Saturday, August 31, 2013

Syria Update

From Le Monde:

Nearly two in three French (64%) are opposed to military intervention in Syria,
an international coalition including France, according to a BVA poll for i-TéléQED and Le Parisien Today

The popular majority in France, as in the UK and U.S., opposes a military strike against Syria.  At the same time, the political establishment of the three countries permits military actions by executive decision without any immediate approval, be it congressional, parliamentary or popular.  Perhaps by miscalculation, David Cameron signaled that he would abide by Parliament's will in regard to Syria and he saw his proposal to support the U.S. initiative defeated.  France's Hollande has not made the same mistake and has dispatched a frigate and a submarine to support the U.S. forces now standing off the coast of Syria.

The Brit defection from the war plan probably will not stop France and the U.S. from bombing Syria.  However, it likely has delayed execution of the plan.  Obama has pushed Kerry out in front to make the case for intervention, but the longer the situation drags on without decisive action, the more skeptical people become about explanations from an Administration with very little credibility left.

Critical assessments of the likely long-term fallout from a strike against Syria are beginning to appear in the Press.  A roundup of skeptical opinion is provided in today's NY Times by Anne Barnard and Alissa J. Rubin from Beirut.  It is notable that none of the considerations regarding the likely effects of  a strike on the larger region are being dealt with in any serious way by any of the Administration's spokespeople.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


It seems that if there were one thing that history might have taught us over the past century, it should be that the proximate reasons offered for going to war never explain anything of consequence.  Sometimes, the identified enemy helps along the decision process as was the case of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  More recently, our leaders have offered up only the flimsiest of excuses with no basis in fact such as the Gulf of Tonkin incident that justified Johnson's expansion of the war against the Vietnamese.  Bush's WMD scare tactics are widely seen now as something of a joke.

And yet, we find ourselves once again preparing to engage in acts of war in circumstances that are justified by explanations which seem to lack a substantial connection to provable facts.

And, if it is proven that Assad is the responsible actor for the gas attack on the Damascus suburb, is proceeding to drop bombs on the country a rational response?  A hundred thousand people have been torn to pieces in the country by bombs, artillery and machine guns.  More have now died as a result of the apparent use of nerve gas.  It is an atrocity. But, how certain is the identity of the perpetrators, and how is U.S. bombing going to shift the conflict toward a resolution favorable to Syrian and long-term U.S. interests?

It may be true, as a NY Times headline blares, that "Momentum Builds for a Military Strike in Syria."  However, it is worth asking where that momentum is originating -- it is apparently not coming from the American people, only 9 percent of which believe that such a course is a good idea, according to a recent Reuters poll.  It also isn't coming from Congress; there is some doubt that Obama will even take the time to ask for opinions from that quarter.  Not that it would matter, of course, as the House and Senate have given up their powers to declare and support hostilities.

If we are really looking to save lives, a more productive strategy might be to pay attention to the million-and-a-half (two million and rising) Syrian refugees that are currently only getting minimal help in surviving.  Their presence in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq is destabilizing the whole region, and it seems quite possible that bombing Syria is mostly going to put more pressure on those areas.

It could be a few days yet before the Administration can justify commencing with hostilities.  In the meantime, would it be too much to ask what the support and delivery of all those cruise missiles is going to cost in actual dollars, and what else might be accomplished by other means on the ground for the same amount of money and effort?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Congratulations to Liz and Linda

Associated Press in Albuquerque, Tuesday 27 August 2013 12.16 EDT
Nice to see New Mexico out in front, thanks to people like this couple, as well as State District Judge Alan Malott.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

apples and oranges

Paul Krugman looks briefly at some of the implications of the pending Ballmer resignation in a recent column, "On the Symmetry Between Microsoft and Apple".  As he admits up front: "I am not a tech industry maven...".

What Kruman says in the article isn't really wrong, but I think he does ignore the elephant in the room when he does not bring Apple's ad skills to the discussion. This particular asymmetry between Cupertino and Redmond really explains a lot more than the design and performance of their machinery

Take a look, if any are still airing, at the tv ads for Microsoft's tablet.  They feature a bunch of business-attired twenty-somethings juggling Surface tablets around a conference table while doing a loud, hyperkinetic breakdance routine.  It is the silliest damn ad campaign I've ever seen.  I knew at a glance that the Surface was going nowhere.

By comparison, Apple's ads for its mobile devices feature the same age set, but dressed casually.  They are shown snapping pictures of their lives, listening to popular music and doing social networking  -- in short, the kind of things that people actually want to do with mobile devices.

No contest, really.

