Sunday, December 24, 2006

Great Moments in Wing-nuttery

Now is the time of the year when we see a lot of "Top Ten" lists of all sorts. Here from Media Matters (via the Daou Report) are the Top Eleven (thanks to Ann Coulter) Most Outrageous Comments by right-wing commentators:
Right-wing rhetoric documented by Media Matters for America included the nonsensical (including Rush Limbaugh's claim that America's "obesity crisis" is caused by, among other things, our failure to "teach [the poor] how to butcher a -- slaughter a cow to get the butter, we gave them the butter"), the offensive (such as right-wing pundit Debbie Schlussel's question about "Barack Hussein Obama": is he "a man we want as President when we are fighting the war of our lives against Islam? Where will his loyalties be?"), and the simply bizarre (such as William A. Donohue's claim that some Hollywood stars would "sodomize their own mother in a movie")
Given the stunning repudiation of the Republican agenda in the midterm elections, I'd like to hope these voices will be somewhat chastened in 2007 - but I'm not betting on it.

Okay, I have a ton of presents to wrap. Hope you and yours are enjoying the holidays, whatever you celebrate - I'm a Yuletide person myself...

Friday, December 15, 2006

Law of Rules

So, say you have a government that doesn't allow any direct political competition but is still in need of a legal system in order to develop a modern, globalized economy. The country's citizens, having endured many years of arbitrary authority, centuries, in fact, see themselves as having certain rights, and many begin to use this legal system in order to settle disputes and stand up for their rights when they are being abused. Even political protestors have rights according to the country's constitution, and they too use the developing legal system to defend themselves. This puts the government in somewhat of a quandry. How can they build a rule of law and yet maintain their monopoly on political power?

Well, here's one way - require defense lawyers to cooperate with the government. A Human Rights Watch report released earlier this week charges that:
the rule of law in China has been sharply curbed by regulations approved in the spring by the All-China Lawyers Assn., which is in effect the nation's bar association.

The regulations require that lawyers representing political protesters be "helpful to the government," share otherwise-confidential information about their clients with prosecutors, and be of "good political" quality, generally a euphemism for dedication to the ruling Communist Party.

The new rules are "restricting access to justice, and access to justice is really a make-or-break issue for China today," said Nicholas Bequelin, the China researcher for Human Rights Watch. "You're shutting down the pressure release valve that's very badly needed in a one-party system."

Bequelin said the so-called Guiding Opinion on Lawyers Handling Mass Cases was approved by the lawyers association March 20 but was only officially published a month later and was all but ignored by the Chinese press...

As described by Human Rights Watch, the Guiding Opinion makes it clear that lawyers' first responsibility is to society, not their clients. "During these important times," the rules say, "correct handling of cases of a mass nature is essential to the successful construction of a socialist harmonious society."

"These regulations," Bequelin said, "spell out rules that are simply incompatible with carrying out your professional duties as a lawyer." He said they negated "the principle that is consecrated even in Chinese law, that the lawyer's duty is to his client."
Oh, and one more thing:
The rules also warn lawyers not to "stir up the news," and to take special care with international media.
I know! Talk about the Olympics!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

I love the holiday season - the festive decorations, the carols and songs that can't help but evoke nostalgia, parties with friends, gatherings with loved ones...the Bad Sex in Fiction awards...

Readers, this annual Literary Review award is a veritable cavalcade of wince-and-giggle inducing awfulness. Keep in mind, these aren't trashy supermarket novels but recognized works of "literary" fiction. Finalists have included such noteworthies as Thomas Pynchon and Tom Wolfe. The lucky (?) winner receives a statuette and a bottle of champagne - but truly, isn't everyone chosen for this contest a winner?

I call your attention to the following examples:
'You're a sexy lady, know that?' Stan whispered as he unzipped her pants.

She had no answer; she kept her eyes closed and sank into the music. His naked penis, when she felt it against her bare skin, was a shock, mostly for the desire it beckoned from Saga's marrow.

'So touch me, Story Girl,' he said...

...And then before her inner eye, a tide of words leaped high and free, a chaotic joy like frothing rapids: truncate, adjudicate, fornicate, frivolous, rivulet, violet, oriole, orifice, conifer, aquifer, allegiance, alacrity ... all the words this time not a crowding but a heavenly chain, an ostrich fan, a vision as much as an orgasm, a release of something deep in the core of her altered brain, words she thought she'd lost for good.
Or this (the listing of random words and images seems to be a theme this year):
Images went off in her head like little fireworks. The smell of coconut. Brass firedogs. The starched bolster in her parents' bed. A hot cone of grass-clippings. She was breaking up into a thousand tiny pieces, like snow, or bonfire sparks, tumbling high in the air, then starting to fall, so slowly it hardly seemed like falling at all.

He waited for a couple of minutes. 'And now,' he said, 'I think it's my turn.'
Please god, no.

I'll leave you to discover the rest for yourself. The complete nominated passages can be found, in all their dubious glory, here.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


For many years, I've had a sort of phobia about shopping malls. It came from growing up in San Diego and watching previously undeveloped coastal sage lands disappear into a morass of parking lots and franchises. Aside from hating what they did to once beautiful scenery, malls made me nervous. You could go to one and find the same things at another several states away - the same stores, the same products, the same muzak. Where was the creativity, the originality, the expression of culture? Is everything reducible to a commodity, and is that all we value? And even if so, what happened to all those quirky little businesses that were one of a kind? Was every form of commerce doomed to that which could be replicated on a mass scale?

So this kind of scares me:

With 30,000 stores crammed on four sprawling floors, International Trade City — about 200 miles south of Shanghai — is the largest wholesale mall in the world.

The S-shaped building, painted orange and pale yellow, is 18 million square feet. That's about the equivalent of 350 football fields and about six times the size of Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza, one of the biggest shopping centers in the U.S.

You won't find any cinemas or food courts here, but Yiwu officials boast that the market sells 400,000 different items. Situated in bustling Zhejiang province, the giant 4-year-old mall illustrates the power of China Inc. today: enormous scale and specialization, driven by ambitious private entrepreneurs...

..."This place will make you crazy…. It's like rows and rows and rows of the same thing over and over again," said Glenn Thain, a New York insurance agent who moonlights as a distributor of exotic alcohol drinks in China. The 39-year-old was shopping here for key chains, lighters and other trinkets to give away as promotions to his salespeople and customers.

He was also doing a little Christmas shopping for his niece. He clutched a fistful of sheets of fake tattoos that he bought for pennies each from a merchant who also sells retail. "It's amazing," Thain said...

...Merchants say most vendors seemed to be doing all right, but nobody knows for sure. Turnover is low. Rents range from $6,000 a year for the typical 10-by-15-foot stall in faraway spots to $60,000 for larger spaces in better locations. The mall's S layout imitates the shape of a dragon. The stores are arranged by product categories in districts A to H, with some districts separated into a dozen streets.

Red lanterns and gold stars hang from the ceiling. There are free Internet cafes and smoking rooms. On weekends, the shopping center is a magnet for tourists and schoolchildren.

Zhejiang China Commodities City Group, the developer of the market, is planning to invest $600 million to nearly double the size of the mall and add tens of thousands of grocery items and other consumer goods to the center's "sea of commodities."

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Break Time

I'm gone for a week for the holidays. I'm hoping for relaxation, good times, new friends and a chance to contemplate a little about what I've been doing and what I want to do next.

My best wishes to you and yours. I hope you all have a chance to enjoy time with your friends and loved ones in the days ahead.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A day in the life

Today the street set above my office was dressed for the Christmas show shoot of some TV show. I'm not sure which one. Plastic wreaths, holiday signs, a toy store, colored lights. It was about 75 degrees, and sunny, the temperature up and down a few degrees depending on breeze and shade. And snow. They'd brought in the ice trucks, and one blew shaved ice into snow piles against the stoops and mailboxes. The extras, dressed in winter clothing, probably appreciated it. Grips wandered around in tank tops and shorts and leather tool belts. I stepped through rivulets of ice water from the melting snow and headed to the mall.

I usually take walks at lunch, but I wasn't feeling that great today. I pulled a muscle in my shoulder and it hurt a lot, plus I'd had a flu shot and a lot of Advil. What I really wanted to do was sleep. Hunger is a great motivater, though, and there's a Korean place in the food court that I like a lot.

At the foot of one of the escalators that goes up to the food court is a massage station (hey, this is LA!). I'd noticed the masseuses there and the row of massage chairs before. The masseuses are all Asian, and I thought they might be Chinese. I have yet to have gotten an explanation for this phenomena, but I keep seeing Chinese masseuses around Los Angeles - at the boardwalk in Venice, for example.

The masseuses were offering a "free minute" to entice people into getting massages. I was more than ready to accept - I was in a fair amount of pain and had already called the company massage therapist (hey, I repeat, this is LA!), but she hadn't called back.

The woman put her hands on my shoulders, did a few preliminary squeezes and said, "Oh, you are very tight." I didn't even take the rest of the free minute. I explained I'd hurt myself and that yes, I would have a ten minute massage.

