato sauce and the basil. Simmer for 10 minutes.

Pop the squash out, fork out the tender insides and pour on the sauce. I added some slices of fresh mozzarella. Boom. Done. I'm stuffed.

An ice cold Manhattan rounds out the evening rather nicely. Not a bad Tuesday night.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Bronx Cocktail

In today's installment of Cocktail Adventures, I present to you: The Bronx Cocktail.

If ever a cocktail needed a re-naming, it's the Bronx Cocktail. This cocktail in no way reminds me of the Bronx, tastes like the Bronx, or really has any historical association with the Bronx. A reading from the Good Book, also known as The Essential Cocktail by Dale De Groff, tells us that the Bronx is reputed to have been invented by Johnny Solon of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Yeah, it needs a new name. I propose, "The Rough Night".

The Bronx Cocktail
1.5 oz gin
1/2 oz sweet vermouth
1/2 oz dry vermouth
dash of bitters (optional, but of course, I added it)
1 oz of orange juice
Shake and strain

It's not an impressive, orgasm-inducing drink. Let's get that right out there. It's "we just kissed, but nothing else really happened" nice. That's not to diminish the drink's flavor, which is nice, but getting a kiss when you're jones-ing for a romp in the sack can leave a man feeling blue.

The orange juice is sort of lost in the mix, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. One of my favorite cocktails is the Blood and Sand, and the OJ is completely lost in that drink, as it serves more of a texture function rather than a flavor function. Here, it's still there, but it is not the star of the show. Nor is the gin. Nor is the vermouth. In fact, this is more of an ensemble cast, with nobody taking the Oscar. This is the Mars Attacks of cocktails, but unlike the movie, this drink leaves a funky taste in your mouth when finished (say something negative about MA, and I'll fight you).

Honestly, if I could best classify this drink, I'd say it's a ballsy mimosa. It's a mimosa with a bigger kick (please excuse my mixing of the adjectives "ballsy" and "kick"). In fact, it might be a great hangover drink! I mean, what other reason would you put OJ in there for?

That being said, I could drink three of these with no problem-- and stave off scurvy too!

When to drink: It's 10am and you've been awake since 11am.
Where: Sidewalk seating, sunglasses on, JBF hair on full display.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Fortunato's Revenge

Today's cocktail adventure is the Sherry Flip.

Having purchased a bottle of sherry yesterday, I am presented with the interesting challenge of drinking only Amontillado sherry for a week. Yesterday, I had a go at the Sherry Cobbler, that most historic of tipples (it was a huge hit at the Paris Exposition in 1867, but mostly due to the use of that newly popularized drinking implement: the straw). Sherry Cobbler is actually a lot less satisfying than it sounds: 4 oz sherry, a tablespoon of sugar, some orange slices and shake the hell out of it. Yeah, it was good, but it wasn't grand. It came out like a nutty sangria. However, in full disclosure: I didn't use a straw.

The Sherry Flip, or as I'll call it,
"Fortunato's Revenge"
3 oz Amontillado sherry
1 small egg (beaten)
1.5 tsp sugar
Shake hard with ice. Garnish with nutmeg (I used cinnamon).

As this is an egg drink, one really has to shake the hell out of it to emulsify (smooth-out) the egg. I only had large eggs, and using a full one was way too much. Next time (tonight, probably) I'll make it with only half the egg. The fate of the remaining half is to be decided.

I really liked the drink, despite its egg-cessive character. The nuttiness of the Amontillado goes well with the creaminess of the egg, and I can easily imagine fortifying this bevvie with a little rum-- if that's what I was in the mood for. It has a nice foam head on top that stays with the drink, in much the same way the head travels down a glass of Guinness.

When to drink: Chilly afternoon
Where: In a creaky study, surrounded by books. If you're consumptive, I'm sure that helps set the mood.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Reflections on Cowardice

The sinking of the Costa Concordia is horrifying. Such an event is unthinkable in our high-tech age (though I'm sure the same was said in 1912). As more details are released, the story gets even sadder.

Today, CNN published an article with excerpts of a transcript documenting the conversation between the captain of the Concordia, Francesco Schettino, and the port authority.

