Category Archives: History

Visions of Cody and On the Road

by Jack Kerouac

The mad road, lonely, leading around the bend into the openings of space towards the horizon Wasatch snows promised us in the vision of the West, spine heights at the world’s end, coast of blue Pacific starry night—nobone halfbanana moons sloping in the tangled night sky, the torments of great formations in mist, the huddled invisible insect in the car racing onwards, illuminate.—The raw cut, the drag, the butte, the star, the draw, the sunflower in the grass—orangebutted west lands of Arcadia, forlorn sands of the isolate earth, dewy exposures to infinity in black space, home of the rattlesnake and the gopher the level of the world, low and flat: the charging restless mute unvoiced road keening in a seizure of tarpaulin power into the route. [1]


My moments in Denver were coming to an end, I could feel it when I walked her home, on the way back I stretched out on the grass of an old church with a bunch of hobos, and their talk made me want to get back on that road. Every now and then one would get up and hit a passer-by for a dime. They talked of harvests moving north. It was warm and soft. I wanted to go and get Rita again and tell her a lot more things, and really make love to her this time, and calm her fears about men. Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk — real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious. I heard the Denver and Rio Grande locomotive howling off to the mountains. I wanted to pursue my star further. [2]

[1] Voice of Cody, page 319
[2] On the Road, part 1:chapter 10

High flight

Lately, I have noticed that I am able to compose poetry more fluidly when I am riding a motorcycle or sailing. Unfortunately neither of these activities are conducive to writing. But the importance of capturing these fleeting thoughts reminds me of the story of Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., member of the RCAF No 412 squadron. The story goes he composed a poem while flying a Spitfire over Britain and fortunately wrote it down and then mailed it to his parents. Sadly, he was killed December 11th 1941 after a mid-air collision when his parachute failed to open:

penguin in flight

    Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
    Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
    Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
    You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
    High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
    I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
    My eager craft through footless halls of air.
    Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
    I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
    Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
    And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
    The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
    Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

History of electrified rail in America

I’ve written before about the privatization and dismantling of Los Angeles electrified railways. The city might someday serve as a case-study of methods used by petroleum companies to ruin the competition. But even more shocking is the story (pun not intended) suggested by this book review that claims America’s capability to sustain electrified railways nationwide took a tumble during the 1960s:

For most of the first half of the 20th century the United States led the way in railroad electrification. Before the outbreak of World War II, the country had some 2,400 route-miles and more than 6,300 track-miles operating under electric power, far more than any other nation and more than 20 percent of the world’s total. In almost every instance, electrification was a huge success. Running times were reduced. Tonnage capacities were increased. Fuel and maintenance costs were lowered, and the service lives of electric locomotives promised to be twice as long as those of steam locomotives. Yet despite its many triumphs, electrification of U.S. railroads failed to achieve the wide application that once was so confidently predicted. By the 1970s, it was the Soviet Union, with almost 22,000 electrified route-miles, that led the way, and the U.S. had declined to 17th place.

grenade launcher beside a baby’s bassinet

Kevin Sites reports from Lebanon that the Hizbullah are perhaps telling people not to leave and are stockpiling weapons in their homes:

…a Hezbollah stronghold north of the city of Tyre. Here, I am told, few families have fled. Instead, they are waiting for the call of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah to come south to fight the Israelis.


Then, from the corner of the closet, next to some shirts on hangers, he pulls out an American-made M-16 assault rifle and places it on the mattress in the room next to the ammo belt. He goes back to the closet and from the same corner reaches for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and two canvas shoulder bags. He places these on the bed as well.

I ask if nearly every house in the neighborhood has a stash of small arms like this.

“Some have more,” he says, pulling an AK-47 from one of the canvas bags and locking on a 30 round banana clip, named for its banana-like curve. “But the larger weaponry is kept somewhere else.”

Not in the houses, he says later, but in secret places.


“Where does the M-16 come from?” I ask.

He says that Hezbollah buys all the weapons, sometimes even from the Lebanese Army.

He then pulls a grenade from the closet, screws on a cylinder of propellant behind it and then loads it into the grenade launcher. He shows me what has to be done before the trigger can be pulled to shoot it.

“Have you ever fired one of those?” I ask.

He smiles as if it were an obvious question. Yes, of course, he replies.

He then puts all the weapons back on the bed for a moment so I can photograph them. Although it’s not uncommon for households in the Middle East to have at least an AK-47 around the house, it’s incongruous to see the three rifles and grenade launcher beside a baby’s bassinet.

