Monday, August 29, 2005

İstanbul is Constantinople

Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace, Grand Bazaar, Ottomans, Attatürk - these are the things most people associate with İstanbul. And all of that is there, vibrant historical reminder of a great empire.

What has struck me most, however, is the seamless blend of European and İslamic cultures. Women in hijabs and even burkas walk alongside trendy youth in tanktops and jeans. Even those in hijabs can be seen snuggling up to their boyfriends, holding hands and enjoying a day out.

The buildings are for the most part very European, but everywhere you turn there are minarets peeking out from behind buildings. This is probably naive of me, but İ didn't quite expect this. Attatürk tried to diminish the visible dress codes of İslam. İstanbul today is a flourishing mixture of a rennaisance of the traditional and the modern and trendy.

My only complaint is that there are myriads of tourists. Luckily, since it is so late in the season, most of them are older, more educated and more culturally sensitive than what is so often found in the mid-July height of travel around Europe. Except for the young Russian girls whose dress, demeanor, and apparently conversations, reflect a horrible blend of Lumpen-tourism and daddy's money that make the worst of American tourists look like charming examples of goodwill ambassadors.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Vacation time (yay!)

I finished my last final of the semester today, ran all my necessary errands, and am now doing laundry in preparation of my trip tomorrow.

I'm not going to be blogging for a while - I'll be gone for 10 days, and while I'll try to post highlights of my trip intermittently, I'm not sure how internet access will be.

Either way, I'll be sure to post a full account of my trip when I return.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The first scent of fall

Today I smelled fall for the first time this year - a hint of crispness in the air - not the crispness of a mountain summer's dawn, but the crispness of the end of summer.

The long days of frantic heat are going, leaving in its place the tired warmth of late summer. This is the warmth I associate with lazy dusks on porch swings, tall glasses of homemade lemonade, and shopping trips for backpacks, pencils, paper and other back to school supplies, even though I've never had a porch swing. It's just porch swing kind of weather.

And with the onset of that hint of fall (soon to be replaced by more hot weather, no doubt - a last gasp by summer), comes the thought of football season, long walks on crunchy leaves, apple cider, and the first snowfall. I can't wait.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Che porn


A friend of mine clued me in to the existence of this travesty (don't click if you have a sensitive nature and don't want to read REALLY bad porn).

Yes, there is pornographic Che Guevara fan fiction, set in a chateau in France.

And I object. I mean, Che was drop dead gorgeous, and I'm sure there could be some great Che porn out there, but this isn't it.

From the story:

"After a couple of glasses of champagne and some fresh caviar, we made love.
Che's erect cock resembled a large cucumber. I kissed it lustfully."

That's just wrong. Che would never have been caught dead in a French chateau, and certainly wouldn't have enjoyed champagne and caviar - he would have been out in a developing country, fighting for the liberation of the oppressed masses, sleeping in the jungles and eating beans and rice.

Also, a large cucumber?

Friday, August 19, 2005

The art of haggling

One thing I'm looking forward to in my upcoming visit to Istanbul is the opportunity to work on my haggling skills. I am a lousy haggler. My mother, on the other hand, is a masterful practitioner of that most ancient and sophisticated art. It's time I pick up some of her skills.

One thing I've noticed watching my mom is that there is a certain ritual to the whole thing. My mom, who effectively haggled a vendor in Bali down to three used waterproof generic Swiss watches in exchange for a giant, beautiful batik tablecloth with 20 napkins, has a modus operandi that usually works.

She'll walk by the stall or booth or store selling the goods, pause, look around, pick up something that interests her, fondle it for a bit, looking closely at it, then ask the vendor how much. Whatever price he says, she'll shake her head sadly, look at the item one more time, and move as if to walk away. At which point, in any decent haggling country, the vendor will drop the price. This is when my mom rolls up her sleeves and goes to work - and where I lose track of the process. "You want 80 for that. No. How about 30?" "30. Impossible! 70." Mom shakes head and moves to walk away again. "65." Another shake. "60. And that's my last offer." Mom turns around. "60 - if you throw in that wooden flute and the salt and pepper shaker." "Deal."

