Sunday, May 31, 2009

Ahmed Rashid on Pakistan in NYRB

Ahmad Rashid on Pakistan and President Zardari.

To get to President Asif Ali Zardari's presidential palace in the heart of Islamabad for dinner is like running an obstacle course. Pakistan's once sleepy capital, full of restaurant-going bureaucrats and diplomats, is now littered with concrete barriers, blast walls, checkpoints, armed police, and soldiers; as a result of recent suicide bombings the city now resembles Baghdad or Kabul. At the first checkpoint, two miles from the palace, they have my name and my car's license number. There are seven more checkpoints to negotiate along the way.

Apart from traveling to the airport by helicopter to take trips abroad, the President stays inside the palace; he fears threats to his life by the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda, who in December 2007 killed his wife, the charismatic Benazir Bhutto, then perhaps the country's only genuine national leader. Zardari's isolation has only added to his growing unpopularity, his indecisiveness, and the public feeling that he is out of touch. Even as most Pakistanis have concluded that the Taliban now pose the greatest threat to the Pakistani state since its cre- ation, the president, the prime minister, and the army chief have, until recently, been in a state of denial of reality.

"We are not a failed state yet but we may become one in ten years if we don't receive international support to combat the Taliban threat," Zardari indignantly says, pointing out that in contrast to the more than $11 billion former president Pervez Musharraf received from the US in the years after the September 11 attacks, his own administration has received only between "$10 and $15 million," despite all the new American promises of aid. He objects to the charge that his government has no plan to counter the Taliban-led insurgency that since the middle of April has spread to within sixty miles of the capital. "We have many plans including dealing with the 18,000 madrasas"—i.e., the Muslim religious schools—"that are brainwashing our youth, but we have no money to arm the police or fund development, give jobs or revive the economy. What are we supposed to do?" Zardari's complaints are true, but he does acknowledge that additional foreign money would have to be linked to a plan of action, which does not exist.


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The sense of unrealism is widespread. As the Taliban stormed south from their mountain bases near the Afghan border in northern Pakistan in late April, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told the parliament that they posed no threat and there was nothing to worry about. Interior Minister Rehman Malik talked about how the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai was supporting the Taliban and how India and Russia were sowing more unrest in Pakistan. Meanwhile, the inscrutable, chain-smoking army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, remained silent. By the time Kiyani made his first statement on the advance of the Taliban, on April 24, the army was being widely and loudly criticized for failing to deploy troops in time.

Pakistan is close to the brink, perhaps not to a meltdown of the government, but to a permanent state of anarchy, as the Islamist revolutionaries led by the Taliban and their many allies take more territory, and state power shrinks. There will be no mass revolutionary uprising like in Iran in 1979 or storming of the citadels of power as in Vietnam and Cambodia; rather we can expect a slow, insidious, long-burning fuse of fear, terror, and paralysis that the Taliban have lit and that the state is unable, and partly unwilling, to douse.

In northern Pakistan, where the Taliban and their allies are largely in control, the situation is critical. State institutions are paralyzed, and over one million people have fled their homes. The provincial government of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) has gone into hiding, and law and order have collapsed, with 180 kidnappings for ransom in the NWFP capital of Peshawar in the first months of this year alone. The overall economy is crashing, with drastic power cuts across the country as industry shuts down. Joblessness and lack of access to schools among the young are widespread, creating a new source of recruits to the Taliban. Zar-dari and Gilani have spent the past year battling their political rivals instead of facing up to the Taliban threat and the economic crisis.

According to the Islamabad columnist Farrukh Saleem, 11 percent of Pakistan's territory is either directly controlled or contested by the Taliban. Ten percent of Balochistan province, in the southwest of the country, is a no-go area because of another raging insurgency led by Baloch separatists. Karachi, the port city of 17 million people, is an ethnic and sectarian tinderbox waiting to explode. In the last days of April thirty-six people were killed there in ethnic violence. The Taliban are now penetrating into Punjab, Pakistan's political and economic heartland where the major cities of Islamabad and Lahore are located and where 60 percent of the country's 170 million people live. Fear is gripping the population there.

The Taliban have taken advantage of the vacuum of governance by carrying out spectacular suicide bombings in major cities across the country. They are generating fear, rumor, and also support from countless unemployed youth, some of whom are willing to kill themselves to advance the Taliban cause. The mean age for a suicide bomber is now just sixteen.

American officials are in a concealed state of panic, as I observed during a recent visit to Washington at the time when 17,000 additional troops were being dispatched to Afghanistan. The Obama administration unveiled its new Afghan strategy on March 27, only to discover that Pakistan is the much larger security challenge, while US options there are far more limited. The real US fear was bluntly addressed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Baghdad on April 25:

One of our concerns...is that if the worst, the unthinkable were to happen, and this advancing Taliban...were to essentially topple the government for failure to beat them back, then they would have the keys to the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan.... We can't even contemplate that.
Pakistan has between sixty and one hundred nuclear weapons, and they are mostly housed in western Punjab where the Taliban have made some inroads; but they are under the control of the army, which remains united and disciplined if ineffective against terrorism. In his press conference on April 29, President Obama made statements intended to be reassuring after the specter of Pakistani weakness evoked by Clinton, saying, "I feel confident that that nuclear arsenal will remain out of militant hands."

A week earlier Clinton had accused the Pakistani government of "basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists." Leading US military figures such as General David Petraeus and Admiral Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have chimed in with even more dire predictions. Clinton's statements have provoked increasing anti-Americanism in the Pakistani army and public, and thus will complicate the effectiveness of any future aid the US may give. On April 24 General Kiyani said that the army was fully capable of defending the country and went on to strongly condemn "the pronouncements" by outside powers that criticized the army and raised doubts about the future of Pakistan.

The Obama administration has promised Pakistan $1.5 billion a year for the next five years, but the bill is stuck in Congress with a long list of conditions that the Pakistanis are unwilling to accept. In early April other countries pledged a miserly $5.3 billion in aid, even as Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to the region, told me that Pakistan needs $50 billion. None of this money is likely to come immediately.


The Current Crisis
The present scare was set off in mid-February when the North-West Frontier provincial government signed a deal with a neo-Taliban movement in the scenic Swat valley, a major tourist resort area about a hundred miles from Islamabad, allowing the Taliban to impose strict sharia law in Swat's courts. (The creation of a new Islamic appeals court was announced by the Pakistani government on May 2.) In return for the Pakistani army withdrawing, the Taliban agreed to disarm, then promptly refused to do so. The accord followed the defeat in Swat last year of 12,000 government troops at the hands of some three thousand Taliban after bloody fighting, the blowing up of over one hundred girls' schools, heavy civilian casualties, and the mass exodus of one third of Swat's 1.5 million people. The Taliban swiftly imposed their brutal interpretation of sharia, which allowed for executions, floggings, and destruction of people's homes and girls' schools, as well as preventing women from leaving their homes and wiping out the families that had earlier resisted them.

