Friday, July 31, 2009

Initial observations

1. People are still rather fat. It's not just a stereotype, it's a problem. In my extended stay at the Orlando airport (a total of 7.5 hours) I watched a family of four consume their weight in high fat, high sugar, high calorie foods. The father was the only one who didn't really eat and he was also, not coincidentally, the only one who wasn't pushing the portly-to-obese barrier. We need to think about what we are putting into our mouths.

2. Cars have gotten boxier and uglier. It's no wonder why American car companies are in the crapper. No only do they produce inferior, poorly engineered products, they also products butt ugly machines. The new "box on wheels" design has got to go.

3. On my flight to DC, there was a youngish man with his presumed girlfriend who had a problem with the flight crew and eventually go kicked off the flight. The police were called. He was utterly ridiculous and a jerk. Now, I can't verify this, but I have a very sneaky suspicion that he plays for one of DC's sports teams. I won't name any names, but I can say that this individual had the physique, body art, attitude, and wispy beard to match a particular individual in the DC sports scene.

4. It's weird responding to people in public in english. I guess after 3.5 years, my natural inclination is to say something in spanish. I'm sure I'll get used to it soon enough as I revert back to my original culture but it is a little odd to hear english all around me.

5. The US is perfect, much as they say in Colombia. The roads are perfectly paved with all the correct markings, the stop lights are well defined (and seem long), the distance is vast. These are the things that Colombians say about the US and they're right. Compared to where I've been, we present an appearance of perfection. I'm not complaining about it, just saying that I have a heightened appreciation for that which we do right. And we do roads right.

6. Chipotle, thankfully, has done nothing to degrade the quality of their pork. Still as succulent and delicious as ever. I shall soon become reacquainted with their other meat options.

7. The MacBook Pro is easily the coolest computer I have ever owned. More than that, however, it suits my needs. I don't want to have to worry about maintenance and hassle and viruses and all the other crap that goes with Windows. With Mac, my PC concerns are essentially over. Now, if Google would only release Chrome for Mac.

8. After living in Colombia, I find that I don't like my air conditioning so cold anymore. Maybe it's because I prefer fans and the air circulation that they provide or maybe it's just after living for so long without, I am not so addicted to artificially cooled air. (Note: There is no A/C in Bogota because the average temp in the city is between the 50s and 60s. This comment only refers to A/C in the hot lands or times when I was traveling with my wife who doesn't like a lot of A/C.)

9. If there's anything about DC it's the consistent nature of things. The politicians still think they're hot shit, the people are always in a hurry, and hope springs eternal for Redskins Nation in July and August. My mother's house is about 5 minutes from Redskins park and while tempted, I'm not going to make it to a training camp session. But that won't stop the thousands of other who will as we saw yesterday when we passed them on the road, all lined up to park.

10. All things considered, it's good to be back. I have to confess I was quite nervous about coming back and not knowing what to expect. I shouldn't have been. The US is still here, as always, with good, decent people who are largely ignorant of what their political leaders are doing. I don't say that to denigrate Americans - most people around the world are mostly ignorant of what their governments do in their names. No, I say that because often, living abroad, one only gets the most narcissistic view of America - the political view - and that's a bit depressing. It's reassuring to see with my own eyes that people are people - whether Colombian or American, we all want the same things. No matter how nihilistic and depraved our leaders become.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Making eggshells from eggs

The other night I went out to a pub with some friends to celebrate my imminent departure. We had a jovial time until, at the end of the night, unpleasantness struck. Without getting too specific, one friend started a fight in the street and the other friend came to his defense. Both ended up with bloodly lips (multiple taxi drivers came to the defense of the other guy) and the three of us were forced to explain the situation to the police (well, I didn't have to explain anything other than that I wasn't part of the fisticuffs).

This event put a damper on the evening and really pissed me off. There is almost no situation where violence is called for and the contretemps certainly could have been avoided with a dash of prudence. Unfortunately, there's no reasoning with drunken stupor.

When I talked to the implicated the following day, they both had varying explanations for the unfortunate event. The friend who started it claims he remembers everything except who threw the first punch. His lack of memory a convenient form of ego protection since, without any physical provocation at all, he started the blowup with a full on, open hand slap to the other guy's face and then chased after the dude swinging wildly, hitting mostly air, and falling flat on his drunk ass at least three times. A small part of me, a very small part, was in hysterics with his clown show of brawling.

The conclusion of this event was anti-climactic. The police didn't do anything aside from annoy us. The other guy took off. And the one taxi driver who claimed that my friend had damaged his cab during the fight refused to produce the taxi or any witnesses and was eventually ignored by the police.