The masseuse was, in fact, from China, and she seemed pretty excited to have a Euro-mutt customer like myself who could speak some Chinese. She said she was from Beijing and asked if I'd been there, asked me what famous scenic spots I'd seen, and so on. She was very sweet, and a good masseuse, and I felt much better when she was done.

Oh, and I got at least five free minutes. The Mandarin discount, I guess.

She told me that my back was very tired and that I should get more rest, and come back if I wasn't feeling better. I assured her I would.

From there I went up to the Food Court to the Korean place and got the grilled mackerel bowl to go, with broccoli and kimchee. I usually get the eel but was in the mood for something different. I always get the broccoli and kimchee, because, you know, broccoli is good for you, and Koreans swear that kimchee cures everything. The place is staffed by mostly immigrant Latinos, except for the owner, a Korean American guy about my age who loves baseball (we often talk baseball in season), and several older Korean ladies who do the cooking.

Back at the office, I had a meeting with a vendor and stayed late catching up on old newspapers. By the time I left, the Christmas set was struck, though a few stubborn piles of snow lingered against the hollow curbs and wooden flats.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"This Dog Is Your Friend"

Police in Beijing have begun a crackdown on unregistered and otherwise illegal dogs:

The conflict is over city regulations that limit households in eight designated districts to a single dog and also forbid people from owning large dogs like golden retrievers and huskies.

The regulations, considered misguided by many dog owners, were introduced in 2003 but have been only loosely enforced as the city's pet industry has boomed. Dogs in Beijing can now eat at a dog restaurant, be groomed at a dog boutique and swim in an outdoor dog lap pool.

Last Tuesday, though, Beijing newspapers carried a notice about the new campaign, under way since October, concerning "pet dog management work." It said households with too many dogs, or with big dogs, would have 10 days to relocate them. In essence, owners had 10 days to get rid of the dogs or the police would do it for them.

The note also promised to pay rewards to people who helped the police catch neighbors violating the dog rules.
Beijing dog owners are outraged, with some threatening "to defend their dogs at any cost."
"What kind of rules are these? I don't expect everybody to love animals. But I do want to have my rights to keep pets," said Clare Xiao, an account manager at an advertising company. She sent her larger Brittany to a kennel run by a friend and kept her Pekinese, a stray she found on the street.

"What the government is doing is just disappointing, cold and emotionless," said Xiao.
See, this is the thing about the middle class. Middle class people have certain expectations. They start talking about their "rights." Maybe you can restrict their right to participate in the political process. You can muzzle their right of free expression.

But don't mess with their dogs.

Note the sign held up by the protestor in the photo above. It reads: "This dog is your friend. He fights for freedom."

My cat Murphy would like to express her revolutionary solidarity with Chinese canine freedom fighters everywhere. Power to the pets!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

More soon...

I'm a little sick with a cold and had a distracting weekend featuring a police pursuit that ended in front of my house with a minor collision involving my car (I wasn't in it). Helicopters and police dogs followed.

Anyway, I'm turning in early tonight to prepare for a fun morning dealing with body shops and rental cars and probably Kleenex.

But I'm still dazzled by the midterm fireworks. More on that soon.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Does this mean Sean Hannity will kill himself now?

Monday, November 06, 2006


For those of you in California, Digby has a great round-up of links for recommendations.

Please vote. Unless you are planning to vote Republican.* In which case, remain in your secure, undisclosed location until after 8 PM tomorrow. You'll be safe from the Islamo-Nazis that way.

*I'll even give you a pass if you're planning on voting for Ah-nuld. I'm not, but I can sort of understand the impulse. Just vote Democratic down-ticket, especially Garamendi, Bowen and Brown. And please vote NO on Prop. 90! It's a stealth initiative - it protects your "eminent domain" the way the "Clear Skies Initiative" kept our air clean. There are a lot of really important initiatives other than that one - the recommends Digby provides are a good guide. Follow the links to leftcoaster for Howie Klein's list of judicial recommends.

UPDATE Here is a great compendium of ballot recommendations from a variety of progressive/labor/environmental/good government/newspaper sources.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

"Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

I really needed this special comment from Keith Olbermann. I've been so furious and disgusted by the feeding frenzy over John Kerry's "gaffe" that I just want to puke. I'm assuming that anyone reading these pages has heard about his supposed insult of the troops, so I won't recapitulate it here. I will say that I watched the clip, and it was clear that Kerry's insult was aimed directly at George Bush, not the troops serving in Iraq. Punish the guy for being a lousy comedian - though his audience seemed to get the joke - but don't put intentions in his head that clearly weren't there.

But what else does the Republican Party have at this point? Fear and smear. That's it. Lies piled on top of lies in a desperate attempt to hide the bodies of those who have died in the service of their incompetence, greed and extremism. Right, George. Sure, Tony. Lie about what John Kerry said because you care so much about those troops that you've sent them off to be killed and maimed in the tens of thousands in a war of choice that didn't need to be fought.

Nobody pisses me off more than the Republicans, but I have to say that if there's a Democrat on my shit list right now, it's not John Kerry, it's Hillary Clinton for her backstabbing of Kerry in the service of her presidential ambitions. Hillary, if you missed it, decided to pile on with the Republicans and demand an apology from Kerry for "insulting the troops," even though he didn't - her very own Sister Souljah moment.

I know that Kerry has - or maybe had, after this - his own ambitions for 2008. I don't support him. Though I do think he's learned something from his mistakes in '04, he just doesn't have the political chops and ability to communicate that would make him an effective candidate (Al Gore, on the other hand, kicks ass. But that's another post).

However, I think Kerry is a decent man who certainly doesn't deserve to be scapegoated by members of his own party for this. He has nothing to apologize for in this instance, and of course, the apology he did offer is being mischaracterized by our so-called liberal media.

That said, petty betrayals in the name of political expediency and laziness by the Mighty Wurlitzer that is our corporate media still don't come anywhere close to the fundamental betrayals of this country's citizens, this country's best qualities, the "better angels" of our nature, committed by the Bush Administration and the modern Republican party.

Go watch Keith Olbermann. He says it much better than I ever could. He calls those responsible by name, and he shows them no mercy, because they deserve none, and they've shown none to us.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Big Change in China's Death Penalty Policy

The Chinese government has announced new legislation marking a major change in its death penalty policy:
China's official Xinhua News Agency hailed the amendment as "the most important reform of capital punishment in China in more than two decades."

The change "deprives the provincial people's courts of the final say on issuing death sentences," the agency said. "Death penalties handed out by provincial courts must be reviewed and ratified by the Supreme People's Court."

The change adopted by the legislature Tuesday enshrines last year's announcement by the Supreme People's Court that it would start reviewing all death sentences, ending a 23-year-old practice of giving the final review to provincial courts.

"It's great news. This is a big step forward for China's legal system and human rights," said Li Heping, a prominent activist lawyer.

"It's going to have a psychological effect on local judges when they are making decisions because they are going to be afraid that if they approve capital punishment, the supreme court will overrule them," Li said.
China is said to carry out more court-ordered executions than any other country in the world, and many of these cases have been problematic to say the least - riddled with errors, carried out in haste with no opportunity for judicial review, in a process that is arbitrary in its uneven application. Unquestionably innocent people have been put to death.

I'm against the death penalty. To me it's a mark of shame that my own country pratices state-sanctioned executions. But it's a step in the right direction to at least apply the ultimate penalty with some care and opportunity for redress.

The cynical part of me wonders if this is another part of the Central government's efforts to reign in unruly and disobedient local governments. The optimist hopes that it marks a further strengthening of a rule of law in China with a foundation of justice, as opposed to the whims of authority.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Vegas, Baby...

Okay, I don't get Vegas. I've never been interested in gambling (and can someone please explain to me what poker is doing in ESPN? On what planet does this constitute a sport?), and the whole sort of tacky aesthetic of Las Vegas only amuses me in small, infrequent doses. I mean, I got a pretty good giggle out of Caeser's Palace, when I saw it a couple of years ago, but as a vacation destination? I don't get it.

A lot of Asians apparently do, according to this LA Times report, and Las Vegas is going all out to make them welcome:
In almost every way, Las Vegas is catering to Asians, offering Asian entertainers, high-stakes baccarat tournaments and rice congee by room service. The festivities and decorations for Chinese New Year have become second only to those for New Year's Eve...

...In part, Vegas is reacting to the success of gaming in Macao - and hoping to capitalize on it. The Chinese territory's 22 casinos, with their proximity to the sheer wealth and population of China, are viewed as competitors and appetizers for Vegas' allure. This year casino gambling revenue in Macao is expected to edge past that of Las Vegas. Each locale brings in more than $6.5 billion.

"There's no question in our minds that as more and more Chinese customers experience Macao, their natural curiosity is going to make them find out what the major leagues are like in Las Vegas," said MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman. (An MGM Grand is scheduled to open in Macao in 2007.)

"If you go to Macao and you really like it, the next thing on your list is going to be to come to Vegas."

As tourism markets go, China is a jackpot in the making. Within five to 10 years, overseas travel will lure an estimated 100 million Chinese annually, a figure that will dwarf every other market in the world, tourism officials said.
One Vegas tour operator is quoted as saying, "For China, in their mentality, this is the ultimate destination."

Like I said, I don't get it. But who am I to argue with slot machines in restrooms and a pina colada-scented volcano?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

No to "Predatory Development"?