Despite dire warnings by experts and Pakistan's increasingly vocal commentators in the press and elsewhere that the accord was a major capitulation to the militants and a terrible precedent that contradicted the rule of law as stipulated by the constitution, Zardari and the national parliament approved the deal on April 14 without even a debate. Within days the Taliban in Swat moved further, taking control of the local administration, police, and schools. On April 19 Sufi Mohammed, a radical leader who the government had released from prison in November 2008 and termed "a moderate" and whose son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, is now the leader of the Swat Taliban, said that democracy, the legal system of the country, and civil society should be disbanded since they were all "systems of infidels." Having won Swat, the Taliban made clear their intentions to overthrow the national government.

The Taliban in Swat quickly grew to more than eight thousand fighters, including hundreds of foreign and al-Qaeda militants, seasoned Pashtun fighters from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and extremist groups from Punjab and Karachi. They invited Osama bin Laden to come live in Swat. In fact al-Qaeda and the Taliban had targeted Swat three years earlier in their search for a safe, secure sanctuary that would be at a good distance from the Afghan border, with better facilities for an insurgency than FATA, as well as far away from the US drone missiles that have been falling on the tribal areas, killing Taliban leaders. Several top Taliban commanders from FATA have already moved to Swat. The valley also has income from lucrative emerald mines and timber businesses that the Taliban seized from their owners.

It was also obvious that having taken possession of Swat, the Taliban would expand beyond it; yet the army failed to deploy any troops in neighboring areas to deter them. On April 21 the Taliban moved into the adjoining districts of Buner, Shangla, and Dir, from which they threatened several key sites—Mardan, the second-largest city in the North-West Frontier Province; Nowshera, the army's major training center; several large dams; and the Islamabad–Peshawar highway. In Buner they were now just sixty miles from Islamabad.

Finally, on April 24, after much criticism from the Pakistani public, politicians, and Washington, the army began to attack Taliban positions in the three districts. Another 100,000 people fled the army advance. The original deal with the Taliban is now virtually dead since Swat has become the Taliban's main base and will also soon be attacked by the army.

What has shocked the world is not just the spread of the Taliban forces southward, but the lack of the government's will and commitment to oppose them and the army's lack of a counterinsurgency strategy. This disarray makes them all the more vulnerable in view of the apparent cohesiveness of the Taliban's tactics and strategy. Although the group has no single acknowledged leader, it has formed alliances with around forty different extremist groups, some of them with no previous direct connection to the Taliban. Moreover, the Afghan Taliban have become a model for the entire region. The Afghan Taliban of the 1990s have morphed into the Pakistani Taliban and the Central Asian Taliban and it may be only a question of time before we see the Indian Taliban.


Who are the Pakistani Taliban?
The US failure to destroy the al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leadership in the 2001 war that liberated Afghanistan allowed both groups to take up safe residence in the tribal badlands of the Federal Administered Tribal Areas that form a buffer zone between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where some 4.5 million Pashtun tribesmen live. Other Afghan Taliban leaders sought sanctuary in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province. Their escape from Afghanistan and their move into FATA were aided by local Pakistani Pashtun tribesmen who had fought for the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s but had now become richer, more radicalized, and more heavily armed in the process of playing host to their guests.

The Pakistani military under former President Pervez Musharraf tried to hunt down al-Qaeda, but never touched the Afghan Taliban, whose regime the Pakistanis had supported in the 1990s and whose presence was now considered a good insurance policy for Pakistan in case the Americans were to leave Afghanistan. Both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and their Punjabi extremist allies were seen as potentially useful counters against India —both in any future struggle for the contested region of Kashmir and also to tame the growing Indian influence in Kabul. George W. Bush seems, at least, to have gone along with this Pakistani strategy, urging action against al-Qaeda but never pushing Pakistan to deal with the Taliban threat.

In Pakistan, the radicalized Pakistani Pashtun tribal leaders in FATA began to organize their own militias in 2003 and to draw up their own political agenda to "liberate" Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban had reconstituted their insurgency in Afghanistan, aided by their Pakistani Pashtun allies and the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which looked the other way as arms and men flowed into Afghanistan from FATA and Balochistan. Only after Taliban attacks on US forces in Afghanistan increased in the summer of 2004 did Washington force Musharraf to send troops into FATA and clear them out.

The Pakistani army, however, was promptly defeated and a vicious cycle ensued. After every setback, the army signed peace agreements with the Pakistani Taliban that allowed them to consolidate their grip on FATA. In 2007 the separate tribal militias, led by a variety of commanders, coalesced into the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Movement of the Pakistani Taliban, led by the charismatic thirty-four-year-old Baitullah Mehsud from the tribal area of South Waziristan. A close ally of both al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, he was later linked to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and to hundreds of suicide attacks in Pakistan.

At the same time, other separate but coordinated jihadi movements—some supported in part by radical madrasas funded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries—sprang up. In the spring of 2007 radical mullahs took over the Red Mosque in Islamabad and announced their intention to impose sharia in the capital. The Musharraf government declined to intervene when the movement numbered hardly a dozen activists. Six months later, thousands of heavily armed militants including Pashtun Taliban, Kashmiris, and al-Qaeda fighters fought a three-day battle with the army in which a hundred people were killed. The extremist survivors vowed revenge and became the core of a new group sponsoring suicide bombings as they fled to FATA to join up with Baitullah Mehsud.

Three years earlier, in 2004, Maulana Fazlullah, the son-in-law of Sufi Muhamed, who was at the time an unknown former ski-lift operator and itinerant mullah, had set up an FM radio station in the Swat valley with a handful of supporters and begun broadcasting inflammatory threats both to local people and to the state of Pakistan. The Musharraf government never shut his station down. Fazlullah soon attracted the attention of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who poured in men and weapons to support him. By the time the Pakistani army finally went into Swat in November 2007, Fazlullah himself had an army and several radio stations.

In Punjab, extremist Punjabi groups who had been mobilized to fight in Indian Kashmir in the 1990s by the ISI found themselves at loose ends when Musharraf initiated talks with New Delhi and agreed to stop militant infiltration into Indian Kashmir. With no resettlement or rehabilitation programs in place, these Punjabi jihadi groups, who until then had only focused on Kashmir and India, split apart. Some went home, others rejoined madrasas, but thousands of them linked up with the Pakistani Taliban and were able to mount suicide attacks in Pakistani cities where the Taliban themselves had little access.