The emotional after effect is more long lasting. I'm still pissed off at my friend. But I'm reserving my anger for an appropriate moment mostly because he's in a downward, depressive cycle that has no clear end in sight. His alcoholism is on the verge of being converted into a chronic disease, a symptom of obvious psychological trauma which I'll not theorize about in this space. Unfortunately, this friend suffers from an advanced case of pride and that makes broaching the subject extremely difficult to impossible. Another friend did talk to this individual about a year ago and that created so much huffing and puffing that the two didn't speak for a solid year.

A part of me would like to judge my friend, speak harsh words, explode with righteous outrage. But I won't do that and not just for pragmatic reasons. No, I won't judge him because I tend to think that when we look at others and see things we do not like, things that we judge, things that are revolting to us, that our revulsion, judgements, and dislikes are a form of ego protection. The things that provoke strong dislikes in others are things that are usually reflected in some part of our own being. Or, to put is more squarely, we tend to judge others for things that are or could be present in ourselves.

For the last several days, I have thought about the event, my friend, and the subsequent going away party we had on Saturday night (in which I drank nothing stronger than orange juice and my friend got tanked again). And while a small part of me continues to be angry with him, most of me just feels sad for him. I think I have a pretty good handle on his emotional situation, I think if he was willing to open up to me I could help him by listening and offering some small advice. Yet, I know that he'll never let me in because to do so would be to admit weakness and he is too proud to do so.

Instead, I'm leaving the country with only a tiny bit of hope that he will right his ship and begin to address that which ails him. I have no great confidence in that hope and I know that I will continue to think of creative ways in which I can deliver the messages I need to deliver. But for now, I feel more useless than useful. I feel as if a friend is drowning in the ocean and ignoring every lifejacket thrown his way. As I learned much earlier in life, I can't jump down the rabbit hole with him even though the alternative is to do nothing.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Here's another bad "study" from Foreign Policy

I don't generally have a very good opinion of Foreign Policy magazine. They're kind of like Foreign Policy-lite and I have a feeling they try to say provocative things in the hopes of ratcheting up page clicks or subscriptions. Unfortunately, these types of things often make them rather clownish.

Enter today's offer: Foreign Policy's 5th annual failed states index. These sorts of indices are rather useless since they paint broad strokes and therefore wouldn't actually be useful to foreign policy practioners but for some reason, they keep pumping them out like they're foreign policy's answer to US News's annual College Rankings. Back in grad school, I remember reading the index then and thinking that it had been rather foolishly produced (with a rather poor methodology). Apparently, things haven't gotten any better.

One thing I know for certain - only someone who has never visited and knows very little about Colombia could suggest the country is in danger of being a failed state. Security wise the government controls the vast majority of the country although the guerilla still manages to attack population centers from time to time (but not in any of the big cities). The suggestion that the guerilla represents, today, a viable threat to the functioning or longevity of the government is laughable. Economically, Colombia has largely been unaffected by the global economic crisis. Growth is still over 5% and foreign investment continues to rise. Politically, the country faces no crises of government or legitimacy, the president continues to be the most popular president in South America, and democratic processes are well respected (although politically motivated violence continues).

Looking at the list, Foreign Policy has decided that Bolivia is more stable or less at risk than Colombia. Curious since they continue to face a serious political crisis that threatens to tear the country in two. I'm sure there are others, like Venezuela or Honduras, that are much lower than Colombia that could be debated out.

I think that, behind all the fancy sounding explanations of why their methodology is oh-so sophisticated, Foreign Policy suffers in this compilation by giving equal merit to the 12 social, political, economic, and military variables that they use to evaluate state stability. Some factors matter more than others. In the case of Colombia, a booming economy, military control of the vast majority of the country, and political legitimacy matter much, much more in determining if the country is at risk of being a failed state than, say, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Yet, Foreign Policy makes no attempt to evaluate which factors are the most important. Thus, Colombia's high rankings in IDPs, for example, bumps it way up above Honduras or Venezuela, countries that don't really have IDP problems but do have a host of other problems that more directly challenge the legitimacy or ability of the state to funtion.

Well, I won't quibble any further on a "study" that, aside from mass consumption, is utterly useless. Instead, I'll just conclude that again, Foreign Policy has generated page views by producing faux scholarship and I'll wonder if they did it on purpose.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A totally shocking report

Could it be that Bush's abstinence only education not only failed to reduce teen sex but also increased teen pregnancies and STDs? CDC says yes with the worst impact in the South where the religious message is generally more impactful. I know, this comes as a real shocker.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The End of an Adventure

Two weeks from today, I fly back to the US and the Great Colombian Adventure officially comes to a close. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I'm very excited to be going back to the US, to see my family, to begin the next step in my professional development, and to become reaquainted with my culture. On the other, I'm a bit sad to leave Colombia's good parts, I'm a little concerned about what I'm going to find, and I certainly don't want to leave my wife behind for the 4 month period that we are planning to be apart.