From the always invaluable Three Gorges Probe comes some relatively good news about plans to dam Asia's last free-flowing major river:
China's minister of water resources has poured cold water on the plan to build 13 dams on the Nu River in the southwest of the country, calling the proposal a form of "predatory development."

In a speech Tuesday [Oct. 24] at the University of Hong Kong, Wang Shucheng indicated high-level disapproval of the plan to build a string of large dams on the Nu as it flows through the Three Parallel Rivers National Park in Yunnan province.

Mr. Wang said concerns related to the park -- parts of which were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003 -- as well as "downstream national interests," made it impossible to continue with the original plan.

China shares the Nu River with Burma and Thailand, where it is known as the Thanlwin (in Burmese) or the Salween (in English).
I said this was "relatively" good news, because though it appears the plan will be drastically scaled back, there will still be dams on the Nu River:
However, in his speech -- covered by several Hong Kong newspapers, including Ming Pao and Hong Kong Commercial Daily -- Mr. Wang also said that maintaining the status quo on Southeast Asia's last major free-flowing river is not an option.

Local governments are keen to exploit the Nu River's hydropower potential as soon as possible, Mr. Wang said, and he suggested that "one or two uncontroversial dams" will be built in the first instance.
There was some other good news in for China's downstream neighbors, India and Bangladesh, when Wang dismissed plans to divert water from a Tibetan river that affects their watersheds, calling the proposal "unnecessary, not feasible and unscientific."

If you're at all interested in environmental issues in China and the conflicts between central government policy and local governments' drive for development, Three Gorges Probe is a great site to bookmark. Three Gorges Probe also reports on the efforts of Chinese activists to protect the environment and the rights of local people whose lives are all too often disrupted by massive infrastructure projects and environmental degradation.

As I've said in the past, environmental issues are an area around which Chinese citizens have been able to organize and express themselves politically - if not often successfully, this sort of activism still offers a model for greater participation in civic life for ordinary Chinese people. I'll always remember that one of the first semi-independent acts of the National People's Congress was a vote on the proposed Three Gorges Dam in which a majority (or close to it) of delegates abstained. At the time, this was an act of near-rebellion.

The way that such issues are settled in the future is a harbinger of what kind of country China will become.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Road Trip!

I'm driving up north for a few days to visit relatives and sight-see, so I don't know if I'll have the time (or inclination) to post.

In the meantime, the midterm election is getting close. Please consider donating or volunteering. If you're in California, you might wanna throw a few $ Debra Bowen's way - she's running for Secretary of State and has been very outspoken about the problems with electronic voting and the need to ensure the integrity of our elections. It's a close race, and she could use the dough.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"A blank check drawn against our freedom"

Olbermann on the death of habeas corpus. His message to Bush:

The distance of history will recognize that the threat this generation of Americans needed to take seriously… was you.
Jonathan Turley too:
The Congress just gave the President despotic powers and you could hear the yawn across the country as people turned to Dancing With the Stars.
Watch them both.

Thanks to crooks & liars and SusanUnPC at noquarter.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Hate Crime

The FBI reports a 6% drop in hate crimes last year.
The vast majority of hate crimes in both years were motivated by race, according the reports, which detailed the data based on so-called "single-bias" incidents. That means the crime was motivated by only one kind of bias against the victim, according to the FBI.

Race-based criminal activity accounted for 54.7 percent of hate crimes last year, up slightly from 52.9 percent in 2004, the FBI found. Another 17 percent of hate crimes in 2005 targeted victims for their religious beliefs, and 14.2 percent for their sexual orientation.
Seeing this phrase, "single-bias incidents," leads me to wonder: why aren't crimes committed against women considered hate crimes? Crimes like rape, for instance. Salon's "Broadsheet" asks the same question, citing the Amish school murders, where only girls were targeted, and quoting the New York Times' Bob Herbert:
"Imagine if a gunman had gone into a school, separated the kids up on the basis of race or religion, and then shot only the black kids. Or only the white kids. Or only the Jews. There would have been thunderous outrage. The country would have first recoiled in horror, and then mobilized in an effort to eradicate that kind of murderous bigotry. There would have been calls for action and reflection. And the attack would have been seen for what it really was: a hate crime."

When Broadsheet covered the issue two weeks ago, we saw the killings much the way Herbert does, but we were in the minority -- later that week, Ms. Magazine's wire service noted that analysis of the targeted killings was mostly restricted to the feminist blogosphere. Herbert suggests that most media outlets glossed over the victims' gender because we've all become desensitized to violence against women and girls: "[No outcry] occurred," he wrote, "because these were just girls, and we have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that violence against females is more or less to be expected. Stories about the rape, murder and mutilation of women and girls are staples of the news, as familiar to us as weather forecasts.
"American misogyny and the related objectification of women are the great invisible, mechanisms for eroding the status of women and girls that work best when they're not identified as such," Salon's Page Rockwell concludes.

I realize that applying the "hate crime" label has all kinds of legal complexities that I don't necessarily get. But sometimes, when I consider the culture we live in, it's hard not to conclude that people can get away with saying things about women that they'd have a hard time saying about any other class of people. Homophobia and gay bashing is pervasive, but you write a song advocating it, you'll pay a price.

But bashing women? This evening, I rode my bike to the gym. In the parking lot was a over-chromed SUV, whose occupant was blasting some hip-hop tune. For some reason, we all had to hear it. I mean, I'm locking up my bike, taking off the light, doing things that take time, and he's standing by his SUV, pumping his fist. Every line had "bitches" in it. You know? Capping the ho's and such.

I thought about going up to the guy and asking him why the fuck he felt like he had to share his stupid, hateful crap with everybody in the goddamn parking lot, but as he was about 275 lbs., most of which was muscle, I decided to do my workout instead.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Bike Therapy

So a couple of years ago, I got fat.

I don't mean, hugely obese, I just mean, kinda chunky. Like, 20, 25 pounds more than I should be. Or more than I'm used to being, at any rate. I'm not sure. I was sort of in denial about the whole thing, so I never went out of my way to check.

It happened for a number of reasons. Encroaching middle-age, a growing fondness for yuppie wine and cheese, dating. No, really. Because dating frequently involves going out for dinner (I rarely eat dinner). I decided to stop doing that, but by then, the damage was well underway. The final blow was home ownership. Not because I am doing anything like, fixing up my home to the detriment of fitness. But my old place, the apartment where I lived for many years, was right by the beach. Thus, no parking. So no matter what else I did during the day, regardless of whether I went to the gym or sat on my butt, every day I drove my car, I had to go find it (forgetting where I parked was especially good for exercise purposes). And every day I parked it, I had to walk home.

It's not like I became a slug when I moved. I've gone to a gym and done weight-training for years, and I love to walk. But that daily, incremental exercise really made a difference. It's easy to get lazy and hardly notice it.

At the end of last year, I decided Something Must Be Done. I'm not sure what triggered that realization - perhaps trying on a pair of previously baggy pants and not being able to button them. Also, I have a long-standing, chronic back problem. I've always looked at this as a mixed bag. On the one hand, I'd rather not be in pain and unable to move, or be limited in my physical activities. On the other, my bad back has kept me somewhat honest. I know if I don't get enough exercise or if I get too fat - if I don't take care of myself - I'm going to pay for it.

The last time my back went out was November, 2004. I couldn't drive my car and walked with a shuffle, which was how I'd make it to my chiropractor, who thankfully is located about a fifteen minute walk from me (25 minutes when my back was out). I'd hobble down my very scenic urban artery, past the 99 Cent Yoshino Bowl and the methadone clinic, with a metaphoric sign on my back reading, "Mug Me!"

On the other hand, it was a blessing to be on heavy narcotics when the election results came in.

Anyway, like I said, around the end of last year, I decided that I needed to get into a serious fitness program. I even made a New Year's Resolution. It was vague, something like, "I gotta lose some weight, okay?" Because I'm not a New Year's Resolution sort of gal. I figured if I didn't get too specific, I wouldn't put too much pressure on myself, and I'd be more likely to succeed.

I should have realized that this was a bogus construct. Had I not finally come to the realization that discipline has its place? That though I had few rules about writing, one of them is to set clear goals? To write every night, two hours, two pages? And how much this helped my productivity, even when I didn't always manage to hit those goals?

What got me on the Road to Fitness was happenstance. I work at a film studio, and one day, this Pilates "spa" came to the lot to demonstrate their services. I decided to check it out. One five to ten minute session on the Pilates reformer (that's the basic bench-like machine), and I was hooked. I could tell how great this was for my back and how good it made me feel.

Luckily (in a perverse sort of way), my back problem is not obscure or controversial. It shows up very clearly on an X-ray. It's the sort of thing where orthopedists tell you, "well, at some point you'll probably need surgery." So, since I'm one of the rare inhabitants of the Planet of Good Insurance Coverage, I could sign up for Pilates/physical therapy sessions, courtesy of my healthcare plan.

I'd like to feel guilty about that, but I don't. My back was getting worse, and though I hadn't missed much work because of it in recent years, I could easily see more missed work in the future.

Besides, the chronic pain was making me cranky.