I don't get it. It's mysterious. But in the Turkish bazaar - you have no option except to bargain. So hopefully I'll pick something up.

My mom's haggling skills are beyond normal. She haggled when we moved to the states and were buying appliances at Montgomery Ward. Who the hell haggles at a department store? But she invariably managed to get them to knock the tax off. In Japan, department stores seemingly let you haggle. It was beautiful. And in Hungary, my dad and I were frequently banished from my mom's commercial dealings - she didn't want our speaking English to hamper her bargaining position.

I hope I can get a good deal on something in Istanbul. The only problem is that since the exchange rate is about 1.4 million Turkish lira to 1 US dollar, it'll be REALLY hard for me to convert the currency in my head and effectively haggle - since haggling is in part all about speed.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Happy belated Melon Day!

Thanks to my dad for uncovering this gem. Apparently, Monday, August 15th was Melon Day in Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan, according to its Agriculture Ministry, grows 500 varieties of melon, including the Czar Melon, grown to honor President Niyazov, and the Golden Age, which is meant to symbolize prosperity under the president.

In a statement, Niyazov (aka the Turmenbashi) said
"Let the life of every Turkmen be as beautiful as our melons."


Glue on my fingers, contracts on my mind

I don't think I've ever studied this hard for final exams. This isn't saying much - I'm not known for my amazing studiousness, usually taking the approach that you either know it or you don't.

Since Sunday I haven't left the house except to go to class and get lunch and I haven't done anything but study. OK, granted, it's only Wednesday, but I'm actually AHEAD of schedule for once.

I've been furiously making flashcards as I review contracts - in some cases writing out the UCC and Restatement provisions, but more often printing them out and cutting and pasting them physically onto the note cards. This is my special treat at the end of the day - watch TV, and play with scissors and glue. It's like a midnight kindergarten, and immensely satisfying after a whole day studying.

I am slightly worried that I feel no panic. As much as I realize that in law school grades are everything and I am studying ridiculously hard (for me, at least), I just can't bring myself to believe that this is what will make or break my entire future life. I know that I know the course material. With grades depending entirely on one exam, it's quite possible that at the end of the exam, the prof won't be convinced that I know the material. And that's quite OK.

Every now and then I try to psych myself up - it's futile. I feel as placid as a Swiss cow gently chewing her cud in a lovely mountainous field. This isn't like some of my science classes, where I'd walk in to finals having no idea what half the things I'd studied meant, because I did a half-ass job. Here, it's a crap-shoot. And I've actually done all the reading. What more can you ask for?

Monday, August 15, 2005

Lowered expectations for Iraq - surprise, surprise!

Looks like the U.S. government is finally admitting that Iraq isn't going to magically become a happy home of gleeful American democracy with peace, lots of oil production, and immense brotherly love for the U.S.

No shit, Sherlock.

From the article:
"We set out to establish a democracy, but we're slowly realizing we will have some form of Islamic republic," said another U.S. official familiar with policymaking from the beginning, who like some others interviewed would speak candidly only on the condition of anonymity. "That process is being repeated all over."

Imperative words here are "slowly realizing" - and by slowly they really mean "with the speed of the motion of tectonic plates."

And how were we supposed to establish a Western democracy in an Islamic country where Saddam had been the epitomy of evil, no doubt, but as a secular pan-Arabist leader? Suddenly they have freedom of religion (read: freedom to fight to the death over their particular branch of Islam). Pan-Arabism is passe - religious states are the in-thing - especially in response to U.S. attempts to force its so-called secular democracy (really founded on Christian values) on the Middle East.