I think a more interesting case for symmetry can be made between Microsoft and Kodak.  Both enjoyed virtual monopolies based on an appeal to a previously untapped mass market, along with products which could fit into and support a great range of offerings from many other corporate producers.  Kodak's model worked well for about a century, but ultimately failed to adapt to an evolving market.  I'm doubtful that either Microsoft or Apple will be corporate centenarians for many of the same reasons that led to Kodak's demise.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Chile, far and near

Having struggled through a few Cortázar stories recently, I decided to give myself a little break with some contemporary Chilean novelists, Roberto Ampuero, Sebastián Edwards and Alberto Fuguet.

¿Quién mató a Cristián Kustermann? by Roberto Ampuero was the first in a series of detective stories featuring his character, Cayetano Brulé.  That effort was a great success, translated to many languages, as were his subsequent books.  The style is formulaic 40s/50s noir, with a plot revolving around an over-the-hill detective based in Chile and with roots in the U.S. and Cuba.  I got the light entertainment I was looking for, so I can't really complain.  I would not expect much more from the author, except that he has led an interesting life that has given him a rich source of material.

Ampuero joined the Communist Party as a teenager and soon thereafter had to flee the country after the Pinochet regime came to power in 1973.  He went first to East Germany for a time, and then on to Cuba where he completed his undergraduate work.  More years in Germany led to disillusionment with the institutionalized Left. He pursued graduate studies at the University of Iowa beginning in 2000 and subsequently taught there until recently when he accepted the post of Ambassador to Mexico.  In May, he was appointed by Chile's current right-wing president to be the Minister of Culture.  His tenure in the ministerial position is likely to be short as the left-winger, Michelle Bachelet, seems a shoe-in for the November presidential election.

Un Día Perfecto is the second novel from Sebastián Edwards, and like his first, El Misterio De Las Tanias, was a best-seller in Chile.  The novels have not yet appeared in English translation, but I will be surprised if they do not soon show up in versions in English and other languages as well.  Much of the first half of Un Día Perfecto is devoted to a blow-by-blow account of a 1962 soccer match in Arica, Chile, in which Chile unexpectedly bested the Soviet Union.  Having thoroughly disliked popular spectator sports all my life, it came as quite a surprise to me that I could enjoy such a story.  Of course, the match is really just the scaffolding for the development of the characters, but I'm still impressed with Edwards' skill at making the details of the sports event seem compelling.

The story of Un Día Perfecto is primarily about two brothers and the wife of one who sort out their complicated relationships in the course of the day of the World Cup quarter-final match.  Edwards tells their story in short, punchy chapters which easily sustain interest and curiosity about how the triangular encounter will end.  The sub-plot in the second half about a journalist, a soccer referee and a Soviet player is told with economy too, but not so convincingly, I think.  The referee and the Soviet athlete are characters based on real people who were involved in the 1962 match; I suppose they are introduced to give some historical dimension to the story, but their motivations and actions seem lacking in substance compared to the main characters.

Edwards is a close friend of Roberto Ampuero, but unlike him, Edwards remained in Chile after the Pinochet take-over, and he completed his studies at the Catholic University in Santiago in 1975.  Edwards got his M.A. and Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Chicago and went on to a distinguished academic career, writing many books about economics.  He was also Chief Economist for Latin America and the Caribbean  at the World Bank from 1993 to 1996.  Interestingly, none of that personal history enters into the stories he tells in his novels.  Both of those literary efforts are anchored in the Cold War period, with flash-backs to the WWII era.

Las películas de mi vida by Alberto Fuguet is built around a list of popular U.S. films, mostly from the 1960s and '70s.  The narrator, Beltrán, recalls the times, the events and the people he associates with seeing the films.  It seems like a somewhat slender gimmick for structuring a novel, but it works very well to produce a story that seems more like a real memoir than a made-up fiction.  Much of the book's chronology clearly does have some direct relation to the life of Fuguet who spent his childhood in Los Angeles before being taken back to Chile by his parents when he was about thirteen and Pinochet was a couple years in power.  Just how much his real friends and relatives resembled the book's characters is hard to say, but they all seem very real.  All are pulled in different directions by the complicated economics and politics of the times; the main protagonist spends half a lifetime sorting out both his cultural origins and his relationships to his family.

Fuguet's life followed a trajectory which was the opposite of the two previously discussed authors.  It was not his choice to return to Chile and he held on to his attachment to U.S. popular culture, but at the same time he pursued a full life in his own country, learning the language, growing up and getting and education as a journalist at a time when Chile was under the thumb of a dictator.  Fuguet does not directly deal with the political climate in Chile of that time, but his characters do reflect a rather dismal environment similar to that which was described by the post-war Spanish writers like Laforet and Martín Gaite (though with a much lighter touch).  Fuguet's style has a marked cinematic quality, and not surprisingly his latest efforts have turned to film making.  In fact he has said: «Nunca quise ser escritor, siempre quise ser cineasta. Y creo que ahora lo logré».(I never wanted to be a writer; I always wanted to be a film-maker.  And I believe I have now accomplished that.)  I read the 2003 Alfaguara edition.  There is also a 2005 English version from Harper Collins.