This basically means any opposition to the Hizbullah has either to go room-by-room through every village at great risk of life, or use superior firepower and run the risk of harming babies in the bassinets. This is a classic dilemma for military leaders. I wrote about General Sherman’s justification of his indescriminate destruction of Georgia here. The Economist does an excellent job discussing the ethics of warfare and proportionality here:

Most Western thinking about military ethics has its roots in Augustine, the sainted Christian writer from North Africa whose elaborate theory of “just warfare� has provided a framework for debate over the 16 centuries since his death. And for philosophers in the Augustinian tradition, proportionality is one of the things you should consider when contemplating war. Others are the probability of success and whether warfare is a last resort: have all the other options been tried? In this context, the proportionality question is judged by the destruction which the war will cause, weighed against the good it may do.

Put like that, proportionality is a concept that most Israelis can live with. They would argue that the good which might be achieved by smashing Hizbullah (and the threat it poses not only to Israel but also to Lebanon and other states) does outweigh the travails of Lebanon’s civilians.

It also might be important to note that in 2000 when Israel unilaterally withdrew from southern Lebanon (for two reasons: to comply with a UN Security Council resolution, but also to adjust to domestic weariness with the occupation) the Hizbullah then rushed in to displace any Lebanese who opposed their rule. Christians, Druze and Shiites, especially the remaining members of the South Lebanon Army (SLA), and their families fled their homes in fear of Hezbollah retribution. Israel thus allowed persecuted Lebanese families into Israel and provided housing, residency permits that included the right to work, health insurance, schooling for their children and other social benefits (income). Given that history, do you think Kevin Sites will encounter any opposition to Hizbullah’s use of village bedrooms and bassinets to stash their weapons and stage attacks? Lebanese civilians who resisted Hizbullah may have been chased away, detained in remote prisons or killed many years ago.

In fact it seems that the remaining opposition to Hizbullah even in Beirut was in process of being declawed as part of a mission to avoid complying with UN Security Council Resolution 1559 — ensure the right for a militant fundamentalist group to maintain control over the destiny of a country trying to achieve a more egalitarian base.

Those who argued that a heavily armed Hizbullah, embedded in civilian areas, would help prevent Israeli agression should now recognize that it was in fact the very cause of the latest conflict. Perhaps they knew and secretly hoped for this outcome. According to the Middle East Media Research Institute:

Lebanese journalist Khairallah Khairallah harshly criticized Hizbullah policy, saying it was damaging to Lebanon. One cannot ignore the fact that since [southern Lebanon] was liberated [from Israel], Hizbullah has maintained a policy… aimed at perpetuating Lebanon as an arena for regional struggle. [It does this] by insisting on keeping its weapons, under the pretext of liberating the Shab’a Farms – thereby bringing Lebanon into conflict with the international community.

I actually don’t think the Shab’a Farms were sufficient war-making fodder for the Hizbullah, since the UN made several very clear and unanimous statements about International acceptance of the borders, so they just held it up as a red-herring. More significant was that Lebanese independence and detente with Israel would deflate their influence and force them to integrate into society. To avoid this they used the prisoners in Israel as a convenient pre-text for launching attacks into Israel to re-establish themselves as a prominent force in a regional conflict:

Defying growing international and domestic pressure to strip Hizbullah of its arms the militant Islamist Shia group pledged to “use all available means” to win the release of three Lebanese nationals still held by Israel.

That apparently means using civilians as camouflage and declaring all Israelis as targets. Not to excuse the Israeli strikes on civilian centers, or tragic loss of lives, but Kevin Sites shows that Lebanon is dangerously infiltrated by Iranian/Syrian-backed militants who intend to manipulate the country into a staging-point for their objective — to attack Israel and continue to destabilize the region. This reminds me of how South Africa used to destabilize its neighbors with war in order to prevent them from forming any sort of alliance against Apartheid. Iran and Syria fear a Lebanon that could make peace with itself, let alone Israel.

The Oxford Project

I used to work for Peter Feldstein in the mid 1990s to help him manage a computer lab for the arts. His work is top-notch and he’s the nicest guy you could ever work for, so it’s great to see him get some well-deserved media attention [1]. His Oxford Project, listed in the Yahoo! most popular news stories today [2], humanizes a part of the world that some people will never be exposed to; it is a brilliant ethnographic tool.