So I started doing three Pilates sessions a week. They were scheduled, so I always went. I worked with trainers and physical therapists, who told me what to do, which I did. What an incredible experience. You don't always know how out of shape or weak you've gotten until you suddenly get a lot stronger.

While I'd do my exercises on the Reformer, catching up on all the latest Spa gossip (and let me tell you, this place could be a reality show - "As The Spa Turns"), I'd also spin my theories about how to reform health care. I have it all figured out. Some sort of single-payer system to eliminate waste and unnecessary paperwork. Huge incentives for wellness programs. Like, we could train some of these soon to be out-of-work insurance company employees to be personal trainers. Because everybody who wants to get fit should have access to a trainer to help them do so. It's so much easier when you're working one-on-one. And everybody benefits. A more fit population uses less healthcare. Big Business and Government benefit. Former insurance company salespeople get out from behind those desks and help people get healthier. We all feel better and are less cranky and look cuter in our clothes.

The next thing that happened was, I bought a bike.

God knows why I never rode bikes around the beach before. Maybe because where I lived, it was so easy to walk everywhere (especially after we gentrified out of the "Mug Me!" era). I'm not that much farther from the beach or restaurants now, just far enough where walking doesn't always feel like the automatic option it did before.

But this is such an amazing place to ride a bike. I've always loved Venice, the diversity, the odd details in unexpected places. The Venice bike path, not so much. It's too crowded, and it's full of clueless people — I mean, entire families, standing on the bike path, mouths open, holding their babies fer crissakes! Riding on the Venice bike path feels entirely too much like my daily commute.

Then I discovered the South Bay and Ballona Creek bike paths.

You go through Marina Del Rey, a place I always associated with "swingles," and the bike path takes you through an outdoor fitness course, past a library, and then, in and around the docks. Piers, slips, and boats, with seagulls and the slap of tackle in the wind. You go a ways, and there's this place called "Fisherman's Village," a sort of vaguely tacky yet nostalgically appealing tourist attraction, a series of restaurants and ice-cream stands along the docks. There's a big sign that says, "Cyclists Welcome!" I keep thinking, dang, I want to stop at the El Torito and have a beer and watch the boats. Haven't done it yet, but I will.

You pass that, and there's a Coast Guard Station tucked away in a dark, leafy alcove, this almost random apartment complex dating from the sixties or early seventies, and then, the entrance to the Ballona Creek Bikepath. Go east, it takes you to Culver City. I haven't tried that yet. West, you bike towards a causeway that connects you to Playa Del Rey. Along the channel are boaters and pelicans. It's incredibly beautiful, and surprisingly unpopulated. When you make the turn into Playa Del Rey, even more so. There's an arched bridge that connects in a hard right angle from the Ballona Creek path. The times I've done this, I've seen cyclists hanging out at the bridge's arch, leaning against the thick, cement rails, drinking water and resting. They generally wave at other cyclists who pass. I'm not sure what that's about, other than general camraderie, but I like it. I've always liked suddenly belonging to a club, I don't mean something exclusive, but where you realize that you like something, and other people think it's cool too, and you can just sort of enjoy that together.

Heading south through Playa, it's just so gorgeous and so unexpected. The beaches are huge and empty. So is the bike path. I've only gotten as far as Dockweiler Beach. That's the one in line with LAX, where you can have open fires on the sand. It too is beautiful and relatively empty. And you can watch jets take off, count the rivets on their bellies as they pass overhead, heading out to sea.

I really want to go further. All the way down to Redondo Beach, maybe Palos Verdes after that. I'm realizing there's something addictive about the activity. I do it, and I want to do it more. I've always had a restless personality, but I didn't realize I could feed it this way, through something as simple as hopping on a bike (generally my coping mechanisms are way less straightforward).

I want to ride to work, a day or two a week. I used to think that would be impossible. Too much traffic. Too many distracted drivers yakking on their cellphones. Stuff that drives me crazy when I'm in my car.

Then I looked on a website that maps bike routes and thought about it some more. I could see some options that might be okay, even kind of interesting.

But now I want a better bike! The one I'm riding is a Diamondback Wildwood, which is a rugged sort of "comfort" bike. I'm enjoying it a lot, but it's heavy (really heavy) and not the most nimble thing out there. I still need a bike that can cope with bad streets (can I tell you about potholes in Venice?), bikepaths and the vagaries of the urban commute.

Any suggestions?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Work for the Union Label?

The New York Times reports on a proposed new law that would dramatically increase the power of China's labor unions - at least on paper:
China is planning to adopt a new law that seeks to crack down on sweatshops and protect workers’ rights by giving labor unions real power for the first time since it introduced market forces in the 1980’s.

The move, which underscores the government’s growing concern about the widening income gap and threats of social unrest, is setting off a battle with American and other foreign corporations that have lobbied against it by hinting that they may build fewer factories here...

...It would apply to all companies in China, but its emphasis is on foreign-owned companies and the suppliers to those companies...

...But it is not clear how effectively such a new labor law would be carried out through this vast land because local officials have tended to ignore directives from the central government or seek ways around them.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. China's only legal union is controlled by the state - but still, giving an organization of workers the ability to negotiate contracts and working conditions brings with it the possibility of empowerment outside of strict CCP control. The article also notes:
In a surprisingly democratic move, China asked for public comment on the draft law last spring and received more than 190,000 responses, mostly from labor activists. The American Chamber of Commerce sent in a lengthy response with objections to the proposals. The European Chamber of Commerce also responded.

The law would impose heavy fines on companies that do not comply. And the state-controlled union — the only legal union in China — would gain greater power through new collective-bargaining rights or pursuing worker grievances and establishing work rules. One provision in the proposed law reads, “Labor unions or employee representatives have the right, following bargaining conducted on an equal basis, to execute with employers collective contracts on such matters as labor compensation, working hours, rest, leave, work safety and hygiene, insurance, benefits, etc.”

I thought it was "harmless fraternity pranks"...

He really said this:
Republican Rep. Christopher Shays, who is in a tough re-election fight, said Friday the Abu Ghraib prison abuses were more about pornography than torture...

..."Now I've seen what happened in Abu Ghraib, and Abu Ghraib was not torture," Shays said at a debate Wednesday.

"It was outrageous, outrageous involvement of National Guard troops from (Maryland) who were involved in a sex ring and they took pictures of soldiers who were naked," added Shays. "And they did other things that were just outrageous. But it wasn't torture."
Oh, and whose fault is it? Why, the liberals, of course! James Wolcott brings us this excerpt from Dinesh D'Souza's upcoming book, "The Enemy At Home":
"Although I do not believe that Abu Ghraib reflects America's predatory intentions toward the Muslim world, I can see why Muslims would see it this way. In one crucial respect, however, the Muslim critics of Abu Ghraib were wrong. Contrary to their assertions, Abu Ghraib did not reflect the shared values of America, it reflected the sexual immodesty of liberal America [my italics]. Lynndie England and Charles Graner were two wretched individuals from red America who were trying to act out the fantasies of Blue America... This was bohemianism, West Virginia-style."
Wolcott elaborates:
The theme of The Enemy at Home, as in so many conservative tracts, is that whatever goes wrong, liberals and liberalism are always the ones at fault. Conservatives may make mistakes, but their mistakes (such as Bush's on WMDs and the welcome we would get in Iraq) are well-intentioned and rooted in idealism, not in the moral rot where liberalism pitches its tent. Indeed, when conservatives--heroes in error, to use Ahmed Chalabi's memorable phrase--go astray, it's often because they're following liberals' lousy example. "In trying to defend the indefensible [at Abu Ghraib], conservatives became cheap apologists for liberal debauchery." To my knowledge, liberals haven't been blamed yet for the recent slaughter-execution of Amish schoolgirls, but I suppose it's only a matter of time before they hang that one on us too.
Words fail me. Thankfully they don't fail Wolcott.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Is this a "comma", George?

I'm still posting over at peking duck, so if you are interested in more China stories, check it out.

Horrific story about conditions for women in post-invasion Iraq:
Iraqis do not like to talk about it much, but there is an understanding of what is going on these days. If a young woman is abducted and murdered without a ransom demand, she has been kidnapped to be raped. Even those raped and released are not necessarily safe: the response of some families to finding that a woman has been raped has been to kill her.

Iraq's women are living with a fear that is increasing in line with the numbers dying violently every month. They die for being a member of the wrong sect and for helping their fellow women. They die for doing jobs that the militants have decreed that they cannot do: for working in hospitals and ministries and universities. They are murdered, too, because they are the softest targets for Iraq's criminal gangs.

Iraq's women live in terror of speaking their opinions; of going out to work; or defying the strict new prohibitions on dress and behaviour applied across Iraq by Islamist militants, both Sunni and Shia. They live in fear of their husbands, too, as women's rights have been undermined by the country's postwar constitution that has taken power from the family courts and given it to clerics.
What a horrible, sickening situation, all because of the grandiose ambitions of Bush, Cheney and the neocons. Close to 3,000 American soldiers dead, tens of thousands seriously wounded and mentally traumatized, and so many Iraqi lives lost and shattered that we can't even begin to provide a proper accounting of them.

We are covered in the blood of the dead, and it will be a very long time before this damned spot will fade and our hands will ever be clean.