Of course, Colombia will never really be in the rear view mirror. I married a Colombian and my kids will be half Colombian. We will visit as often as we can and we shall raise our kids to be aware of their dual, equally valuable heritage. But the days of living in Colombia, those are over. I seriously doubt I'll ever come back to live and if I did, it would be as a very old man in search of easy retirement. That is a really weighty statement and it's one that I'm not entirely sure if my wife has thought through. In fact, I'm fairly convinced that she is actively avoiding thinking of all the implications of our decision, as would most of us, I imagine.

As I mentioned above, I'm a bit concerned about what I'm going to find in the US. I married a Latina and in my country, race matters (unfortunately). On top of that, we're going to Atlanta, a modern city in the hub of the South, America's traditional racist core. It's very likely that I have little to be concerned with. Atlanta is, after all, a modern city with modern ideas, not to mention a huge Latino population (over 15,000 Colombians alone). But I still worry. I don't want my wife or my kids to be subjected to America's racial politics.

More than my petty worries, however, is the irrepresable conclusion that one chapter of my life is closing as another opens. This chapter was of falling in love, getting married, meeting and immersing myself in a new language and culture, and strengthening the bonds of the most important relationship in my life. In a sense, this was a chapter of growing up, of preparation of what is to come. The next chapter is one of adulthood. It involves me finally having taken a decision about my career and future. It will involve the arrival of children and everything that goes with that. It is, in a certain sense, a huge step, but a step that I am overeager to take. And ultimately, I believe it is a step we could not have taken in Colombia.

I'll sum up with a final thought. I'm big on symmetry. When everything balances out I'm happy. So how's this for balance:

When we left London, my wife went to Colombia while I stayed in the US for 4 months.
Now I'm going to the US while my wife will stay in Colombia for 4 months.

Our roles have officially juxtaposed.


Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Making sense of stupid

I have a feeling that sometimes politicians make utterly stupid remarks intentionally. I think they know that stupid remarks don't really come back to hurt them and that by saying such things, they distract attention from other, more important, and more complex issues because it's just so easy to attack stupid. A great example of this is the ongoing bruhaha about House Minority Leader John Boehner's (R-Ohio) claim that no stimulus funds have gone to help Ohio. You can read about the embruglio here.

The short version is that Boehner claimed over the weekend that no stimulus infrastructure dollars have been spent/contracted in Ohio and thus the stimulus is no good. This claim was kind of like dropping a pocketfull of change at a political fundraiser - it got everyone scrambling. In fact, the DNC has gone nuts over trying to capitilize on stupid. Never mind that one stupid claim from Boehner masks the fact that he's an utter buffoon, it's just a lot easier to show that he doesn't know what he's talking about on a relatively substanceless gaffe than it is to show that he doesn't know what he's talking about on health care, foreign policy, et al.

I think strategically, the Dems kind of fall into this trap of pointing out stupid when they should be rolling the GOP on the issues. At the end of the day, 90% of the people paying attention aren't going to remember or care that Boehner said something factually inaccurate and stupid. And the 10% that do care are hardened partisans who can't be wooed either way. I suspect the DNC capitalizes on these types of gaffes for short term funding more than anything but I think they're making a colossal error.

We face two significant domestic issues which need urgent attention and to which the GOP is playing an obstructionist role: the economy and health care. I wonder how much mileage the DNC could make by attacking the GOP on their foolish, obstructionist, and utterly awful arguments that we don't need stimulus, that the economy is fine, and that we have the best health care system in the world.

Now, you may say, but the DNC is attacking Boehner because he tried to argue that the stimulus failed. True, but only reactively. We obviously need more stimulus to avert a jobless recovery that leaves the US with over 10% unemployment for a half decade. In politics, as in life, it's not so much about what you did, it's about what you're going to do. The DNC should be proactively attacking the GOP and their ideas and proposing their own solutions. There is an entire war to be fought over Health Care and yet the DNC doesn't seem to realize that and are doing as little as possible, all the while the Dems in Congress talk about bipartisanship.

Here it is: F*ck bipartisanship. We won, remember. We got to 60 (sort of). We got the Presidency. The GOP lost both chambers of Congress and the White House because their ideas failed. Is it really time, when we have huge majorities and the public is behind us, to turn around and give creedence to failed ideas? I think not.

As a final note, it's so galling to see politicians not realize the simple reasons why Obama won and Kerry didn't. There's the microanalysis which suggests that Kerry got killed by attack ads, etc. And then there's the macroanalysis which should come as a slap in the face to all those overpriced political consultants: Obama won because he proposed change (whatever the hell that means) and Kerry lost because he spent most of his time criticizing Bush. I still don't know what Kerry stood for and I was a supporter.