In the current phase of his project, Feldstein has added a new twist, thanks to the help of friend Stephen Bloom, an author and journalism professor at the University of Iowa. Based on interviews, Bloom has crafted short narratives that lend a confessional, poetic and unvarnished dimension to the lives in Feldstein’s then-and-now portraits.

Way to go Peter! I really like reviewing the photos and I wonder if facial recognition technology would accurately predict the changes.

[1] Examples of recent stories:

I expect to see it on the Colbert Report or Daily Show soon.

[2] The BBC has “related” links and other helpful segues on their news pages, but for some reason Yahoo! does not even suggest than there might be an official project website. BoingBoing had to be told by a reader that they should link to the project site, but at least they did so. All very strange, considering the basic concept of hyperlinking versus traditional text…

Voting Machine Fraud Testimony

Interesting video (12 minutes) of sworn testimony by a programmer. He claims he was hired by Tom Feeney, the Republican Speaker of the House in Florida in 2000, to hack electronic voting systems. Many suspected Feeney helped orchestrate a Bush victory through nefarious methods, based on some of the language and actions at the time. For example, Florida State Senate President John McKay worked closely with Feeney to bypass the Florida Supreme Court decision and call for a special session of the Florida state legislature to pick the state’s electors:

a reasonable person could conclude that the recent [Florida] Supreme Court actions [calling for a recount] may cause Congress not to accept our electors that have already been sent to Washington.

Our sole responsibility will be to put forth a slate of electors that is untainted and ensures that Florida’s 25 electoral votes count in this election, regardless for whom they voted.

No one has ever established on what basis McKay claimed that the Florida electors would not be accepted by Congress if there was a recount. Such a claim seems absurd. Now we see that he may have had a very real reason to oppose a recount; Feeney could be a man who intentionally tainted the vote by corrupting electronic voting systems and feared a recount would expose him.

Can you spare some change?

When change eventually can’t be avoided, it’s usually those in charge who are in the best position to afford the leap of faith and keep a company out of trouble. But those in charge are rarely advocates for employees keeping a healthy attitude about change, perhaps as it is far more complicated to manage and control than employees who will accept status quo.

Here’s a sad story about what happened to a family who gave their life to the steel mills at a time when the mills were in decline. Was it their fault that they became so conservative that they could not see change coming and then were unable adjust when no choice was left? Tough question but from a security perspective it seems to me that leadership should be as much about helping avoid disasters tomorrow as making a dime today, otherwise people end up in tragedy caused by profiteering.

Horn of Africa heating up

Ethiopia is reportedly sending members of its army into neighboring Somalia to help support the Somali government’s effort to stabilize the region. The interim government was forced out of the capital Mogadishu when militant opposition forces took control of the city. Ethiopia’s support of the secular Somali government has led the Muslim clerics that run the Union of the Islamic Courts (UIC) to declare a holy war against Ethiopia and claim that Ethiopia is actually invading (and not just sending a few advisors).

The situation is not entirely surprising, since the Islamic militia has managed to work their way into a decades-long conflict and unify past anti-Ethiopian rebel causes while establishing a new pro-Islamic agenda. A long and troubled conflict over the Ogaden region has been a problem for both countries since Somalia became a country in 1960 (and the British gave the Ogaden to the Ethiopians, resulting in war with Ethiopia in 1964). Islamic forces seem to be effective at taking disenfranchised forces and turning them into a co-ordinated international effort to establish fundamentalist states.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that Eritrea is now said to be supplying the UIC with weapons and other support. It’s not clear if this is because of Eritrea’s own decades-long conflict with Ethiopia and support of the Ogaden rebellion (as it helped them gain their own independence) or because they are sympathetic to the formation of a militant Islamic state in Somalia.

Either way, another regional flashpoint is looking more dangerous than ever. Should Iran and Saudi Arabia become more and more relevant to a fight for control of disputed land around the world it is hard to see how the Bush doctrine can help countries that do not want to live under Islamic (or any other form of) fundamentalism. So far America has accused the UIC of being in bed with Al Qaeda and the UIC has accused Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf of being a puppet government of Ethiopia. The Arab League and African Union are the best hope to stabilize and deflate this dispute, and find out whether this is another case of extremist Islamic rebels picking a fight, as respect for America in international affairs continues to fade.

Who the Hezbollah want

I was curious why there is so little news specific to the Hezbollah demands for the release of prisoners. Who are these men and why were they put in prison?

