Saturday, December 27, 2008


Are the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza are in response to escalating rocket attack from Hamas? So say all the articles on the events in all of the major news outlets I could find in American (and Canadian!) media.

Suppose we take this idea seriously, and suppose the media are taking this idea seriously. Why then can I not find a single mention anywhere of the Israeli death toll from these 300 rockets? Even if not a single Israeli died in those attacks, that would not excuse the attacks. But if the airstrikes are indeed a response, then there is a question of the proportionality of that response, and before that question can be addressed, we need some numbers.

I see that Hamas responded to the raids with dozens of rockets, killing one Israeli and wounding others (at least six) -- but that's it. No other Israeli casualties are mentioned. Have there been no other Israeli casualties, before the Israeli airstrikes? I would imagine so. So could we have a tally, please? I would like to be able to compare the figures: at least 230 Palestinian dead and 780 wounded, according to Haaretz (higher figures than the 225 / 400+ figures in the news over here), versus how many Israeli dead and wounded? (This site does not quite provide the right numbers, but could guide estimates.)

But this is a very silly line of inquiry, because the idea that this is a response to the rocket attacks is silly. It is not just false, it's not even trying to be true. For a clear hint at this in a major English-speaking media outlet, it looks like we have to go to the BBC:
So why is Israel acting now and with such force? Does it really believe it can stop the rocket fire from Gaza when previous Israeli governments have tried and failed, using every military means? Israel's prime minister says that is his objective: to protect Israeli citizens living close to the Gaza border. To achieve this, his defence minister, Ehud Barak, said Israel would continue, widen and intensify its Gaza operation.

But Israel's politicians are pursuing a parallel campaign, too - an electoral one. Israel holds parliamentary elections in just over a month's time. The Israeli public has a generally low opinion about how their government has handled what they call "Hamastan" - Hamas-controlled Gaza. Until it started talking tough, the hawkish opposition leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, was leading in the polls. Now the gap has narrowed.
(Netanyahu has some great talent there: causing military misadventures without even being in power.)

This is a scandalous idea -- perhaps it's not a focus of the American coverage because it's just so unthinkable in this country that military actions could be politically motivated. Still, I did find it mentioned in a single sentence buried at the end of this Time article. As for the rest of the article, it provides such gems as
Israel is prepared to ratchet up the pressure still further in the hope that it will force a workable ceasefire.
But Israel will need to move carefully. Air strikes that kill large numbers of Palestinian civilians are only likely to fuel support for Hamas, and ramp up international pressure to end the operation quickly.
Meanwhile the White House is blaming Hamas (which is almost half right), and sternly admonishes Israel to avoid civilian casualties, which is a bit like condoning the making of omelets so long as one is careful about the eggs.

But now let's look ahead to America's (and the world's!) glorious hope-filled future. Give us a taste of that magical hope dust, Barack!
"In terms of negotiations with Hamas, it is very hard to negotiate with a group that is not representative of a nation state, does not recognize your right to exist, has consistently used terror as a weapon, and is deeply influenced by other countries."
Oh, this is all going to get fixed like on January 21, I can feel it.

Journey to Indiana

The car is on its last legs. The plan for Christmas was: take it on one last trip back to Indiana, sell it back (for parts) to Dawn's old mechanic, and take Amtrak back.

There were two problems with the first part of that plan. First problem: we haven't used the car in months, so it's stuck in a bunker of snow and ice (see previous post). We failed to dig it out, and ended up borrowing a shovel from one of the nearby construction sites. Conveniently, the shovel came with a construction worker attached, who was very efficient. Merry Christmas to construction workers! Second problem: the car's battery and / or alternator is shot. But we jump start it, and we're on our way. About eight blocks away, we stop at a traffic light, and the car dies. We give it another jump, park it, and decide driving is a bad idea.

This is a really disheartening moment: getting the car out felt like such a triumph.

Anyway, we go back home and look up Amtrak. Amtrak in Chicago had just suffered massive delays, due to the weather (see previous post), and so there were no spaces left on any trains going out.

So we end up arranging to take a commuter train which can get us about half-way to our destination, with Dawn's mom driving us the rest of the way. The train is SRO (with the normal commuter crowd, plus a big holiday crowd), which is probably illegal, but there's no room for the conductors to walk through, and they never bother getting us to buy tickets. So we get a free ride.

The trip back from Indiana on Amtrak was comparatively uneventful. Of course, the trip took longer than scheduled--what's an Amtrak trip without some sort of delay? Our delay was due to problems with a whistle. Yes, a whistle. Apparently, a train has to whistle at every road crossing, or else it has to stop at every road crossing. This makes it really important to have a working whistle, but ours got frozen shut by the freezing rain which was pouring down at the time. A maintenance crew tried to get it working again, but they failed, and we ended up hooking up to the back end of another Amtrak train (with a working whistle) which had come along while we were sitting there. This took nearly two hours, I think. But, all things considered, it wasn't a big deal at all, since the freezing rain was doing much worse things to the roads. At one point, as we were coming into Gary, we saw a cluster of overpasses and whatnot decorated by stopped cars, some vehicles going backwards, a several-car pile-up, and a busted guardrail (no sign of what had happened to the car which had done the guardrail busting). We heard later from Dawn's mom that a bunch of the main roads along our usual Indiana route had been shut down; if we'd been driving, we would have been forced down a bunch of side roads (which probably would have been in even worse shape). Hurray for rail travel (and see previous post).