UPDATE Digby reports that some 655,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the American invasion.

"Here's the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia
Will not sweeten this little hand."

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Bad Boss, Bad Diplomacy

For all of China's recent and much touted diplomatic successes in Africa and elsewhere, any friendships forged won't last long if this kind of thing keeps up:
Deep in the tunnel of the Collum mine, coal dust swirls thickly, and it's stifling for workers such as Chengo Nguni. He describes his $2-a-day job with a sigh: His supervisor yells incomprehensibly in Chinese. His rubber boots leak. The buttons to control the flow of ore out of the mine often deliver an electric shock.

But the worst thing about life in the Chinese-owned mine in southern Zambia is that there is no such thing as a day off. Ever.
The unhappiness with the Chinese goes far beyond a few disgruntled workers and up to the highest levels of government:
The growing resentment sparked an acrimonious debate in Zambia's recent presidential elections, with Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong making comments suggesting that Beijing might sever ties and investors might pull out if leading opposition candidate Michael Sata won the Sept. 28 vote.

Sata, who at one point threatened to expel Chinese traders if he became president, lost the election, and he alleged massive vote fraud. In the heat of the campaign, his Patriotic Front claimed that the use of Chinese computers to tally the count could skew results in the government's favor, an accusation strongly denied by Chinese Embassy officials.

Sata argued that most Chinese investors in Zambia were exploiters who brought the country no benefit. He accused Li of interfering in the election.

"I find the reaction by the Chinese government very childish and dictatorial," Sata said, accusing China of campaigning for the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy, which has been in power 15 years.
It's one thing to make deals with other governments without any regard for ideology or character of said governments. It's quite another to exploit foreign workforces. Nationalism and resentment of outsiders are traits you'll find in just about every country in the world, perhaps submerged but ready to rise to the surface if conditions are right.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Life Lesson

I'm not religious, and I don't think religious beliefs are necessary to act in a decent, moral way. That said, we could learn a lot from these people:
Dozens of Amish neighbors came out Saturday to mourn the quiet milkman who killed five of their young girls and wounded five more in a brief, unfathomable rampage.

Charles Carl Roberts IV, 32, was buried in his wife's family plot behind a small Methodist church, a few miles from the one-room schoolhouse he stormed Monday.

His wife, Marie, and their three small children looked on as Roberts was buried beside the pink, heart-shaped grave of the infant daughter whose death nine years ago apparently haunted him, said Bruce Porter, a fire department chaplain from Colorado who attended the service.

About half of perhaps 75 mourners on hand were Amish.

"It's the love, the forgiveness, the heartfelt forgiveness they have toward the family. I broke down and cried seeing it displayed," said Porter, who had come to Pennsylvania to offer what help he could. He said Marie Roberts was also touched.

"She was absolutely deeply moved, by just the love shown," Porter said.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

"Terror and Guilt"

Wow. Olbermann seems to up the ante with each new "Special Comment." In this one, he calls Bush a serial liar, questions his moral fitness for office and pretty much labels him a coward. But this isn't just name-calling; he uses example after example and constructs a devastating indictment of the Bush/Cheney regime, their disregard for truth, for democracy, for the Constitution, for anything other than the continuance of their own power.

You can watch it (and read the transcript) at the invaluable Crooks and Liars.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Interesting Mr. Zeng

I'm guest-posting at Peking Duck for the next week, so I'll be doing my best to feed the ducklings over there with fresh content – thus the preponderence of China stories here as well.

I make no claim of being a real China historian, but because of my experiences there, back when, I did get interested (well, obsessive) about recent Chinese history, specifically the revolutionary period and the Peoples' Republic pre-Deng.

In a system where there is no official opposition, with the sort of factional and court politics practiced under Mao, you frequently find political figures who are, in a somewhat uncharitable interpretation, the regime's fixers. Their loyalities are fluid, or in some cases, they are able to take a very long view towards the accomplishment of their own goals. In a more positive reading, they are coalition builders, helping to bridge the gaps between bitter rivals and move projects forward. The much revered Zhou Enlai was a figure of this sort, the ultimate survivor, who only advanced his own agenda when he was relatively certain of success and rarely, if ever, went against the high tide, even if what was being proposed went very much against his own instincts and preferences. The Mao/Zhou relationship was complex and fraught with ambiguity. Mao depended on Zhou but never fully trusted him, while Zhou acted the part of the loyal, "good" official until the day he died, even though Mao's more "revolutionary" programs seemed the antithesis of Zhou's innately practical sensibilities.

Which is a long-winded, roundabout introduction to Joseph Kahn's analysis of the ongoing anti-corruption probe that brought down Shanghai party leader Chen Liangyu, among others:
The investigation, the largest of its kind since China first pursued market-style changes to its economy more than a quarter-century ago, was planned and supervised by Zeng Qinghong, China’s vice president and the day-to-day manager of Communist Party affairs, people informed about the operation said.

They said Mr. Zeng had used the investigation to force provincial leaders to heed Beijing’s economic directives, sideline officials loyal to the former top leader, Jiang Zemin, and strengthen Mr. Zeng’s own hand as well as that of his current master, President Hu Jintao.

Aside from frightening officials who have grown accustomed to increasingly conspicuous corruption in recent years, the crackdown could give Mr. Hu greater leeway to carry out his agenda for broader welfare benefits and stronger pollution controls, which may prove popular in China today.

Some critics fear that it may also consolidate greater power in the hands of a leader who has consistently sought to restrict the news media, censor the Web and punish peaceful political dissent...

...Several party officials and well-informed political observers said they believed that the investigation had not yet reached its climax. They say Mr. Zeng hopes to dismiss two fellow members of the Politburo Standing Committee, Jia Qinglin and Huang Ju, who are under pressure to take “political responsibility” for corruption that has occurred in Beijing and Shanghai, their respective areas of influence.

If he succeeds in removing officials who serve on the nine-member Standing Committee, the party’s top leadership, the purge will amount to the biggest political shake-up since 1989, when Deng Xiaoping ousted Zhao Ziyang, then the party’s general secretary, after the crackdown on democracy protests in Beijing.

It would also be likely to seal Mr. Zeng’s reputation as China’s political mastermind, who mixes personal ambition with a nearly legendary ability to deliver results for his superiors. Officially ranked No. 5 in the party hierarchy, he is widely seen as exercising more authority within the party than anyone except Mr. Hu.
Here's where it gets interesting. According to Kahn, until 2004, when Zeng Qinghong joined forces with Hu Jintao to push Jiang Zemin from his last post, Zeng was widely seen as being close to Jiang:
But Mr. Zeng’s campaign to remove some Jiang loyalists may end up strengthening his own hand as well as Mr. Hu’s, some party officials suggested. The reason is that Mr. Zeng has become the standard-bearer for a wide array of political interests.

The son of one of Mao’s first security chiefs, Mr. Zeng maintains close ties to the sons and daughters of Communist China’s founding fathers and has relatives in the military. He has supporters among those who favor deeper capitalist-style changes to the economy and financial system.

Some Chinese intellectuals say he has signaled an openness to political change. Mr. Hu, in contrast, is viewed as cautious and doctrinaire.

Mr. Hu has sought to promote officials he trusts from his days as a provincial official in western China and as the head of the national Communist Youth League in the 1980’s. Though he now has broad authority, his traditional base is considered narrower and less influential than that of Mr. Zeng.

The political dance between the men underlines uncertainties about the political succession scheduled to take place in 2007. At that time the party will hold a congress, as it does every five years, to approve a new lineup of officials for the Politburo as well as other top party, government and provincial positions.

Party officials say that while Mr. Hu and Mr. Zeng have worked together to consolidate their own power, they have not agreed on choices for the Standing Committee or some top provincial posts. That suggests that their alliance possibly temporary and that the country’s politics could remain volatile.

“I think that at this point neither of them has the power to dictate the future,” one party official said. “They need each other, but that does not mean they trust each other.”

((hat tip to Andrew Leonard at salon's How the World Works)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Trust Issues?

Catching up on my newspapers, I came across this article in last week's Los Angeles Times about a "crisis of trust" in China:
Even as China surges onto the world stage as if powered by rocket fuel, Earth's most populous country is beset by trust issues that would test anyone.

Rules aren't clear and must be navigated on the fly. The food supply is full of life- and health-threatening fakes. Factories spew chemicals into the air and water at alarming rates. Power and connections far outweigh justice, and social tension is growing.

Meanwhile, corrupt local officials pay lip service to Communist Party ideals as they line their pockets at the expense of the general population. Land that farmers have tilled for generations can be seized on a moment's notice in a system that doesn't recognize private property. Friends cheat friends and uncles bilk nephews for short-term gain.

Though the widespread insecurity is difficult to quantify, analysts say it is taking an economic and psychological toll, and making governing more difficult.

"China is in a very serious trust crisis," said Zheng Yefu, a sociologist at Peking University and author of the book "On Trust." "I'd say we're looking at a minimum of a generation, maybe 20 or 30 years, to recover, but it could take two or three times that long."

Experts cite several reasons for the dearth of trust. Some point to the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and other wrenching political campaigns in the first decades of communist rule that ended centuries-old traditions and forced family members and friends to denounce one another, severing basic human bonds.