Also from the article:
"We didn't calculate the depths of feeling in both the Kurdish and Shiite communities for a winner-take-all attitude," said Judith S. Yaphe, a former CIA Iraq analyst at the National Defense University.

This is actually a key point. Beyond all of the failures of the administration, trust Prof. Yaphe to come to the crux of the issue (I had her for a class on regional security issues in the Middle East - she is a wonderful, intelligent, well-informed expert on the Middle East). We didn't have sufficiently good intelligence on the ground (relying on such figures as Chalabi - not the most reputable of all sources) to understand the mentality and the actual workings of the various sub-groups in Iraq. This isn't entirely the current administration's fault - Clinton's efforts to cut down on hum-int during the 1990s had long term repercussions on our intelligence gathering capabilities.

Yaphe goes on to say:
"There has been a realistic reassessment of what it is possible to achieve in the short term and fashion a partial exit strategy," Yaphe said. "This change is dictated not just by events on the ground but by unrealistic expectations at the start."


Finally, from the article again:
On security, the administration originally expected the U.S.-led coalition to be welcomed with rice and rosewater, traditional Arab greetings, with only a limited reaction from loyalists of ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha....rice...and...rosewater....ha ha ha ha ha ha ha...*deep breath*...ha ha ha ha ha ha ha...

Saturday, August 13, 2005


When he first ran for president, Bush talked a lot about Latin America and how we had to strengthen our relations with our southern neighbors. Then September 11 happened and Latin America was quickly forgotten.

For once in its modern history, the U.S. was ignoring it. The Monroe doctrine was replaced by the Get-The-Damn-Towel-Heads doctrine.

And Latin America has, not surprisingly, flourished - voices of opposition to U.S. policy have been heard more strongly than at any time since the 1960s, the U.S. has diminished its meddling with political development and interestingly enough we haven't heard a lot of economic disaster stories. Could it be that the removal of some of the U.S.'s grubby fingers from the many South American pies is just what that continent needed? couldn't be - clearly the U.S. has done so well with its imperial sphere of influence. Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, Panama, Haiti - and that's just in my lifetime. (If you're interested in a more detailed look at U.S. interventions in Latin America - check this page out.)

Now, Chavez down in Venezuela is stepping up his anti-U.S. rhetoric. Unlike Cuba, which is a small, insignificant island in terms of resources, Venezuela is the fourth largest oil supplier to the U.S. and its geographic proximity means that its oil is highly prized. Chavez actually has economic clout, and the failure to depose him in 2002 (probably because U.S. resources were understandably focused on Afghanistan and it couldn't spare enough to properly get rid of him) has meant that he has now been in office long enough that an assassination plot or coup attempt engineered by the U.S. would be too transparent and rile up the population, possibly leading to civil war, thus endangering the precious oil supply. Nevertheless, I wouldn't put it past the U.S. to try some shenanigans, although as long as we're occupied in Iraq and Afghanistan, they will no doubt be somewhat muted.

A little attention is finally being paid to Venezuela after Chavez made the bold move of accusing DEA officials of spying (no doubt true) and said that cooperation with the DEA would be suspended. In retaliation, the U.S. revoked the visas of six Venezuelan military officers who had been involved in cooperative efforts with the DEA. Now, Venezuela is contemplating denying visas to all U.S. citizens, according to the Venezuelan vice president.

I hope that Chavez manages to hold out against the U.S. and win re-election. He's the freshest breath of air to come through Latin America in a long time and epitomizes the legacy of Che Guevara. It's time for the U.S. to let Latin America develop as it wants and allow the socialism that has been lying in the wings waiting for its opportunity to finally take hold. In the fear over the spread of Communism, the U.S. perfected its obscene policies of intervention in Latin America, never realizing that the 'Communism' the Latin Americans were fighting for was a vastly different 'Communism' than existed elsewhere in the world, and unique to Latin America.