None of these groups could have survived if the military had carried out a serious counterterror strategy; but the Pakistani army never shut down any of them. Even though they were all openly opposing the Pakistani state, the army still considered them part of the front line against India and continued to stay in touch with them.


The Army and Politics
The army has always defined Pakistan's national security goals. Currently it has two strategic interests: first, it seeks to ensure that a balance of terror and power is maintained with respect to India, and the jihadis are seen as part of this strategy. Second, the army supports the Afghan Taliban as a hedge against US withdrawal from Afghanistan and also against Indian influence in Kabul, which has grown considerably. Containing the domestic jihadi threat has been a tactical rather than a strategic matter for the army, so there have been bouts of fighting with the militants and also peace deals with them; and these have been interspersed with policies of jailing them and freeing them—all part of a complex and duplicitous game.

The Bush administration pandered to the illusion that the Pakistani army had a strategic interest in defeating home-grown extremism, including both the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. Under Bush, the US poured $11.9 billion into Pakistan, 80 percent of which went to the army. Instead of revamping Pakistan's capacity for counterinsurgency, the army bought $8 billion worth of weapons for use against India—funds that are still unaccounted for, either by the US Congress or the Pakistani government. Not a single major public development project was initiated in Pakistan by Washington during the Bush era.

Despite US military aid, anti- Americanism has flourished in the army, public opinion, and the press and television, fueled by the idea that Pakistan was being made to fight America's war, while the Americans were unwilling to help Pakistan regain influence in Afghanistan. The US is accused both of helping India gain a strong foothold in Kabul and of declining to put pressure on New Delhi to resolve the Kashmir dispute. Bush's signing of the nuclear deal with India last year was the last straw for the Pakistani army. In military and public thinking, Pakistan was seen as sacrificing some two thousand soldiers in the war on terror on behalf of the Americans, while in return the Americans were recognizing the legitimacy of India's nuclear weapons program. Pakistan's nuclear weapons got no such acceptance.

Many in Pakistan had enormous hopes that the general elections in February 2008 would bring in a civilian government that would be a counterweight to the army and redefine Pakistan's national security as requiring support for the economy and education and improvement in relations with Pakistan's neighbors. Pakistanis, fed up with Musharraf's eight years of military rule and stung by Bhutto's assassination, voted for two moderate, pro-democracy, semi-secular parties—Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), now led by her husband Zardari, on the national level, and the Awami National Party (ANP) as the provincial government in the North-West Frontier Province. It was a resounding defeat for the Islamic parties that Musharraf had placed in office in the NWFP and Balochistan in the heavily rigged 2002 elections.

Here was the last opportunity for the politicians to concentrate on two vital needs: reviving the moribund economy and working with the army on a decisive strategy to combat Talibanization. The world looked for leadership from the PPP, and foreign donors promised financial aid if it could deliver. According to many polls, the Pakistani public wanted the politicians to unite and work together. Instead Zardari and the main opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League that holds sway in Punjab province, have spent the last year battling each other, as the economy sank further, Talibanization spread more widely, and the army and Western donors became more and more fed up with the politicians. General Kiyani has said that he is willing to take orders from the civilian government but clear orders were never forthcoming.

In the NWFP, the Awami National Party failed to stand up to the Taliban after they began an assassination campaign against ANP ministers and members of parliament, forcing the ANP leaders to disappear into bunkers while capitulating to the Taliban. The Swat deal was initiated by the ANP, which naively believed that the Taliban could be contained within Swat. The party is now divided, weakened and unpopular among the Pashtuns who voted for it in overwhelming numbers just a year ago. Its failure has wider consequences, for the ANP is the only Pashtun party that could counter the Taliban claim that the Pashtuns are pro-jihad and extremist. The ANP version of Pashtunwali—the tribal code of behavior—is nation-alistic but moderate and in favor of democracy. Right now the extremist Taliban ideology is winning out as Pashtun cultural leaders, aid workers, teachers, doctors, and lawyers are cowed by the Taliban adherents.

Now that the army has moved into the districts around Swat and is battling the Taliban, it is seen by the public as a two-edged sword. Although people want the army to drive back the Taliban, the army lacks both a counterinsurgency strategy and the kind of weapons that would be needed to carry it out. In early May, extensive fighting was reported in Swat after the Taliban reiterated their refusal to surrender their weapons, fortified their positions, and ambushed a military convoy, killing one soldier. In response, the army imposed a curfew in the valley's main city of Mingora and ordered the civilian population to move out. On the night of May 7, following an announcement by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani that the government was going to "eliminate" the Taliban militants, the army launched a major air and ground offensive in Swat, dropping bombs and firing artillery around Mingora, where an estimated four thousand Taliban fighters had dug in and planted landmines.

In FATA and Swat, villages have been flattened by the army's artillery and aerial bombing; many civilians have been killed, and local tribal leaders who have tried to resist the Taliban have not been supported by the army. Meanwhile, on May 12, the United Nations Refugee Agency reported that it had registered more than 500,000 displaced people from the conflict in Buner, Dir, and Swat since May 2 alone, joining another 500,000 that have been uprooted in the NWFP since last summer, and others who have not yet registered with the agency. According to a spokesman for the Pakistani military, the total number of refugees has risen to 1.3 million. But by mid-May, the Pakistani government had no adequate plans to look after this influx—only a fraction of which had been given temporary shelter in camps—or to provide aid.

Since 2004, practically everything that could go wrong in this war has gone wrong. Most important of all, the army and the government never protected the Pashtun tribal chiefs and leaders who were pro-government—some three hundred have had their throats slit by the Taliban in FATA, and the rest have fled. Even though there was significant local resistance to the Taliban in Swat and Buner, tribal councils begged the army to cease its operations because they have been so destructive for civilians.

The insurgency in Pakistan is perhaps even more deadly than the one in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan there is only one ethnic group strongly opposing the government—the Pashtuns who make up the Taliban—and so fighting is largely limited to the south and east of the country, while the other major ethnic groups in the west and the north are vehemently anti-Taliban. Moreover, more than a few Pashtuns and their tribal leaders support the Karzai government. In Pakistan, the Pashtun Taliban are now being aided and abetted by extremists from all the major ethnic groups in Pakistan. They may not be popular but they generate fear and terror from Karachi on the south coast to Peshawar on the Afghan border.

In Afghanistan the state is weak and unpopular but it is heavily backed by the US and NATO military presence. In addition, the Afghans have several things going for them. They are tired of nearly thirty years of war; they have already suffered under a Taliban regime and don't want a return of Taliban rule; they crave development and education; and they are fiercely patriotic, which has kept the country together despite the bloodshed. The Afghans have always refused to see their country divided.