"Mutual trust among people because of various political movements has deteriorated to the lowest level that any society can possibly hit," said Hung Huang, chief executive of China Interactive Media Group and star of the recent film "Perpetual Motion," about a woman out to determine which of her friends is having an affair with her husband. "There's also a very different starting point: In America, you're innocent until proven guilty. In China, you're guilty until proven innocent."

Others cite the influence of a market economy on a society without a well-developed legal or regulatory system. Some say a lack of religion or meaningful belief system under communism leaves people morally adrift.
The article portrays a China where mistrust pervades every level of society, from food supplies — "There are scandals involving carcinogenic noodles, poisoned melon seeds, waste-filled pancakes, substandard wine and water-injected pork, among others" — to marriages — "Cheating on your spouse and cheating the public are closely related, according to the state-run New China News Agency, which reported last year that 95% of Chinese officials convicted of corruption had mistresses."

Some of these issues are common to any modern society, where relationships are freuqently impersonal (ask me about my daily experience of road rage here in Los Angeles). So is what's going on in China unique? Or is it just a matter of degree?

The Program

"This debate is occurring because of the Supreme Court's ruling that said that we must conduct ourselves under the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.

And that Common Article 3 says that, you know, "There will be no outrages upon human dignity." It's like -- it's very vague. What does that mean, "outrages upon human dignity"? That's a statement that is wide open to interpretation.

And what I'm proposing is that there be clarity in the law so that our professionals will have no doubt that that which they're doing is legal.

You know, it's a -- and so the piece of legislation I sent up there provides our professionals that which is needed to go forward.

The first question that we've got to ask is: Do we need the program?

I believe we do need the program. And I detained in a speech in the East Room what the program has yielded; in other words, the kind of information we get when we interrogate people within the law...

...And we need to be able to question them, because it helps yield information, information necessary for us to be able to do our job.

Now, the court said that you've got to live under Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. And the standards are so vague that our professionals won't be able to carry forward the program, because they don't want to be tried as war criminals. They don't want to break the law.

These are decent, honorable citizens who are on the front line of protecting the American people. And they expect our government to give them clarity about what is right and what is wrong in the law. And that's what we have asked to do...

...I will tell you this -- and I've spent a lot of time on this issue, as you can imagine. And I've talked to professionals, people I count on for advice. These are the people who are going to represent those on the front line protecting this country.

They're not going forward with the program. They're professionals -- will not step up unless there's clarity in the law.

So Congress has got a decision to make. You want the program to go forward or not? I strongly recommend that this program go forward in order for us to be able to protect America."
President George Bush, Sept. 15, 2006, White House Press Conference.

From the latest Rolling Stone:
In July 2002, a Special Forces unit in southeast Afghanistan received intelligence that a group of Al Qaeda fighters was operating out of a mud-brick compound in Ab Khail, a small hill town near the Pakistani border. The Taliban regime had fallen seven months earlier, but the rough border regions had not yet been secured. When the soldiers arrived at the compound, they looked through a crack in the door and saw five men armed with assault rifles sitting inside. The soldiers called for the men to surrender. The men refused. The soldiers sent Pashto translators into the compound to negotiate. The men promptly slaughtered the translators. The American soldiers called in air support and laid siege to the compound, bombing and strafing it until it was flat and silent. They walked into the ruins. They had not gotten far when a wounded fighter, concealed behind a broken wall, threw a grenade, killing Special Forces Sgt. Christopher Speer. The soldiers immediately shot the fighter three times in the chest, and he collapsed.

When the soldiers got close, they saw that he was just a boy. Fifteen years old and slightly built, he could have passed for thirteen. He was bleeding heavily from his wounds, but he was -- unbelievably -- alive. The soldiers stood over him.

"Kill me," he murmured, in fluent English. "Please, just kill me."

His name was Omar Khadr. Born into a fundamentalist Muslim family in Toronto, he had been prepared for jihad since he was a small boy. His parents, who were Egyptian and Palestinian, had raised him to believe that religious martyrdom was the highest achievement he could aspire to. In the Khadr family, suicide bombers were spoken of with great respect. According to U.S intelligence, Omar's father used charities as front groups to raise and launder money for Al Qaeda. Omar's formal military training -- bombmaking, assault-rifle marksmanship, combat tactics -- before he turned twelve. For nearly a year before the Ab Khail siege, according to the U.S. government, Omar and his father and brothers had fought with the Taliban against American and Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan. Before that, they had been living in Jalalabad, with Osama bin Laden. Omar spent much of his adolescence in Al Qaeda compounds.

At Bagram, he was repeatedly brought into interrogation rooms on stretchers, in great pain. Pain medication was withheld, apparently to induce cooperation. He was ordered to clean floors on his hands and knees while his wounds were still wet. When he could walk again, he was forced to stand for hours at a time with his hands tied above a door frame. Interrogators put a bag over his head and held him still while attack dogs leapt at his chest. Sometimes he was kept chained in an interrogation room for so long he urinated on himself.

After the invasion of Afghanistan, President Bush decided, in violation of the Geneva Convention, that any adolescent apprehended by U.S. forces could be treated as an adult at age sixteen...

...Before boarding a C-130 transport to Guantanamo, Omar was dressed in an orange jumpsuit and hog-chained: shackled hand and foot, a waist chain cinching his hands to his stomach, another chain connecting the shackles on his hands to those on his feet. At both wrist and ankle, the shackles bit. The cuffs permanently scarred many prisoners on the flight, causing them to lose feeling in their limbs for several days or weeks afterward. Hooded and kneeling on the tarmac with the other prisoners, Omar waited for many hours. His knees sent intensifying pain up into his body and then went numb.

Just before he got on the plane, Omar was forced into sensory-deprivation gear that the military uses to disorient prisoners prior to interrogation. The guards pulled black thermal mittens onto Omar's hands and taped them hard at the wrists. They pulled opaque goggles over his eyes and placed soundproof earphones over his ears. They put a deodorizing mask over his mouth and nose. They bolted him, fully trussed, to a backless bench. Whichever limbs hadn't already lost sensation from the cuffs lost sensation from the high-altitude cold during the flight, which took fifteen hours. "There was points I wished to God that one of these MPs would go crazy and then shoot me," recalled one of the hundreds of detainees who have made the trip. "It was the only time in my life that I really wished for a bullet."

At Guantanamo, Omar was led, his senses still blocked, onto a bus that took the prisoners to a ferry dock. Some of the buses didn't have seats, and the prisoners usually sat cross-legged on the floor. Guards often lifted the prisoners' earphones, told them not to move, and when they moved -- helplessly, with the motion of the bus, like bowling pins -- started kicking them. The repeated blows often left detainees unable to walk for weeks.

After the ferry ride, Omar was evaluated at a base hospital. "Welcome to Israel," someone told him. Then he was locked in a steel cage eight feet long and six feet wide. Because the cage had a sink and squat-toilet and the bed was welded to the floor, the open floor space was comparable to that of a small walk-in closet. The cages had been hurriedly constructed from steel mesh and transoceanic shipping containers. Giant banana rats ran freely through the cells and across the roofs and shit everywhere: on beds, on sinks, on Korans. Prisoners were allowed only one five-minute shower each week; the cellblocks stood in a perpetual stench.

Omar's arrival at Guantanamo in October 2002 coincided with a fundamental turn in the administration's War on Terror. Within weeks of his arrival, at the authorization of President Bush, interrogators at the detention facility began using starkly inhumane techniques. Before Omar Khadr had even started to assimilate the wondrous horrors of Guantanamo Bay, his captors began to torture him.
A few months after Omar Khadr arrived at Guantanamo Bay, he was awakened by a guard around midnight. "Get up," the guard said. "You have a reservation." "Reservation" is the commonly used term at Gitmo for interrogation.

In the interrogation room, Omar's interviewer grew displeased with his level of cooperation. He summoned several MPs, who chained Omar tightly to an eye bolt in the center of the floor. Omar's hands and feet were shackled together; the eye bolt held him at the point where his hands and feet met. Fetally positioned, he was left alone for half an hour.

Upon their return, the MPs uncuffed Omar's arms, pulled them behind his back and recuffed them to his legs, straining them badly at their sockets. At the junction of his arms and legs he was again bolted to the floor and left alone. The degree of pain a human body experiences in this particular "stress position" can quickly lead to delirium, and ultimately to unconsciousness. Before that happened, the MPs returned, forced Omar onto his knees, and cuffed his wrists and ankles together behind his back. This made his body into a kind of bow, his torso convex and rigid, right at the limit of its flexibility. The force of his cuffed wrists straining upward against his cuffed ankles drove his kneecaps into the concrete floor. The guards left.

An hour or two later they came back, checked the tautness of his chains and pushed him over on his stomach. Transfixed in his bonds, Omar toppled like a figurine. Again they left. Many hours had passed since Omar had been taken from his cell. He urinated on himself and on the floor. The MPs returned, mocked him for a while and then poured pine-oil solvent all over his body. Without altering his chains, they began dragging him by his feet through the mixture of urine and pine oil. Because his body had been so tightened, the new motion racked it. The MPs swung him around and around, the piss and solvent washing up into his face. The idea was to use him as a human mop. When the MPs felt they'd successfully pretended to soak up the liquid with his body, they uncuffed him and carried him back to his cell. He was not allowed a change of clothes for two days.