After a few days of reading articles and vague but related stories, I found a fascinating first-person account in the Washington Post of the man that the Hezbollah want released. It seems the Hezbollah militants crossed into Israel unprovoked and kidnapped Israeli soldiers to force the release of Samir Kuntar:

Kuntar’s name is all but unknown to the world. But I know it well. Because almost a quarter of a century ago, Kuntar murdered my family.

It was a murder of unimaginable cruelty, crueler even than the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, the American tourist who was shot on the Achille Lauro and dumped overboard in his wheelchair. Kuntar’s mission against my family, which never made world headlines, was also masterminded by Abu Abbas.


Around midnight, we were asleep in our apartment when four terrorists, sent by Abu Abbas from Lebanon, landed in a rubber boat on the beach two blocks away. Gunfire and exploding grenades awakened us as the terrorists burst into our building. They had already killed a police officer. As they charged up to the floor above ours, I opened the door to our apartment. In the moment before the hall light went off, they turned and saw me.


As police began to arrive, the terrorists took Danny and Einat down to the beach. There, according to eyewitnesses, one of them shot Danny in front of Einat so that his death would be the last sight she would ever see. Then he smashed my little girl’s skull in against a rock with his rifle butt. That terrorist was Samir Kuntar.

A chilling story that makes you wonder if buildings in these areas will go back to keeps and castles with watchtowers, like those built in Biblical times.

Kamir was 16 years old at the time and was sent to prison. Today, after twenty-seven years, he is the longest-held Lebanese prisoner. The Washington Post explains why:

Even after my family was murdered, I never dreamed of taking revenge on any Arab. But I am determined that Samir Kuntar should never be released from prison. In 1984, I had to fight my own government not to release him as part of an exchange for several Israeli soldiers who were POWs in Lebanon. I understood, of course, that the families of those POWs would gladly have agreed to the release of an Arab terrorist to get their sons back. But I told Yitzhak Rabin, then defense minister, that the blood of my family was as red as that of the POWs. Israel had always taken a position of refusing to negotiate with terrorists. If they were going to make an exception, let it be for a terrorist who was not as cruel as Kuntar. “Your job is not to be emotional,” I told Rabin, “but to act rationally.” And he did.

So Kuntar remains in prison.

Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Ahmad Jubarah was imprisoned for killing 13 people in Jerusalem in 1975 and was the longest-held Palestinian until he was released in 2003. But his release was not only noteworthy because of the length of detention and nature of his conviction, but because of what he said to the press. According to the Jerusalem Post:

In a bizarre twist, he made a public call for a leader of the Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon to free Israeli prisoners. “I call on Sheik Nasrallah to release all Israeli prisoners, because I know what it feels like to be in prison,'” he said.

Back to Samir Kuntar, he has his own website that paints a very different picture of events that led to his arrest:

Israeli troops arrested Kuntar, a resident of the village of Abey, Aley, on April 22, 1979 for his involvement in an attack on an Israeli patrol at Nahariya that cost the lives of six soldiers from the Hebrew State.

That does not sound like the women and children story above. Does this significantly different perspective of the same night reflect a policy that all Israeli civilians, even children, are considered by the Hizbullah to be enemy combatants?

I was a bit surprised also to find on the Samir Kuntar website that he reports that he is in excellent health, and that he has married an Arab-Israeli woman and “registered in one of the colleges in Tel Aviv”. Strange stuff for a site that also demands his release. Jubarah made it seem like prison is terrible and no-one should suffer, but Kumar is telling a story that he is getting along quite well. His site says he achieved his college degree while in prison studying “The Contradiction of Security and Democracy in Israeli” and he hopes to complete a graduate degree next. In that context, perhaps even more interesting is a picture of him smiling and embracing fellow prisoner Marwan Barghouthi (convicted by Israel for leading Fatah’s Tanzim and al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade — suicide bombers).

Barghouti has said he considers any Israeli in the West Bank and Gaza a legitimate target for attack. In August 2001, Barghouti said Palestinians must use violence. He has also been critical of the Palestinian effort to make peace with Israel.

Even more than Barghouti, though, Kuntar’s long-term detention seems to have made him a powerful icon in anti-Israel rhetoric. Here’s an excerpt from a rally last February that was posted in the news section of the Kuntar website:

“We are working on making this year the year to free our brothers in Israeli detention. Samir Kantar and his friends, which will in turn pave way to free our Syrian and Jordanian brothers detained in Israeli prisons,” Nasrallah said.