In Pakistan there is no such broad national identity or unity. Many young Balochs today are fiercely determined to create an independent Balochistan. The ethnic identities of people in the other provinces have become a driving force for disunity. The gap between the rich and poor has never been greater, and members of the Pakistani elite have rarely acted responsibly toward the less fortunate masses. The Taliban have gained some adherents by imposing rough forms of land redistribution in some of the areas it controls, expropriating the property of rich landlords. Education and job creation have been the least-funded policies of Pakistan's governments, whether military or civilian, and literacy levels are abysmal; there are now some 20 million youth under age seventeen who are not in school. The justice system has virtually collapsed in many areas, which is why the Taliban demand for speedy justice has some popular appeal. Moreover, the Pakistani public has to deal with the differing versions of Pakistani policy put out by the army, the political parties, the Islamic fundamentalists, and the press and other components of civil society. There is confusion about what actually constitutes a threat to the state and what is needed for nation-building.

The last two years have bought some hope in the growth of the middle class, an articulate and increasingly influential civil society made up partly of urban professionals and publicly involved women. Most Pakistanis are not Islamic extremists and believe in moderate and spiritual forms of Islam, including Sufism. However, Pakistan is now reaching a tipping point. There is a chronic failure of leadership, whether by civilian politicians or the army. President Zardari's decision to invade Swat in early May came only after pressure was applied by the Obama administration and the army and the government had been left with no other palatable options. But with the Taliban opening new fronts, it will soon become impossible for the army to respond to the multiple threats it faces on so many geographically distant battlefields. The Taliban's campaigns to assassinate politicians and administrators have demoralized the government.

The Obama administration can provide money and weapons but it cannot recreate the state's will to resist the Taliban and pursue more effective policies. Pakistan desperately needs international aid, but its leaders must first define a strategy that demonstrates to its own people and other nations that it is willing to stand up to the Taliban and show the country a way forward.

Spelling Bees


This is quite funny, on how hyper competitive Indian parents are.

And I watched a rerun of the spelling bee yesterday. Kavya Shivshankar won the competition. I liked the way she thought about the word, asked all the questions, like what is the language of origin, what is the tense, any alternate pronunciations? and then broke it down and patiently finger wrote each word and then said it aloud.

More here from the Washington Post.

And here's a more gushing post by the Kansas Star.

Tenacity, discipline and diligence aren’t the toughest words to spell, but they all describe Olathe eighth-grader Kavya Shivashankar.

The three-time top-10 finisher in the Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship aced 40 words and bested 292 competitors to claim the winning trophy before a national TV audience Thursday night in Washington, D.C.

The 13-year-old champion from California Trail Junior High School spent years studying the pronunciations, meanings and roots of the dictionary’s most convoluted words.

Kavya’s success stands as a tribute to perseverance, and also to the support of her father and coach, Mirle Shivashankar.

The spelling bee started in 1925 as a way to help students improve their spelling and boost their vocabularies. It has evolved into a part academic competition/part curiosity in which children 13 and younger handle words like laodicean —Kavya’s winning 16th-round challenge. (It means to be indifferent in religion.)

Kavya may run across another of the words she spelled correctly — phoresy, a symbiotic relationship involving transportation by organisms of different species — if she pursues her career goal of becoming a neurosurgeon.

The spelling bee’s winnings, including $30,000 in cash and a $5,000 scholarship, will also help with that.

Congratulations, Kavya Shivashankar. Well done!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A bit of this and that

Suheir Hammad reciting poetry in Ramallah.

Also a very short discussion on NPR about Pakistani Writers Kamila Shamsie and Daniel Muneedin(?).
Thanks to Moorish Girl for the links above

Imphal Diary in the outlook describes the elections from their.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Conspiracy Theories

Alternet lists the most popular and durable conspiracy theories.

Agatha Christie once famously said, "The simplest explanation is always the most likely." However, when something shocking or catastrophic happens in our lives, simple explanations just aren't satisfying. We crave deeper reason and meaning and when that isn't given to us, sometimes we create our own. This is how conspiracy theories are often born -- someone doesn't like the official account of a major event and challenges it with a different version. Conspiracy theories can attract a wide array of people, from vehement supporters to those who just like a good story. Whether they're somewhat believable or completely ridiculous, the most popular conspiracy theories got that way for a reason -- they're just plain fascinating.

1. Lee Harvey Oswald didn't act alone (or possibly at all).
Perhaps only 9/11 comes close to matching the multitude of theories and interest surrounding JFK's assassination in 1963. Kennedy was shot while riding in a presidential motorcade with his wife in Dallas. Lee Harvey Oswald was fingered as the gunman in the Texas School Book Depository that day, but he was shot and killed just two days later, which created a great deal of suspicion. Also, witnesses claim they heard shots coming from a grassy knoll near the motorcade, creating the mystery of the second shooter. The CIA, the Mafia, Fidel Castro, and Lyndon Johnson are often listed as the masterminds behind the murder and cover-up.

2. Princess Diana was killed on purpose.
When the People's Princess was killed in a car crash resulting from overzealous paparazzi in Paris, the public demanded answers. It was hard for them to believe that such a compassionate, celebrated figure could die so senselessly, so it didn't take long for theories to surface about why certain people in power would want her dead. Some think she was pregnant and planning to marry her boyfriend, Dodi Al-Fayed (son to the owner of Harrod's and Paris's Ritz Hotel), and planning to become Muslim, which might've worried the British Royal Family, given her influence on the people. Others state that the family wanted her out of the way so that people would support Prince Charles's remarriage. There are also optimists who believe she faked her death to escape the public eye.

3. AIDS is a man-made disease.
Those in the scientific community generally believe HIV originated from a strain of Simian Immunodeficiency Virus found in western African monkeys. But when a group of 500 African Americans were surveyed in a 2005 study published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, over half of them said that AIDS was created by the government. Conspiracy theories about why the government might have created the virus ranged from population control to the weakening of racial minority groups and gay people. Some also say that there's a cure for AIDS being back held by the government for similar reasons.

4. The government was involved in 9/11.
This is currently the most researched conspiracy theory on the Internet. Theories abound about the role of the U.S. government in the events of September 11, 2001, but most state that either the Bush administration had previous knowledge of the attacks and didn't act or that it orchestrated the entire thing. Both versions center on the belief that Bush and company wanted to gain more power quickly and get the support of the people. It's been said that the World Trade Center towers came down as a result of planted explosives, that a plane didn't crash into the Pentagon, and that Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania because it was shot down -- a theory that was only fueled when Donald Rumsfeld accidentally said during a 2004 speech that terrorists shot it down.