The design of Omar Khadr's life at Guantanamo Bay apparently began as a theory in the minds of Air Force researchers. After the Korean War, the Air Force created a program called SERE -- Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape -- to help captured pilots resist interrogation. SERE's founders wanted to know what kind of torture was most destructive to the human psyche so that they could train pilots to withstand it. In experiments, they held subjects in dummy POW camps and had them starved, stripped naked and partially drowned. Administrators carefully noted the subjects' reactions, often measuring the levels of stress hormones in their blood.

The most effective form of torture turned out to have two components. The first is pain and harm delivered in unpredictable, sometimes illusory environments -- an absolute denial of physical comfort and spatial-temporal orientation. The second is a removal of the inner comfort of identity -- achieved by artfully humiliating people and coercing them to commit offenses against their own religion, dignity and morality, until they become unrecognizable to and ashamed of themselves.

SERE scientists came up with a variety of stress-torture techniques: sleep deprivation, sexual mortification, religious desecration, hooding, waterboarding. In SERE theory, the techniques are be used in concert and continuously -- coercive interrogation should become a life experience. This is Guantanamo Bay: To be held there is, per se, to be tortured. Behavioral scientists reportedly manage every aspect of detainees' lives. In one case, a psychologist told guards to limit a detainee to seven squares of toilet paper a day.

While he was at Guantanamo, Omar was beaten in the head, nearly suffocated, threatened with having his clothes taken indefinitely and, as at Bagram, lunged at by attack dogs while wearing a bag over his head. "Your life is in my hands," an intelligence officer told him during an interrogation in the spring of 2003. During the questioning, Omar gave an answer the interrogator did not like. He spat in Omar's face, tore out some of his hair and threatened to send him to Israel, Egypt, Jordan or Syria -- places where they tortured people without constraints: very slowly, analytically removing body parts. The Egyptians, the interrogator told Omar, would hand him to Askri raqm tisa -- Soldier Number Nine. Soldier Number Nine, the interrogator explained, was a guard who specialized in raping prisoners.

Omar's chair was removed. Because his hands and ankles were shackled, he fell to the floor. His interrogator told him to get up. Standing up was hard, because he could not use his hands. When he did, his interrogator told him to sit down again. When he sat, the interrogator told him to stand again. He refused. The interrogator called two guards into the room, who grabbed Omar by the neck and arms, lifted him into the air and dropped him onto the floor. The interrogator told them to do it again -- and again and again and again. Then he said he was locking Omar's case file in a safe: Omar would spend the rest of his life in a cell at Guantanamo Bay.

Several weeks later, a man who claimed to be Afghan interrogated Omar. He wore an American flag on his uniform pants. He said his name was Izmarai -- "lion" -- and he spoke in Farsi and occasionally in Pashto and English. Izmarai said a new prison was under construction in Afghanistan for uncooperative Guantanamo detainees. "In Afghanistan," Izmarai said, "they like small boys." He pulled out a photograph of Omar and wrote on it, in Pashto, "This detainee must be transferred to Bagram."

Omar was taken from his chair and short-shackled to an eye bolt in the floor, his hands behind his knees. He was left that way for six hours. On March 31st, 2003, Omar's security level was downgraded to "Level Four, with isolation." Everything in his cell was taken, and he spent a month without human contact in a windowless box kept at the approximate temperature of a refrigerator.
From all available evidence, some seventy percent of the detainees at Guantanamo are not guilty of crimes against the United States. They are guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But even if they are guilty, is this how we want to treat them? Is this my country?

Friday, September 29, 2006

Where do we go from here?

Yesterday, Sept. 28th, Congress passed a bill which will give the President the right to determine what is and is not torture. The bill will eliminate habeas corpus protections for "unlawful combatants," and it seems that the executive will also have the power to determine who belongs in that category. The bill also provides retroactive legal cover immunizing interrogators — and Bush Administration officials — against prosecution for war crimes. It's not clear whether American citizens could be considered "enemy combatants" under this legislation, but there is a general consensus that this bill is poorly written and that all of its implications are not entirely apparent. It will almost certainly be challenged in court, and the Supreme Court at that, in spite of not-so-veiled threats by Republican legislators and Attorney General Abu Gonzales that judges should STFU and stay out of the President's business:
He said the Constitution makes the president commander in chief and the Supreme Court has long recognized the president's pre-eminent role in foreign affairs. "The Constitution, by contrast, provides the courts with relatively few tools to superintend military and foreign policy decisions, especially during wartime," the attorney general told a conference on the judiciary at Georgetown University Law Center.

"Judges must resist the temptation to supplement those tools based on their own personal views about the wisdom of the policies under review," Gonzales said.

And he said the independence of federal judges, who are appointed for life, "has never meant, and should never mean, that judges or their decisions should be immune" from public criticism...

...The attorney general did not refer to any specific case or decision but only to wartime, military and foreign affairs cases in general.
One of the truly depressing aspects of this situation — I mean, beyond the fact that our President has the power to torture with impunity and lock people away for life — is the unmitigated delight that many of his followers seem to take in this turn of events. At times I think I should just stay out of the comment section of many blogs, because it's enough to make one truly despair for humanity. Go on Digby or Glenn Greenwald, and you'll find posters who are happy that we get to torture people. Oh, they try to cover this up by going on about "the enemy" and how we need to defeat "the enemy who wants to hurt us," and cut off our heads and make us wear burkhas and convert the world to Sharia at swords' point — you know, whatever. But they're not even hiding it any more. They're not defending it by saying things like, "that's not torture, it's just harmless fraternity pranks" very much. They're glad we're doing it. They're thrilled these "detainees," many of whom it's been proven aren't terrorists in any way, shape or form, are going to be locked up indefinitely, without recourse.

What is one supposed to make of this?

There's always been a scary strain in American culture. It wasn't so long ago we had organized lynch mobs, institutionalized racism and systemic disenfranchisement of women and people of color. So I'm not going to say, oh, we've never seen anything like this before, it's unprecedented, we're utterly doomed.

But I guess I had the idea that we were making progress. And clearly, this authoritarian streak in American culture, John Dean's "Conservatives Without Conscience", has been in the ascendancy under George Bush.

It is an ugly, ugly thing, this group of leaders and followers who celebrate their ability to dominate others, to control, to hurt. Read this post by Glenn Greenwald for an example of how debased the discourse has become by this Administration's apologists and propagandists.

They are sadists and thugs.

I keep asking myself what the action is. In Blogworld, you've got people who are so disgusted with the lack of resistance put up by the Democratic Party and the out-and-out collaboration of some Democratic Congressmen and Senators with this Administration's authoritarian project that they're threatening not to vote, or threatening to vote for a third party. You've even got some people who are agitating for violent resistance of some sort — it's not clear what they're really proposing, what their goals are, and how, practically, their methods could ever achieve said amorphous goals. I'm guessing most of these folks are either naive, unbalanced or agent provocateurs. Because, you know, where's the logic in protesting a lawless, violent administration by advocating similar lawlessness and violence?

So what are we left with? Same old grind, I'm afraid. No matter what the Democrats have done, or more to the point, not done, regardless of the complicity of some and the corruption of the entire policial system, it's still a Republican war, it's the Republicans in the White House and in Congress who have legalized torture and spat on the Constitution, who are trying to dismantle social safety nets, environmental regulations and all notions of the government as a vehicle to promote the common good of all of us. They have to be stopped before anything positive or progressive on a larger scale can be accomplished.

First, we have to stop the bleeding.

So we vote. We donate some money or some time or both. We try and get a Democratic majority in either or both Houses of Congress. And we pressure them like hell to do the right thing.

We could be spitting in the wind, for all I know. I in no way think that having more Democrats in office is magically going to transform our increasingly militarized, increasingly hollow empire into a model of a sane, just, sustainable democracy. I don't know if this country can be fixed. But if this is a culture war we're in, then let's fight it. I truly believe we have the better weapons. We have tolerance, justice, inclusion. We have open minds, a belief that we can create a better way of living on this planet, with each other, even if we forget that sometimes, even if we're not sure what that is.

What do they have to offer? Fear. What is their vision? Lives that have to be lived behind walls. Protection from the Other. The evil-doers.

So, here's what I think. Maybe the action, part of it anyway, is just to live our lives in the open.

Speak out. Make your art, recycle your trash, ride a bike instead of drive when you can.

And look around you with clarity. See what it is we're up against. Look at its ugly, blood-soaked face and call it by its name.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The End of the Shanghai Gang?

The Los Angeles Times's Ching-Ching Ni reports that the head of Shanghai's Communist Party and protege of former President Jiang Zemin has been charged with corruption:
Chen Liangyu, who served as party secretary of Shanghai and as a member of Beijing's ruling Politburo, is the highest ranking official in more than a decade to be targeted in a campaign against corruption.

The investigation into Chen centered on the misuse of Shanghai's social security funds for illicit investments in real estate and other infrastructure projects, according to the New China News Agency. Chen is accused of shielding corrupt colleagues, and abusing his position to benefit family members...