By forcibly replacing people like Allende with people like Pinochet, the U.S. helped stall the development of the region and left it economically backwards and subservient to the U.S.-imposed economic vision encapsulated by the IMF. Maybe finally the countries of Latin America will have a chance to do what is best for them - not what is best for U.S. interests.

Friday, August 12, 2005

T-Mobile Hungary allows payment for parking by SMS

I'm always pleased to see Hungary in the news and I'm always disappointed by the lack of text messaging in the US - we're a number of years behind Hungary and other Central European countries in that respect, largely because it is cheaper to place mobile phone calls in the US than in Europe.

Meanwhile, it appears that that one of the parking zone operators in Budapest has developed a system whereby people can simply text message in order to pay for their parking spots (here's the article). Instead of having to go to the ticket machines, a simple text message can not only put money in the meter for the spot but add more money to the meter while keeping track if time is running out.

Think about the convenience - hanging out at a cafe, no longer having to run to check the meter - simply texting the appropriate number and that's it. Reminds me of the Finns, who early on developed vending machines that allow you to pay and get your desired product by text messaging them. Those European sure like to type on cell phone key pads.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Belarus is now just Rus

This is one of the biggest news stories I've seen all year - Belarus is going to have a single currency with Russia and there will be moves towards a Russia-Belarus Constitution and the delegation of powers to supra-national bodies.

Anyone who's been following the situation in Belarus saw this one coming a mile off - Lukashenko is an egomaniacal dictator who is nevertheless a puppet of the Russians. For years, Belarus' independence has been de jure while it has de facto been a subject of Russia. And now, here's steps towards a formal declaration of a union between the two.

This somehow must play into the dispute between Poland and Belarus which has resulted in the breakdown of diplomatic relations between the two countries (see this article), ostensibly over the 400,000 ethnic Poles living in Belarus. Somehow, Poland being part of the EU and Belarus being, well, basically part of Russia, this seems to be about more of a conflict between Russia and the EU, or Poland in particular. The Baltics may be part of the EU - but ha, ha - Belarus is firmly Russia's. Clearly this single currency has been in the makings for a while. So what better way to nudge it in than to show that Belarus cannot maintain diplomatic relations with its Western neighbors and must therefore look to its big brother, Russia.

Next up, Moldova?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The story of the Laffer curve

This is a story of my dad, not of me, but one that has bothered me for years, with a certain relentless gnawing at my subconscious.

My dad was a grad student at University of Chicago at the time (the early 1970s), looking for a place to rent. For some reason (if I have my facts straight), Art Laffer of the Laffer curve and supply-side economics (or Reaganomics if you prefer) decided to rent his house out to grad students (this part of the story has never made much sense to me). He and my dad were talking over a drink or some such to discuss the details, when he drew the Laffer curve on a napkin for my dad.

Here comes the part of the story I've never been able to get over.

My dad lost the napkin.


He lost the napkin on which Laffer had drawn him the Laffer curve.

This keeps me up some nights.

Needless to say, my dad isn't an economist.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Peter Jennings - the last of the actual news anchors


Peter Jennings just passed away at the age of 67 of lung cancer.

With his passing we've seen the last of the real news anchors on American TV. After he went off the air I stopped watching the news. He had a wit, charm and eloquence about him that no one else in television news managed. He was handsome, Canadian and erudite. And within the constraints of ABC's news programming, he managed to impart more information than any of the other TV news anchors. Where Dan Rather always seemed a bit rough around the edges, Peter Jennings oozed suaveness.

I remember a special he did after the Passion came out about the lives of Jesus and Paul. Clearly this was something the network was doing to cash in on the media frenzy. And yet he managed to make it fascinating, historical, and insightful.

Now the news is in the hands of faceless, bland characters with the personality of wet noodles and the charisma of slightly musty gym towels, who can't think for themselves and largely focus on the latest white girl kidnapping story.