5. Elvis never really left the building.
Many people believe that Elvis is still alive and kicking. There have been numerous Elvis sightings throughout the years and most people point to his incorrect gravestone -- it says his middle name is "Aaron," but it's spelled "Aron" on his birth certificate -- as the key piece of evidence that his death is a fraud. The reasons for the faked death vary between him wanting to get away from the public to him being put under witness protection by the FBI for being a drug informant -- a rumor started by him meeting with Nixon in 1970 and telling him he wanted to help eradicate drug abuse.
6. The 1969 Apollo moon landing didn't happen.
At this point, the faked moon landing theory has mostly been debunked, but there are still a few ardent followers out there. They cite altered pictures and videos, missing design blueprints, and faulty recordings as evidence of the forgery. One of the most popular reasons given for faking the famous moon walk is that the Kennedy administration wanted to win the "space race" with the Soviet Union and instill public faith in NASA. However, most Americans still believe that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon that famous day in July.

7. A UFO crashed in Roswell, New Mexico.
When ranch manager Mac Brazel came across crash debris near his property in 1947, he didn't know what to make of it and alerted local authorities. That same day, the Roswell Army Air Field sent out a press release that stated a "flying disc" was found; later, this was retracted and the U.S. military told the public it was a fallen weather balloon. This slip sparked a huge conspiracy theory about the government attempting to cover up evidence of UFOs and alien existence; some even say there were alien bodies found in the crash. Now the story is that the balloon was part of Project Mogul, the government's attempt to pick up on Soviet Union nuclear tests. As a result, Roswell has become a big tourist spot for extraterrestrial enthusiasts.

8. Global warming is a hoax.
Despite Al Gore's influential documentary and the beliefs of most scientists, some people believe global warming isn't actually happening. Sure, the fact that Earth's temperatures are steadily rising are irrefutable, but supporters of this theory believe it's due to technology created by those in charge for a variety of reasons -- keeping the public in a state of panic to maintain control and decreasing world population being two of the main ones. Gore, the United Nations, and Maurice Strong (a man heavily involved in environmental politics) are often named by conspiracy theorists as purveyors of the global warming "myth."

9. Shakespeare didn't write all those plays.
The most famous playwright in the world might not have existed at all. Conspiracy theorists have been debating Shakespeare's life for years, arguing that William Shakespeare was just a pen name used by a group of writers, which might explain why his signature varied throughout his career. Others think that he did exist, but that he was simply a figure for another person to write plays through, such as Christopher Marlowe, Sir Francis Bacon, or Queen Elizabeth I. The main argument against Shakespeare is the fact that he was uneducated, which seems rather elitist. Regardless, this theory still generates a lot of interest, ranking fifth in Google's conspiracy theory searches.

10. Reptilian humanoids control all of us.
This has to be one of the wackiest theories I've encountered so far. It was started by a 1999 book written by David Icke called, The Biggest Secret: The Book That Will Change the World. In it, he explains that most world leaders -- including quite a few U.S. presidents -- are actually shape-shifting reptilian beings from a different planet who start wars and are responsible for horrific events like 9/11 in order to promote fear and hatred, which gives them strength. Oh, and they're seven feet tall. Reptilian humanoids … who knew?

As silly as they can sound, there's something to be said for learning about conspiracy theories. They can offer totally new and unexpected ways of looking at events, even if you don't believe them to be accurate. And if anything, they at least suggest that as crazy and ludicrous as our ideas and beliefs feel at times, there's always someone out there who takes it one step further -- unless you're one of the ones who believe in shape-shifting reptilian overlords … sorry, but you might just take the cake.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Prabhakaran

Asia Times talks about the LTTE leader Prabhakaran and Sri Lanka. The article is written by an Indian diplomat.

The rise and fall of Prabhakaran
By M K Bhadrakumar

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran's death circa May 19, 2009, in circumstances we will never quite get to know, concludes a morality play.

As the curtain comes down and we leave the theater, the spectacle continues to haunt us. We feel a deep unease and can't quite figure out the reason. Something rankles somewhere. And then we realize we have blood on our hands.

Not only our hands, but our whole body and deeper down, our conscience - what remains of it after the mundane battles of our day-to-day life - are also dripping with blood.

Prabhakaran's blood. No, it is not only Prabhakaran's, but also of



70,000 Sri Lankan Tamils who have perished in the unspeakable violence through the past quarter century.

All the pujas we may perform to our favorite Hindu god, Lord Ganesh, for good luck each morning religiously so that we march ahead in our life from success to success cannot wash away the guilt we are bearing - the curse of the 70,000 dead souls.

Our children and grandchildren will surely inherit the great curse. What a bitter legacy!

A long time ago, we created Prabhakaran. We picked him up as an urchin from nowhere. What we found charming about him was that he was so thoroughly apolitical - almost innocent about politics. He was a simpleton in many ways, who had a passion for weapons and the military regimen. He suited our needs perfectly.

Which was to humiliate the Junius Richard Jayewardene government in Sri Lanka and teach it a hard lesson about the dangers of being disrespectful to India's status as the pre-eminent power in the Indian Ocean. Jayewardene was too Western-oriented and behaved as if he never read about the Monroe Doctrine when he read history in Oxford. We didn't like at all his dalliance with the Israelis and the Americans in our very backyard.
So, we fostered Prabhakaran and built him up as a prick on Jayewardene's vanities - like Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale of the Deccans.

Then, as time passed, we decided that he had outlived his utility as we had come to develop an entirely different outlook towards the pro-Western orientation of the Colombo government by that time. Our egotistic leader in Delhi who detested Jayewardene was no more in power and the new soft-spoken leader didn't share his predecessor's strong political antipathies.

So, we arm-twisted Prabhakaran to tone down and fall in line with our changed priorities. But we didn't realize that by then he had become a full-grown adult.

He resisted our blackmail and pressure tactics. When we pressured him even more and tried to collar him, he struck back. He dispatched assassins to India and killed our beloved leader. And he became our eternal enemy.

Yet, we couldn't do anything to harm him. He had already become so strong - an uncrowned king among his people. So we waited. We are a patient lot. Who can match us in infinite patience, given our 5,000 years of history? Our cosmic religion gives us a unique wisdom to be patient and stoic and to bide our time.

And then, the opportune time came. We promptly moved in for the kill by aligning ourselves with Prabhakaran's enemies. We armed them and trained them in better skills to kill. We guided them with good intelligence. We plugged all escape routes for Prabhakaran. And then, we patiently waited as the noose tightened around Prabhakaran's neck.

Today he is no more. Believe it or not, we had no role in his death. How and when he died shall forever remain an enigma wrapped in a mystery. We will of course never divulge what we know.