...Analysts say Chen's downfall also appears to be part of a carefully orchestrated plan by President Hu Jintao to consolidate his power ahead of next year's party congress and to clip the ambitions of his predecessor's allies.

"The Jiang Zemin era is over, the Shanghai Gang is being dismantled," said Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution.
Unlike deadly factional rivalries past, the slow-motion purge of Jiang Zemin's allies seems to have been acomplished as much through consensus as struggle:
Hu most likely consulted the 80-year-old Jiang and won his tacit agreement to sacrifice his protege and preserve his own legacy, Li said.

"Remember when he agreed to publish Jiang's biography last month and launched all those study sessions of Jiang Zemin thought?" Li said. "This is part of that deal."

In June, Beijing made a high-profile example out of one of its own. Liu Zhihua, a Beijing vice mayor who was overseeing construction for the 2008 Olympics, was fired on corruption charges. A succession of other leaders at the provincial level has also faced dismissal or jail.
Perhaps as important as consolidating power here is providing a high-profile example that Hu and his administration are serious about dealing with the corruption endemic to today's China in general and the CCP in particular. But whether a CCP without any political competition or watchdog other than its own interests and some tenuous notion of the Greater Good can actually rein in expressions of its unfettered power seems somewhat akin to asking an alcoholic to manage a liquor store and expecting the books to balance at the end of the month.

Monday, September 25, 2006

At the risk of sounding repetitive...

You gotta check out Keith O's special comment tonight. I'm not kidding. Go watch.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Global Voices

I haven't been doing a lot of China-related posts lately — American politics and my own personal politics seemed to have overwhelmed that impulse. But I'd like to call your attention to Global Voices Online. If you followed the Hao Wu story (here and here) you might recall that Hao served as one of Global Voices' editors before his detention. Global Voices is "a non-profit global citizens’ media project, sponsored by and launched from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School." It uses citizen journalists from around the world, “bridge bloggers:”
people who are talking about their country or region to a global audience. Global Voices is your guide to the most interesting conversations, information, and ideas appearing around the world on various forms of participatory media such as blogs, podcasts, photo sharing sites, and videoblogs.
A China Digital Times email reminded me about the site, with this roundup from the world of Chinese blogs, including entries from a new blog focusing on Chinese women's views of sex and sexuality (and porn), and how the Wikipedia entry on "National Security" should be updated, from a Chinese dissident's point of view.

Check it out.

Friday, September 22, 2006

National Pastime

I'm sitting on the couch, listening to the San Diego Padres play the Pittsburgh Pirates. I love baseball — football too, I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit. I have a few friends who wonder why I like sports, why I participate in the American sports culture, with its overpaid, entitled athletes and crass commercialism, when there are so many other ways to use one's time, so many better causes for which the resources sucked up by professional sports could conceivably be used.

I could talk about what a beautiful game baseball is, the strategy and athleticism of it. I could talk about how going to a ballpark makes me happy, the green grass, the atmosphere, how almost everyone in the crowd seems happy too. There were the games I used to go to when I was a kid, my mom, my sister and I, when baseball was cheap entertainment, something a divorced mother could afford. I remember my mom and me, lying on her bed, listening to the Padres on scratchy AM radio, with announcer Jerry Coleman (who still calls about half the games) and his malapropisms, his humor and signature shout of "Oh, doctor!" when the team did something good.

On a night like tonight, I think I love baseball for its escapism as much as anything else.

The so-called "dissident" G.O.P. senators made their deal on the "terrorism detention bill" with Bush. As predicted by Digby, who called the negotiations "an elaborate Kabuki," the whole exercise seemed suspiciously choreographed, with Bush getting to look all tough on the terr-ists and that maverick McCain appearing like he has some actual principles, thus reassuring some portion of wavering Republican supporters that things haven't gone too far, that the grownups are in charge, that America the Beautiful still maintains some shred of dignity, of honor, of worthiness.

As for the Democrats, their strategy was to sit the debate out, betting that the GOP "rebels" actually were putting up a real fight, that they would either force the White House to back down or be unable to craft an agreement. Speaking out on torture, the Democratic leadership calculated, was a losing hand, giving the Republican strategists yet another opportunity to paint Democrats as being "weak on terror," untrustworthy with national security. Because of course, we aren't actually talking about torture here, right? Just "alternative techniques." "The program." The one that "keeps America safe from evil-doers."

Though details of the compromise are not fully available, and I'm not the person to provide a comprehensive legal analysis in any case (check out Glenn Greenwald for that kind of heavy-lifting), the consensus at this moment is that the White House got what it wanted — namely, that "the Program" will continue, only now with the legal blessing of federal legislation. Maybe not every aspect of "the Program" — no one is saying yet what "enhanced techniques" will be permitted — but essentially it still seems to be an argument about what kind of torture is okay, and what kind is just a tad too harsh. I'm assuming that the "compromise" also provides the retroactive legal cover desired by the Adminstration — you know, so Bush, Cheney, Rummy and Abu Gonzales don't end up in the dock for war crimes.

It's important to note that this is not a done deal. I heard Congresswoman Jane Harman interviewed on my way into work this AM. Harman is a conservative Democrat, one with whom I frequently disagree. She's also the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. The gist of her comments was, no Democrat has seen the bill, this thing isn't passing without extensive clarification, including, just what "techniques" are we talking about and why are such "techniques" even necessary (she was very insistent on these points). And also that the bill requires Congressional oversight, that this president in particular(due to his track record) will not be able to just redefine Article 3 by his own interpretation. But she put a particular emphasis on "why do we even need to do these things?" and also, that she did not see it as a blank check to cover all past behavior. She stated that this bill would require extensive discussion before a vote (the implication being that it might not get voted upon until after the recess). She said that it was this Administration's own fault that they and their operatives had put themselves in a position of legal ambiguity by not asking for Congressional oversight/clarification in the first place.

I felt a little better after hearing this. I called my Senators to express my opposition to any legislation that would legalize torture. I said stuff like, "we should just change our name to the Soviet States of America if this thing passes." I was perhaps a little shrill.

(Amnesty International has a campaign in which you can participate. Go here for details)

Who knows if it does any good? I'm really not sure. The mood in Left Blogostan is pretty bleak. There's a lot of excoriating the Democrats for not speaking up, and all the wayyy Lefties are in full-cry, you know, the kind for whom any mainstream political activism is useless appeasement, whose comments are generally about the dark, blood-drenched heart of the American genocidal beast. I got slammed for saying I was still supporting Democrats because this whole attitude that there's no difference between the parties is a big reason Bush is in the White House, and you can't tell me we'd be in Iraq and arguing about whether it's okay to torture prisoners if Al Gore were President.

For this I was told I was "unable to think through the fog," "unserious," and "a namby-pamby Democratic party apologist." Which considering the kinds of flack I've gotten from right-wingers when I've posted on Peking Duck, you know, being a wild-eyed, stupid, naive psuedo-intellectual who doesn't take the grave threat of Islamo-fascist-nazis seriously — well, maybe there is some consensus there. Because I find it hard to take extremists on either side seriously.

Not because I think they're funny. Well, not most of the time. Sometimes the overwrought melodrama of their rhetoric gives me a bit of a giggle, I'll admit (and I'll cop to not being entirely blameless in prompting their scorn of me — sometimes I have to poke 'em a little).

It's the essential unseriousness of extremist philosophies as engines of progress that gets to me. Not that extremists can't accomplish big things, they can and they do, but their programs are almost exclusively destructive, even when their stated aims are for advancing social justice. It's very difficult to get people to willingly go along with extreme change, because face it, most people aren't extreme, and a lot of them won't agree with what's being proposed. You don't typically have a revolution because a bunch of idealists have gotten together with this great utopian program that the masses enthusiastically adopt. Big changes tend to happen quickly when there's some negative cause — chaos, war, economic and social collapse.

I don't know about you, but I'm not real anxious to see that happen here, unlike those who cheer destruction and pray for revolution. Generally the people who end up getting hurt aren't the ones who deserve it the most.

But it's not clear that the political system can be fixed, at this point. Beyond Democratic co-option and weakness, the corruption of corporate money, comes the simple, appalling fact that the Republican Party has so rigged the electoral process that even an extremely unpopular President may not be enough to tip the balance in either House of Congress. Even if the Democrats do take the House or Senate, it's not clear that they will have enough power to turn the tide or stay in control long enough to make a real difference.

Or whether the vision and political will exist for the fight.

But what will it take to change this country for the better? What kind of movement might arise that can help shift us away from this path we're on, this war without end, on other countries, on the planet, on ourselves? Is it even possible, or is it too late?

I'm not an extremist. But my question is not so much, when do you have to make a stand? I'd say the time is now, or very soon.

My question is, what does that stand consist of? What is the action?

What does one do?

I'd really like to know.

Well, the Padres won the game tonight. Chris Young took a no-hitter into the 9th. It would have been the first no-hitter in franchise history, but after one out, Joe Randa hit Young's pitch over the center field wall for a home run. There went the no-hitter. The shut-out too. But the Padres are still in first place in the National League West. The race continues.

Baseball, I'm willing to state, is good.

I'm not so sure about America.