Reading the transcripts, it is obvious that Schettino was confused, disorganized, and most likely scared for his life. In his conversations with the commandant of the port authority, Schettino contradicts himself, obfuscates, and asks questions of which he should know the answer. For example, when the commandant inquires about the number of dead bodies found and Schettino asks him "How many?", Commandant De Falco shoots back, "You should be the one telling me this... What do you want to do? Do you want to go home? Now go back on the stem and tell me what to do..."

Schettino's inability to return to the ship after receiving a direct order to do so reeks of that most despicable of traits: cowardice.

A leader-- a brave leader-- leads from the front. A leader-- a Captain-- does not abandon his charge. Not only did Schettino (and all his officers) abandon ship with "about one hundred" people still on board, he refused to go back and coordinate the evacuation after receiving an order to do so.

Here's the rub: can we blame him?

To what extent is cowardice a decision? To what extent is it controllable? Did Schettino make the decision to abandon ship? In such a chaotic environment, with thousands of people running about, the electricity flickering on and off, is it possible for a human being to make an actual decision? Or, in these circumstances, are decisions trumped by survival instincts? A fellow crew member's "Let's get out of here!" is not taken as a suggestion-- it's a packaged and ready-to-use decision that requires no thought whatsoever. One simple "does". One simply acts. One gets out of there.

This brings up the point about the fate of Schettino. Is cowardice punishable? Is it just to punish somebody for actions over which they had no control? The military thinks so. Acts of cowardice are punishable by court martial and its associated penalties. In Schettino's case, there is no established penalty for abandoning ship (according to the Guardian, though he is being detained for possible charges of manslaughter as well. Is that just?

Schettino's cowardice led to his tragic indecision and their fatal consequences (more bodies were found today). Can and should he be prosecuted for it? Read this blurb from Scott Huler's blog, where he is writing about the Penn State abuse scandal and the inaction of those who witnessed the abuse of athletes:

“The thing that makes it so horrific to us,” says Ditto, “is ironically exactly what makes us throw the brakes on.” Ditto studies bias and error in human decision-making; Strom-Gottfried spends her time interviewing, as she describes them, “whistleblowers who have had episodes of moral cowardice.” I spoke to them – and other psychologists – because as the orgy of finger-pointing and recrimination expanded, I couldn’t find information about what seemed obvious to me. That uncertainty, horror, self-doubt, and garden-variety confusion – to say nothing of denial, fear of repercussions, and hierarchy status – make the witnesses’ actions predictable, understandable, and, at bottom, fundamentally human.

I don't know what the correct answer is. To me, it seems unfair to jail somebody for acting in a very human, and predictably human, fashion. How much of our disgust for cowardly actions is a search for justice, at the expense of the cowardly? How much of our need for closure or a need to place blame informs our decision to punish the cowardly?

Then again, such actions can't go unpunished. Schettino cannot be given another command. The victims' families cannot see Schettino go on leading a normal life as if nothing happened, or, worse, as if the event didn't affect him. In this respect, Schettino must be punished. It has to happen, because the alternative cannot happen. Recognizing the ambiguity, however, is important-- and unsettling.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Subway Scene

A woman playfully roughed up her son on the subway. She smeared her hand into his face and continuously poked and prodded him. What started playfully soon strayed into abusive behavior. We all noticed what was going on. The young guy sitting down next to the woman leaned over to the strangers on his right and whispered "Are you going to say something, or should I?" The strangers didn't respond. The woman did.

"You bitch! Mind your own business, bitch!"

As she yelled, little balls of spit flew out of her mouth. Then, she lashed out and struck the guy, punching him in the arm.

He got up and stood near the door. She continued screaming at him, having lost all control (her son, meanwhile, submissively put his arm across her waist in a vain attempt to restrain her. It felt like he's done this before). She could not calm down. She raged and screamed, and then got up to strike him again. Two other guys and myself made moves to block her, and she eventually went back to her seat, screaming the entire time.

These kinds of incidents go to prove that appeals to reason and logic are not always a solution. There was no way to calm her down or prevent her from assaulting this guy, short of physically stopping her. Recognizing that makes me very uncomfortable.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Iran Away, pt. 2

An excellent article about the idiocy of pushing for war with Iran.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Militants, Assemble! pt.2

I wasn't so far off in my last post. This quote appeared in an op-ed on Al Jazeera.