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas travel is stupid

Why does such a travel-heavy holiday have to occur in the depths of winter? This is the solstice. Winter doesn't get any deeper. It's the season for cold snaps, snow storms, freezing rain -- and everyone's got to get somewhere else right now. Whose bright idea was this?

The Museum of Science and Industry is a crock

So, we went to the Museum of Science and Industry with some out-of-towners. This place bills itself as the largest science museum in the western hemisphere. So, it has quantity, if not quality.

On the occasion of Christmas, there is this syrupy display, which also manages to be culturally insensitive -- possibly even to Americans. There are a whole bunch of Christmas trees decorated in the mode of different countries -- "beautifully decorated by members of Chicago’s ethnic communities", they say. Here's what that means: take the most obvious and stereotyped symbols of a place, and plaster them over an evergreen. Thus the Canadian tree is covered in maple leafs and hockey paraphernalia, and the American tree is covered in American flags (decorated by members of Chicago's American community). So, those are just silly, but it's starting to get a little tasteless when you get the Kenyan tree with a giraffe sticking out of it.

The museum has a whole exhibit devoted to petroleum and oil. Now you might think that this would be very topical right about now. Except it doesn't say a thing about climate change, or conflicts over oil, or the possibility that we could just plain run out. Why not? Well, a clue can be found in another exhibit, on nuclear energy. This exhibit features a map identifying different countries, and informing you how much of their energy comes from nuclear sources. Among the countries you get to learn about on this poster in the Museum of Science and Industry are the Soviet Union, the Federal Republic of Germany, and the German Democratic Republic.

The damn thing hasn't been updated in two decades. That map was older than a solid majority of the people in the room.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Katrina's hidden race war

"My uncle was very excited that it was a free-for-all--white against black--that he could participate in," says the woman. "For him, the opportunity to hunt black people was a joy."

Reminder to self: watch Welcome to New Orleans.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The FU25 network


This is something I've complained about before. I'm not going to link there myself now, but the first hit on google for "Matthew 25" is the website of a pro-Obama PAC: the "Matthew 25 Network". The front page features a big smiley picture of Obama and Biden, next to a big friendly message: "Congratulations President-Elect Obama!".

Above all of that is an actual quote from Matthew 25:40: "I tell you the truth, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."

From which we can only assume that Obama is "one of the least of these", and that by "did it" Jesus meant "voted into the office of the President of the United States"; as such, America basically just elected Jesus president.

Eviscerating the gospel with no sense of irony: it's not just for the Christian right any more. I'm guessing crap like this gives Jesus a headache, no matter who's doing it.

Syrian lingerie

This is one of the awesomest articles I've read in a while.
Forthright displays of the some world's kinkiest "leisure wear" have long been a feature of Syrian souks.... It stems from the Syrian tradition for brides-to-be to be given a trousseau of exotic underwear - sometimes dozens of items - usually by girlfriends, aunties and cousins, to add spice to their wedding nights, honeymoons and beyond.
The article also says that foreplay is commanded in Islam (thou shalt get kinky), which got me googling my way to this essay. There's a reference there to Al-Ghazali, a medieval Islamic philosopher and theologian. I recognized the name because I read his argument against causation in a medieval philosophy class (he scooped Malebranche and Hume by several centuries). But henceforth I will also know him for his declaration that "Sex should begin with gentle words and kissing".

Saturday, December 13, 2008

One degree of separation from shattered dreams

A student I TA'ed this fall got a mention as an anecdote in the national news. His mother is in the real estate business, and, well, business is not so good. Plus the family got hit by medical bills (mutter health care mutter). So now he might not be coming back after the new year, unless he can independently scrounge together enough funds to pay the $50,000 a year it takes to live and study at the college here. He's got loans and some free money covering a good chunk of that, but not nearly enough. Where's he going to find a summer job that can cover the remaining 30K?

And $50,000? Really? I knew this place was expensive, but that is absurd. Expensive American colleges are such a scam... and so expensive (44K just for tuition at Bates, WTF?). I think the college here can (can) be a good place, but I don't see how it warrants a 50K / year price tag.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Bad grad week =

Exam + dissertating + grading + tutoring

Today I found myself attempting to explain to some undergrad why it might be a good idea to follow up an argument in a paper by considering how someone else might object, and then responding to that objection. The student thought this was a crazy thing to do. I failed to change the student's mind. Not my best moment ever. Not a particularly good testament to whoever was supposed to have spent the past few months teaching this student how to write.