Other prisoners are sometimes mentioned by Nasrallah, like a man named Nissim who emigrated from Lebanon to Israel but was arrested and imprisoned for providing information about potential targets and IDF troop movements and plans to Hezbollah. However, I believe it is really Kuntar’s name that puts context to the story of why Hezbollah recently crossed into Israel to take soldiers hostage again, like they did in October of 2000 after Israel had withdrawn its troops from southern Lebanon. Although in that case, Israel did try to negotiate trading more than 400 Arabs and Palestinians in 2004 for three bodies of soldiers killed by Hezbollah and a captured Israeli civilian. The terms were negotiated under intense threats from Hizbullah:

Hizbullah’s leaders have warned that if the negotiations collapse, it will seek to kidnap more Israeli soldiers.

“If this deal doesn’t go through, definitely Hezbollah will try to capture more Israeli soldiers, and they might succeed,” says a source close to Hizbullah’s leadership. “Israel should think about the consequences of not pushing ahead with the swap. They can’t protect their soldiers 24 hours a day.”

The deadlock centers on Samir [Ku]ntar

If nothing else, it seems clear that the Hezbollah have not reduced their threats and attacks since the Israelis unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon. Kuntar might be the pretext, but his release is unlikely to be the only motive. In fact, it’s hard to know what motivated Nasrallah since he played into the Israeli’s hand and gave them the justification they have wanted to eliminate Hezbollah’s strategic capabilities. Perhaps it had more to do with Iran’s need to divert attention from their nuclear program (past the deadline and during the G8) than anything to directly benefit Lebanon or even the Palestinians.

This log entry has become too long, I fear, so I’ll end it with a human rights website, which has first-person testimony by a Palestinian man about the recent Israeli incursion into Gaza to compare and contrast with the story I started with.

More reality-bashing by Bush

I recently wrote about how the Bush administration is losing the war on Terrorable diseases (to borrow a John Stewart line) undermining scientific progress in order to replace it with pure faith (in lobbyists).

I just noticed two more topics where the Bush administration is trying to undermine science and expert advice in the same manner; by saying things are too generic or ineffective to be believed and thus should be replaced with belief in an autocratic/theocratic decision (for sale to the highest bidder). The more policy areas that fall under this fog (science=uncertain, faith=certain), the further backwards in time America will go. Here‘s the first topic:

They “are increasingly trying to portray contraceptives as ineffective and trying to redefine some of the most popular and effective methods as abortion — such as birth control pills and emergency contraception,” said Cynthia Dailard, senior public policy analyst for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which advocates family planning.

If these Christianists were genuinely interested in curbing abortions, they’d support the use of contraceptives. But their goal is to turn back the clock, to bring back the days when women had no control over reproduction. Like right-wing Muslims, they rage against modernity itself.

And here is the second topic:

The most embarrassing moment came when Bush loyalists argued that the United States could not follow the Geneva Conventions because Common Article Three, which has governed the treatment of wartime prisoners for more than half a century, was too vague. Which part of “civilized peoples,� “judicial guarantees� or “humiliating and degrading treatment� do they find confusing?


Jane Mayer provided a close look at this effort to undermine the constitutional separation of powers in a chilling article in the July 3 issue of The New Yorker. She showed how it grew out of Vice President Dick Cheney’s long and deeply held conviction that the real lesson of Watergate and the later Iran-contra debacle was that the president needed more power and that Congress and the courts should get out of the way.

To a disturbing degree, the horror of 9/11 became an excuse to take up this cause behind the shield of Americans’ deep insecurity. The results have been devastating. Americans’ civil liberties have been trampled. The nation’s image as a champion of human rights has been gravely harmed. Prisoners have been abused, tortured and even killed at the prisons we know about, while other prisons operate in secret. American agents “disappear� people, some entirely innocent, and send them off to torture chambers in distant lands. Hundreds of innocent men have been jailed at Guantánamo Bay without charges or rudimentary rights. And Congress has shirked its duty to correct this out of fear of being painted as pro-terrorist at election time.

Perhaps Monty Python said it best:

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise…surprise and fear…fear and surprise…. our two weapons are fear and surprise…and ruthless efficiency…. Our three weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency…and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope…. Our four…no… amongst our weapons…. amongst our weaponry…are such elements as fear, surprise…. I’ll come in again. […] Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, and nice red uniforms – oh damn!