All that matters is that the world woke up to the death only after the May 13 polling in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Otherwise, the parliamentary election results may have gone haywire against us. Strange are the ways of the Indian democracy.

We have had our revenge. Nothing else matters for the present.

What lies ahead? We will continue to make noises about a "political solution" to the Tamil problem that Prabhakaran championed through violent means.

Of course, let there be no doubt that we will periodically render humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians who have been herded into camps and may languish there till the dust settles down. We will demonstrate that we are indeed capable of the milk of human kindness. After all, the Sri Lankan Tamils are part of our historical consciousness.

But we must also be realistic. We know in our heart of hearts that the scope for a political solution in the fashion in which our leaders seem to suggest publicly is virtually nil.

The Sinhalese will never allow the world to dictate to them a political solution. More so, they will promptly and conclusively rebuff any attempt by us to seek a role in what they will now onward insist as strictly their internal affair.

Always remember that Sri Lanka is one of the last bastions of Theravada Buddhism and preserving that legacy is the Sinhalese people's precious tryst with destiny. At least, that is how they feel. We have to accept the weight of their cultural nationalism.

They see Sri Lanka as the land of the Sinhalese. How could they allow us Indians who wiped out Buddhism with such ferocity from the sub-continent interfere with their keen sense of destiny as the custodians of that very same great religion? Never, never.

If we try to pressure the Sinhalese, they will approach the Chinese or the Pakistanis to balance our pressure. They are capable of doing that.

The Sinhalese are a gifted people. We all know few can never match their terrific skills in media management. They have always lived by their wits.

Equally, they are fantastic practitioners of diplomacy. We suspect that they may in fact have an edge over us on this front, for, unlike us who are dissimulating from day to day as if we're a responsible regional power, and dissipating our energies in pastimes such as hunting down Somali pirates in distant seas, they are a highly focused lot.

They have the grit because they are fighting for the preservation of their country's future identity as a Buddhist nation.

Only last week, they showed their diplomatic skill by getting the Russians and the Chinese to stall a move in the United Nations Security Council to pressure them.

The Europeans fancy they can try the Sinhalese for war crimes. What naivety!

We asked the Sinhalese in private many a time how they proposed to navigate their way in the coming period. They wouldn't divulge.

But we know that it is not as if they have no solution of their own to the Tamil problem, either. We know they already have a blueprint.

See, they have already solved the Tamil problem in the eastern provinces of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara. The Tamils are no more the majority community in those provinces.

Similarly, from tomorrow, they will commence a concerted, steady colonization program of the northern provinces where Prabhakaran reigned supreme for two decades. They will ensure incrementally that the northern regions no more remain as Tamil provinces.

The Tamils will be made into a minority community in their own northern homelands. They will have to live among the newly created Sinhalese settlements in those regions to the north of Elephant Pass.

All this will indeed be within Sri Lanka's "federal structure". Sri Lanka will continue to adhere to parliamentary democracy.

Give them a decade at the most. The Tamil problem will become a relic of the bloody history of the Indian sub-continent.

The Sinhalese are good friends of India. Our elite and their elite speak the same idiom. We both speak English well, play golf and like chilled beer. We should, therefore, wish them well.

As for the blood on our hands, true, it is a blessed nuisance. But this is not the first time in our history that we're having blood on our hands.

Trust our words. No lasting harm will be done. Blood doesn't leave stains.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Women unhappier than Men today Liberated but Unhappy

NYT has a great op.ed about women's unhappiness, and single motherhood with all the responsibility of raising a child is one of the leading causes.

American women are wealthier, healthier and better educated than they were 30 years ago. They’re more likely to work outside the home, and more likely to earn salaries comparable to men’s when they do. They can leave abusive marriages and sue sexist employers. They enjoy unprecedented control over their own fertility. On some fronts — graduation rates, life expectancy and even job security — men look increasingly like the second sex.

But all the achievements of the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness. In the 1960s, when Betty Friedan diagnosed her fellow wives and daughters as the victims of “the problem with no name,” American women reported themselves happier, on average, than did men. Today, that gender gap has reversed. Male happiness has inched up, and female happiness has dropped. In postfeminist America, men are happier than women.

This is “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” the subject of a provocative paper from the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. The paper is fascinating not only because of what it shows, but because the authors deliberately avoid floating an easy explanation for their data.

The decline of the two-parent family, for instance, is almost certainly depressing life satisfaction for the women stuck raising kids alone. But this can’t be the only explanation, since the trend toward greater female discontent cuts across lines of class and race. A working-class Hispanic woman is far more likely to be a single mother than her white and wealthy counterpart, yet the male-female happiness gap holds in East Hampton and East L.A. alike.

Again, maybe the happiness numbers are being tipped downward by a mounting female workload — the famous “second shift,” in which women continue to do the lion’s share of household chores even as they’re handed more and more workplace responsibility. It’s certainly possible — but as Wolfers and Stevenson point out, recent surveys actually show similar workload patterns for men and women over all.

Or perhaps the problem is political — maybe women prefer egalitarian, low-risk societies, and the cowboy capitalism of the Reagan era had an anxiety-inducing effect on the American female. But even in the warm, nurturing, egalitarian European Union, female happiness has fallen relative to men’s across the last three decades.

All this ambiguity lends itself to broad-brush readings. A strict feminist and a stringent gender-role traditionalist alike will probably find vindication of their premises between the lines of Wolfers and Stevenson’s careful prose. The feminist will see evidence of a revolution interrupted, in which rising expectations are bumping against glass ceilings, breeding entirely justified resentments. The traditionalist will see evidence of a revolution gone awry, in which women have been pressured into lifestyles that run counter to their biological imperatives, and men have been liberated to embrace a piggish irresponsibility.

There’s evidence to fit each of these narratives. But there’s also room for both.

Feminists and traditionalists should be able to agree, for instance, that the structures of American society don’t make enough allowances for the particular challenges of motherhood. We can squabble forever about the choices that mothers ought to make, but the difficult work-parenthood juggle is here to stay. (Just ask Sarah and Todd Palin.) And there are all kinds of ways — from a more family-friendly tax code to a more accommodating educational system — that public policy can make that juggle easier. Conservatives and liberals won’t agree on the means, but they ought to agree on the end: a nation where it’s easier to balance work and child-rearing, however you think that balance should be struck.

They should also be able to agree that the steady advance of single motherhood threatens the interests and happiness of women. Here the public-policy options are limited; some kind of social stigma is a necessity. But a new-model stigma shouldn’t (and couldn’t) look like the old sexism. There’s no necessary reason why feminists and cultural conservatives can’t join forces — in the same way that they made common cause during the pornography wars of the 1980s — behind a social revolution that ostracizes serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors as thoroughly as the “fallen women” of a more patriarchal age.