I'll miss Peter Jennings - maybe because he was a foreigner, he managed to remember that there are other places in this world than the U.S. And I always thought he was sort of sexy, in a rugged, mature sort of way.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Comment spam - tastes even worse than hickory smoked spam

I got my first comment spam today. Actually, I found out about comment spam for the first time today.

In response to my last post about Uzbekistan and refugees, someone posted the following comment (as anonymous, of course) - "read your blog, think you'd be really interested in this website" with the word website hyperlinked (I'm not linking it here since I don't want traffic to the site in question increased). Oh boy, I thought to myself, an interesting link related to my favorite topic of Central Asia. So I clicked on it, breathless in anticipation. Surely, this was going to be the greatest thing since I learned how to read.

It took me to a mortgage site - a 60 second mortgage quote piece of junk. Seriously. Needless to say, this put quite a damper on my day.

Now to hickory smoked spam. Being a spam afficionado (the meaty kind - not the clogging of the inbox kind), when I saw this hickory smoked spam on the shelves I had to try it. This was a few months ago, back when I was living in New York. One day, penniless, waiting for my next paycheck, I finally sat down in front of the TV, can of spam in one hand, spoon in the other, and excitedly peeled back the metal top. Oh the disappointment. It tasted like concentrated chemical hickory flavor. All the natural meaty goodness of spam was gone, wiped out by this travesty of a taste. Much like the natural happy goodness of my day being wiped out by the spam comment, only worse, because it was food and I'd been saving that can for a rainy day.

Moral of the story: there's only one good kind of spam - it comes in a can, it doesn't have any newfangled flavoring, and it will never go bad. It also will never leave you, which is why real spam is superior to a significant other. You'll also never get tired of it - and if you do, and kick it out to the curb, it won't come crawling back, and it won't pester you - and someday, you'll want more of it and it'll always be there for you to take back.

Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam...*breaks into song*...

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Uzbek refugees and base closings

Thanks goes to my dad for alerting me to this story (don't know how I managed to miss it).

As the article says, the airlifting of 439 Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan to Timisoara, Romania was a great example of the U.S. putting human rights ahead of military convenience.

Although the operation was a UN one, believe it or not, for once, U.S. diplomacy played a big role in getting the refugees out of Kyrgyzstan.

Immediately after the refugees (deemed Islamic militants and terrorists by Uzbekistan's president Karimov) were sent to Romania, Uzbekistan gave the U.S. its eviction notice for its military bases.

Unlike the majority of the press and the international community, however, I'm actually not that surprised by the U.S.'s concern for Uzbek human rights. Despite the cynicism of the West towards U.S. intentions in Central Asia, the Uzbeks I have encountered (although few and far between) have expressed positive feelings about U.S. concerns regarding human rights there. The real question is why would the U.S. jeopardize its military installations.

Simple - Uzbekistan isn't worth that much to the U.S. Sure, not having the bases will make operations in Afghanistan a bit harder. But how much of our attention is focused on Afghanistan? More than that - having bases in a country where uprisings are brutally suppressed by a ruthless dictator could bring more questions about where the U.S. priorities vis-a-vis democracy lie. Shouldn't we be doing something to bring democracy to Uzbekistan? So we help facilitate the transport of refugees, knowing that we'll get kicked out, and get rid of another possibly questionable situation. (Or is that just my cynicism talking?)

Uzbekistan doesn't have much the U.S. needs. It's a rough environment, unfamiliar, remote and with few of the amenities we're used to. It's under the control of a dictator, but more importantly, it is within Russia's sphere of influence. And, well, Russia isn't our enemy anymore, right? Vladi-merr (as el presidente likes to call him) is our buddy. So why step on his toes? Particularly when we're really not getting that much in return. Let's do a good deed (and it truly was a good deed to facilitate the removal of the refugees from Kyrgyzstan) and get kicked out gracefully, boost our international reputation, please our buddy Vladi-merr, save money on a remote, expensive base, and divert needed resources elsewhere.