"Only one factor could possibly allow Mullah Omar to form a united AfPak front to launch the umpteenth summer offensive against US/NATO; the Pakistani ISI promising the Pakistani Taliban it would not attack them anymore - and neither would US drones. "

My hunch that ISI is behind the "council of elders" seems to be accepted knowledge. The author's assertion that the US would cease drone strikes is not a fully developed argument, however I think what he means is that the US will, by deafult, not be able to launch strikes in Pakistani territory for much longer given the deteriorated relationship between the US and Pakistan. Pakistan could easily claim that they have put a stop to the strikes-- but the argument is a tad disingenuous.

The rest of the article makes some good points (with a healthy dose of unnecessary one-liners), including:

"But still the Pentagon remains obsessed with keeping an army, however slimmed-down it may be, fighting the Taliban until... kingdom come?"

Right on.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Iran Away From Talks

Iran will build an atomic bomb. Get over it.

They have everything that a nation needs to build one: money (thanks oil! Though new sanctions might have some effect on this, China will always pick up any slack), sufficient land mass to hide nuclear reactors from prying international observers, a wealth of intelligent people, and the right tools (thanks Russia!).

Iranians are not a backwards people living in a desert nation. The Iranians are an advanced people with a rich and complicated history. How can one honestly think that they can't produce something today, with 2012 technology, that the US produced in the 1940's (in the desert, mind you)?

Instead of shouting that we can't allow them to build a bomb, the discussion should focus on what to do with a nuclear-armed Iran. Proliferation, containment, retaliatory capabilities, and above all-- most importantly-- diplomacy.

Diplomacy has never been actually used. Washington has not actually talked to Tehran. There have been no summits, no handshakes, no photo ops. No back channels, no special envoys, no cultural delegations. Only ultimatums and sanctions. Frankly, it's time to realize that the current model doesn't work.

Given the tensions in the US-Iranian relationship, the diplomatic option must be explored. If there is to be any progress, the US must not allow a lobby to lead it to war.

Militants, Assemble!

A few days ago, CNN had an article about how various militant groups in AfPak were putting aside their differences, at least temporarily, to fight NATO:

The next day, another article comes out saying that the Taliban are willing to engage in talks with the NATO occupiers:

My question: How did ISI pull this off?

The Haqqani network, the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban (the distinction between the latter two being quite blurred), and "associated jihadist groups" don't just set aside differences one day. That feat requires organization, a shared goal, and a forum where the different sides can discuss tactics and strategy to achieve their stated goals. There is really no other venue to do that besides Pakistan, and there is no other entity capable of arranging this beside the ISI.

A unified front of militants presents several advantages to all involved. First, tactically, having the entire AfPak border region working towards the same goal is beneficial because it allows coordinated strikes, greater areas of refuge for retreat or re-grouping, shared intelligence, and a possible pooling of resources (though pooling of resources is unlikely, as it's bad long-term strategy. After all, why give your potential future rivals arms to later use against you?)

Second, strategically, coordination gives a degree of legitimacy to the militants. It shows that these are not selfish fighters who are looking out for their own interests. Instead announcing their intention to work together is a great PR move, as they can now portray themselves as having sacrifised their own goals for the greater good. A sort of non-morbid militant martyrdom, if you will. Also, a council of elders can serve as a shadow government, further enhancing legitimacy, and as a possible negotiating party. If the Taliban and their allies intend on negotiating, as presented in the second article, the council of elders, in a sense, rightfully represents the interests of the militant networks in the AfPak region.

All of this is not necessarily good news for NATO. Having one enemy might seem preferable, however, having multiple enemies means that NATO can play one off the other in a classic move of divide and conquer. However, that strategy is not out of play with these developments. In fact, it becomes more lucrative. If there are formal networks of cooperation and a sharing of information between groups, those networks of information can be exploited more effectively and with greater payoff.

Returning to the original question, ISI likely is playing a dominant role in these negotiations and coordinations. What do they gain? Firstly, a measure of control over the entire region which they did not formerly have. Second, the ability to arm and direct militants in order to more effectively combat NATO. Lastly, they gain a bargaining chip with NATO. If they have the only phone line open to Mullah Omar, the US and NATO are going to have to rely on them to keep the line open. I'm sure they won't make the same mistake with Mullah Omar that they did with Bin Laden. I'm sure this time, instead of hiding Omar in a military garrison town, he will remain in the border region, well protected by ISI, but far enough away so that if caught, ISI can claim ignorance.