No reason, of course, save the fact that contemporary America doesn’t seem willing to accept sexual stigma, period. We simply don’t have the stomach for permanently ostracizing the sexually irresponsible — be they a pregnant starlet, a thrice-divorced tycoon, or even a prostitute-hiring politician.

In this sense, ours is a kinder, gentler, more forgiving country than it was 40 years ago. But for half the public, it’s an unhappier country as well.

Monday, May 25, 2009

From 3qd, my experiments with cooling by Aditya Dev Sood

My Experiments with Cooling
by Aditya Dev Sood

This is Delhi in its glory. Hotter, even, than when I knew it as a child, the temperatures these days scratching past the 45 degrees Celsius that were their absolute threshold then. Every day the earth baking, every night the atmosphere billowing in response, plumes of invisible heat unsettling the skies, a sudden imbalance and extreme of the natural order, corrected by crazy dust storms in the late afternoon, whose special, threatening light, one knows, will never break to rain. The dust is everywhere. On window sills and on the floors of my home, on doorknobs and banisters, and even hidden atop curtain rods and high shelves. The body is always tormented by the heat, always seeking respite, coolness, moisture, a wet towel, ginger-lemonade, the direct draft of an air-conditioner.

Last summer, when I was remodeling this house, I had six air-conditioners installed, one for each room, most of them split units, their umbilical tubing buried within the masonry. When we moved in, at the end of September, they seemed excessive, perhaps even a bit of a waste. This month, they seem barely adequate, and my family's warnings prescient -- don't skimp on the aircon or you'll regret it in the summer, when you most need it. The units loom over each room, promising Singaporean efficacy, but delivering Patna levels of cooling.

In the center of the two-storied house is a kind of small atrium, or large shaft, which stretches from plinth to roof. My neighbor has one just like it -- it is mandated by local zoning. The idea was, in those pre-aircon-days of the Raj and early Indian post-coloniality, that air would circulate through the house, gathering heat from the groins and armpits of its wilting inhabitants, before entering the atrium and rising up as hot air must, but also following Bernoulli's principle, that fluids will accelerate as they pass through a narrower channel. The logic of air-conditioning, sadly, runs so directly counter to this ecological understanding of architecture, as a coordination of air flows from outside the building, in through its interiors, all the way out its top.


In my grandfather's house, the air-conditioners were enormous wet monsters, set into courtyard windows at just about child height and, it now seems, equally familiar to me from both ends of their operation. On the front they dripped and dribbled condensation off white and gold grills, sometimes even creating sheets of ice in the night, which might slide off and splatter the floor in the morning. In the back, their grey-black fins bore dents and scratches like war wounds, as water ran round to cool the entire roaring assembly before running off into planterboxes of cacti and bonsai, artfully placed below. The window's chhajja, a horizontal projection of concrete that protects it from rain, might have had a chick protecting the back of the unit from sun and there might have been other plants crowding all round the courtyard windows. These were old techniques of courtyard living, the cultivation of layers of vegetation and other kinds of screening around all fenestration, now re-adapted to helping those groaning air-conditioner units along.


Soon after my parents moved into their West End home, they built a large and dark cabinet, which stretched floor to ceiling along one of their living room walls. It was a multimedia marvel, housing books, records, recessed lamps, as well as a record changer and cassette deck connected to an amplifier and then to speakers perched up at the top. But equally wondrous, in one of its bays, a roll-top screen slid up and over to reveal a hidden 'cooler.' After school, my kid brother and I would have trudged back home under a glaring afternoon sun, our bookbags making large stains of sweat on our backs. We'd shrug off our shirts and steady ourselves before the cabinet's 24-inch fan to enjoy the continuous blast of moist-wet coolness that hummed steadily out. Only once we were sated of this air shower, would we agree to turn to lunch and the other diversions of doing nothing at home.


I think I only came to realize that coolers were an esoteric technology while visiting relatives in the States, who had no reference for whatever it was that I was talking about. In Phoenix they were then called Desert Coolers, and I now believe them to be one of the few manifestations of the alternative technology movement that actually found a market -- and a worldwide following -- in the 1970s. In India their evaporative cooling fins were traded in for chicken-wire mesh screens that held in place a padding of khus-khus shavings, dry-wooly masses that have the most indescribably positive fragrance -- clean, cool, fresh, inviting. A modified aquarium pump might push water up to the top the cage, from where it would be allowed to drip on to the khus-khus, while the fan pulled air through the entire screen sandwich. Voila, fragrant evaporative cooling from a cooler.


At the homes of friends and relatives a subtle hierarchy of cooling could be observed: service areas, like stairwells and interior hallways might be air-cooled, while spaces for public reception and polite sociality were air-conditioned. This subtle gradation as to the status of the two technologies seems based on their relative complexity, cost, and energy consumption. The more wasteful and difficult to manage the technology, therefore, the more it is prized, and the more likely that its use will be reserved for elites who really deserve it. The caste of air-cooler duct-installers, consequently, has lower status than air-conditioning duct-installers, and one must be wary of conflating the two. All this seems a great shame, for if there is an opportunity for a credibly green approach to cooling Delhi's homes, if not offices, it must begin with the bastardized, improvised, jugaadbaaz air-cooler.

These days, my free time at home is taken up with imagining ways of converting the double-storied atrium at the center of my home into a kind of building-wide cooler. I am imagining a thirty foot tower of khus-khus, through which I would allow water to drip over two-and-a-half stories. An enormous fan -- or maybe centrifuge -- at the roof would push air down and through the khus tower. We would all be living in, essentially, a habitable cooler.


To understand the joy of cooling, one must first reconcile oneself to the heat of this difficult city. Despite air-conditioned cars, air-conditioned malls, and air-conditioned metros, one's exposed forearms, forehead, cheeks will glow red for the sun. The body will sweat and streak and stain your shirts, and turn the hair on the nape of your neck into a micro evaporative cooler. Without thinking, you will run your hands through your hair, wipe the sweat from your brow, and shake the collars of your shirt to allow air in, for that brief whoosh of cool that your entire torso will exult in. There can be no joy in cooling without surrender to the heat, without a knowing intimacy with its inevitable, permeating embrace.