Now that's what I call a good move on the part of the intelligence community. Kudos to those who made the necessary extrapolations in this case - brilliantly executed, utterly unreproachable (if you still believe that ANY government really cares about human rights in remote locations then you're seriously naive), and a hopeful sign that maybe the administration is finally listening to its intelligence analysts rather than selectively adopting unverified information to base its actions on.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Mastering South American ingredients

My latest culinary venture is those ingredients that you never find in European cuisine - chipotle chilis, tomatillos and plantains.

Today I made my own chipotle sauce - a hot, spicy and slightly sweet product that I then liberally slathered over a couple of buffalo ribeye steaks before broiling them. I also went a step farther with tomatillos (previously I'd just eaten them raw and thinly sliced as a condiment to burgers) and made my own salsa verde.

Oh, and I took some mayo and added chipotle chilis for the ultimate in yuppydom - chipotle mayo.

Tomorrow my dad comes home and I'll be awaiting him with a lovely sandwich of rare buffalo steak sliced thin, chipotle mayo, shaved raw asparagus and my homemade sweet pickled red onions, with maybe a touch of chipotle sauce to add to the overall flavor. Oh, and plaintain chips, fried and lightly salted with salsa verde.

Oddly enough, this sounds more yuppy than South American, but I was curious about experimenting with flavors. I have a long ways to go before I truly master the flavors of South America. I think I'll need a nice trip during winter break to Bolivia or Argentina to truly develop my understanding. Really, I just want an excuse to travel to South America and follow in the footsteps of my soulmate, Che Guevara. All the while storing up culinary tips for future use.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Upcoming yearly vacation

Last year it was Bosnia. Well, it was Barcelona which turned into a tour of the former Yugoslavia, which turned into Bosnia. This year it's Istanbul and a trip across Bulgaria which has already metamorphosized into Istanbul, Sofia, some day trips in Bulgaria and Nis, Serbia. I'm beginning to think that I'll have to have a yearly summer vacation where the plans get changed right at the last minute and I end up in some formerly but recently war-torn country (although as far as I know Nis didn't suffer too much during the war - I could be completely wrong though).

Of course, I have a ways to go before I get to go on vacation - I would say that August 26th can't come soon enough, but I have final exams on August 23rd and August 25th. So I'm torn.

Oddly enough, one of the places I'd be interested in working next summer is Rwanda or some other recently war-torn African country doing human rights related legal work. This would fit right in with my trend. Of course, my mother would probably have a heart-attack and organize an intervention to chain me to my cat so I couldn't travel overseas.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Luck and my sense of direction

I am well known among my circle of friends for my utter lack of directional sense. I don't pay a lot of attention to where I'm going and can never figure out alternate routes.

Well, yesterday, luck was with me, or else I suddenly developed a sense of direction. I went with a friend to go in search of a Bosnian retaurant in Hamtramck, which we found without any trouble even though the route we were going to take was closed. The restaurant was closed for vacation, but nevermind, we had nothing important to do, so we drove around Hamtramck, then decided to go to Dearborn. This turned out a bit difficult, since the highway was again closed (for the record - the Michigan Department of Transportation website is a lying piece of crap - it listed no total highway closures). So we got off the highway, and again, we found ourselves going in the right direction no matter what. I decided that going to the Hungarian restaurant, Rhapsody, would be a good idea, which is in Southgate and we found it once my friend gave us the address via phone, but that too was closed for vacation.

So finally we ended up in Dearborn, at a fabulous restaurant, eating magnificent Middle Eastern food, including the best tongue I'd ever eaten - tender, succulent, garlicky, lemony - and it was lamb tongue, something I'd never had.

Even with all of the highways closed, we also managed to get back to Ann Arbor without any problem.

Watching my ability to get around yesterday you would have thought that I had a fabulous sense of direction. I just hope this lucky streak of directional sense sticks around for a while. Maybe if I just pay attention while I drive, I might actually start developing some lasting notion of where to go.