This same dynamic, a dynamic we've seen repeated over and over again (Reagan, Clinton, Bush II, Obama) is, for some reason, only replicated at the presidential election. It shouldn't be so limited. Obama's big argument, his explanations for change, of the liberal philosophy, those are the types of things that need to be used to push the US into a much more effective and economical health care system. Yet instead, we're left with, "Haha, John Boehner said something stupid! He has no ideas! Nanananabooboo!" These ads, of course, raise the question: What are your ideas then, DNC?


Friday, July 03, 2009

Honduras update

Where journalism fails: The Honduran Supreme Court has issued an arrest warrant for ex-President Zelaya yet the AP reporters didn't seek to clarify what he is to be charged with? They didn't attempt to obtain a copy of the warrant?

Funny, the Spanish language press has no trouble sorting that out. According to this article he is being charged with "betraying the motherland" and "abuse of power". Still no copy of the actual warrant. Maybe tomorrow.

To summarize the latest: The President of the Organization of American States (OAS), Jose Miguel Insulza, has concluded his mission unsuccessfuly. Honduras is not going to allow Zelaya back as President and the arrest warrant remains in place. Insulza placed a Saturday morning deadline on ceding power back to Zelaya which current Honduran president Micheletti has stated will be ignored. The OAS, knowing that their polite request was to be ignored, has called an emergency session Saturday afternoon to discuss and perhaps vote on suspending Honduras from the organization. Zelaya has pledged to return to Honduras Sunday. Micheletti has pledged to have him arrested.

Things are getting toxic for the current Honduran regime. Honduras is a poor country and greatly depends on the economic support of foreign nations and international organizations like the World Bank. While most of that support has been placed "on hold" a vote at the OAS to suspend the Central American nation from the group would likely mean longer "suspensions" of foreign aid and greater economic dislocation. As we have seen in the past, economic upheaval in Latin America tends to accompany violence. It would be of no surprise if the coming weeks see violent clashes between government forces and the "peasant class".

On the other hand, there is now no scenario in which Zelaya returns to the office of the Presidency. Were the current leaders to allow that, Zelaya would surely have the military leaders fired and/or tried for the charge of treason which clearly would never be accepted.

Equally, it appears that Micheletti is unlikely to last as president. If for no other reason, he doesn't appear legitimate to the world and the only way to maintain support for the "coup" is to improve conditions in Honduras, something he won't be able to do if economic aid remains frozen. I fully expect that Micheletti is going to seek early elections as a remedy. Elections would be palatable for the international community and under Honduran law neither Micheletti nor Zelaya would be eligble to run. This step could go hand in hand with a promise from the next president (or the current one) to pardon Zelaya.

As a final note, I think it's important that the world's leaders understand that the worst possible step is to isolate Honduras. This is a poor nation with poor politics and few options. Isolating Honduras means greater misery for those who had nothing to do with these events. It would also likely frustrate our efforts to control the drug trade among other interests. The end game for this must be a diplomatic solution that allows the country to continue to survive. An extended embargo of foreign assistance only risks fragmentation and disaster.


Palin quits

Rambles incoherently, uses sports analogies no one understands.

Morning Revolution/Coup Update

Things in Iran continue to spiral out of control. Now the Iranian government seeks to prosecute British Embassy officials. Read more about that here.

Also, here's an unbelievably good story in the Nation about Iran's Green Wave and why the hardline regime is under fire at home (and lost the election). H/T Washington Note.

Unfortunately, with the media blackout, there's a lot more we don't know about what's going on in Iran than what we do. Increasingly, that is becoming the case in Honduras as well.

Here's a relatively balanced take on the situation in Honduras that raises more questions than it answers. Specifically, if Zelaya was so unpopular (supposed 25%) then why would the Congress, Supreme Court, and military fear his reelection scheme? It seems the most appropriate remedy would have been to wait out the remaining months on his term, not oust him with force.

Interesting solution being proposed by de facto President Micheletti: Early elections.

One thing not mentioned in this article or any other article I've seen: The Honduran constitution prohibits presidents from running again. This means that neither Zelaya nor Micheletti would be eligible in November. A clever move for Micheletti, no?

In the realm of ridiculously, stupidly, dangerously foolish comes Sen DeMint (R-SC) who defends the coup as a good idea and castigates Obama for standing with the likes of Chavez. Jesse Helms goes away, gets replaced by DeMint. H/T Washington Monthly.

While the legal wrangling over what is allowed and not allowed based on the Honduran constitution will continue to be discussed by non-experts and pundits, at least one top Honduran military lawyer doesn't equivocate: We broke the law.

This is the first article I've seen that speaks directly to the motivations of the military as well as explaining that the Attorney General ordered Zelaya's arrest. This is important because the Honduran constitution contains no articles of impeachment and is quite ambigious as to how the country would remove a rogue president.

And I would be remiss if I failed to mention that coups and things of that nature have traditionally been seen as investment opportunities for disaster capitalists. Interested parties should watch this stock as an example.

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