Cultural, architectural responses to Delhi's heat have traditionally achieved their nobility by creating artificial oases of vegetation, waterworks, wind tunnels and screens. Human ingenuity has been applied to create spaces hospitable for human habitation and enjoyment or vilas. The madarsa of Hauz-e-Khas, now just Hauz Khas, for instance, is a double-storied colonnaded structure on edge of a huge, now urban, water-tank. For centuries, westerly winds have picked up moisture and lost heat to that pond, before striking the screen jali-s of the madarsa, the better to ensure that its students remain occupied with their theological and juridical studies. My cousin Ayesha lives in a courtyard house not a block away from the madarsa, and oriented in precisely the same way to this special tank of water. But like me, she now air-conditions each room separately, although I'm sure she would also prefer another, better approach.


In Old Delhi's Red Fort, one can make out the vestiges of waterworks that ran through its bilaterally symmetrical gardens and into the colonnaded marble floors of the Diwan-e-Khas, or special reception area. The marble floors of the pavilion dip down into shallow pools with edges that seem perfectly designed not only for seating but also for cavorting with those already dunked into the pool. And from what we can tell of courtesans hanging out at the palace, as depicted in Mughal miniature paintings, such technologies to beat-the-heat were well integrated into the social functions of the Mughal pleasure palace. Why wouldn't one want to socialize at private pool parties in the summer? And in this city, in this part of the world, how could one possibly feel at ease without taking off one's shoes, washing one's feet, and wiping one face and head with a towel, effectively conducting a full vajoo, ritual cleansing, every time one stepped into a courtyard?


The Thar Desert, on whose Eastern, extending, desertifying edge Delhi is perched, is far from those moist riverine deltas of Africa, where humankind acquired its distinctive characteristics, including our aqualine nose, our relatively hairless body, and the curious fact that it is slightly more difficult to drown a human baby, because its windpipe reflexively closes when immersed in water. Well before the Great Mughals, we evidently knew the pleasure of bounding in and around moist wet architectures on the edge of flowing water, cavorting upon and around a variety of wooden furnitures and vegetal furnishings. This mostly hairless ape can imagine no better vision of an Edenic garden than those Mangroves-e-Bahisht.

From that originary apiary home, we have wandered far, into natural deserts as well as those devised of our own self-incarceration. Yet, we long to recreate those densities of flora and moist-cool habitation, though in our contemporary image. Architecture serves as both boundary and link back to our pre-cultural past, and we need it to be moist and cool when it is hot and dry outside, and warm and dry within when it is cold and wet outside.


What I am missing, in these split-unit-invisible-ducting-cost-centers of my home, I think, is the synesthetic experience of the respite that a home is supposed to bring. The room is cool now, but how? I am not feeling the wonder, appreciating the ingenuity, respecting the total-architecture that is the inventive cooling solution. What is required, it seems to me, is the social-architectural analog to a fireplace, which burns its logs in full view of the room, heating all of it through convection, but radiating heat to your warming hands, buttocks and thighs as you sidle up to its mantle, ostensibly to look at the photographs and cards on display. The fireplace is intrinsic not only to the room, but also to the architecture of the building, its chimney iconic of the home from outside.

Along the same lines, we need a cooling solution that allows a party guest, in the middle of May, to walk over to a cabinet or shelving unit to admire the book collection, while exposing his chest and armpits to the full blast of cool moist air for a few minutes, before he heads off to the bar. The solution must be as integral to the architecture of the building as it is to the room, and it should involve the strategic location of moisture, greenery and forced ventilation through it. This, at any rate, is what a contemporary cultural-architectural response to Delhi's heat would have to look like -- a marriage of ingenuity with responsibility, informed of a thousand years of eloquent space-making within the city.


Posted by Aditya Dev Sood at 12:00 AM | Permalink

Sikhs in Vienna

Upper Caste fundamentalist's attack lower caste gurdwara and kill Sikh preacher. This caused riots in Punjab.

May 25 (Bloomberg) -- Police opened fire in India’s Punjab state and authorities imposed curfews to quell violent protests by Sikhs angered by the death of a preacher in the Austrian capital, Vienna.

Demonstrators blocked roads, set trains ablaze and torched buses in several towns in Punjab and neighboring Haryana state. Troops patrolled streets in Jalandhar district, Gurmit Singh, a Punjab state police official, said by phone. Two people died in separate incidents in the state as police opened fire, Press Trust of India reported.

“Everything is under control now,” Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal said in comments made to the Times Now television channel.

The violence was triggered by the death of visiting Indian preacher Sant Rama Anand, 57, shot during a brawl between rival Sikhs at a temple in Vienna’s Rudolfsheim-Fuenfhaus district yesterday.

Anand had been preaching in the temple, and died shortly after midnight from injuries to the abdomen and back, Vienna police spokesman Michael Takacs said. A second preacher, Sant Niranjan Dass, 66, was in stable condition after being struck by two bullets, he said.

“We’re working under the hypothesis that the content of the sermon prompted the attack and that it wasn’t premeditated,” the spokesman said.

Knives, Pistol

Six men from a rival Sikh temple had drawn 20-centimeter (eight-inch) knives and a pistol at about 1:30 p.m. during a ceremony attended by about 200 people. Four of the attackers sustained serious injuries and remain hospitalized, Takacs said. The other two are in jail.

The attackers were known within Vienna’s Sikh community as fundamentalists, according to the police. The four-year-old temple where the attack occurred had been accused of ignoring Sikh traditions.

As protests spread in Punjab, curfews were imposed in Ludhiana, Phagwara and Hoshiarpur towns. Trains to Punjab are being stopped at some stations and diverted, CNN-IBN television channel reported.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, appealed to people to remain calm.

“Sikhism preaches tolerance and harmony,” Singh said in a statement in New Delhi today. “Whatever the provocation, it is important to maintain peace and harmony among different sections of the people.”

India was “worried and concerned” by what happened in Vienna and is in touch with the Austrian government, Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna said.

Bharti Wal-Mart delayed the start of its joint-venture cash-and-carry wholesale store “due to the situation in Punjab,” it said in a release. The company had planned to open the outlet tomorrow in the city of Amritsar.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Amitava Kumar

Minnesota review has an article about post colonial criticism in the US and it being experienced by an Indian subjected to an "indifferent education" in Delhi. Sounds very familiar!

I'm in an overheated hotel room in Beijing, reading a New Yorker travel piece about China by Jonathan Franzen. The essay is describing the ecological devastation caused by rapid development, but what stops me is a remark that Franzen makes about his Chinese guide. David Xu has "the fashionably angular eyeglasses and ingratiating eagerness of an untenured literature professor." In that throwaway phrase, in its quick malice and wit, I come home. Whether this is revealing of the traveler's loneliness abroad or not, I find myself thinking that I belong not to India or to the United States but to the academy. I realize that I'm a sad provincial; for years, I've been living in a place called the English Department.

Which leads me to declare my first credo. The most significant turns in my scholarship, and in my writing, have been attempts to first fit into, and then violently move away from, the existing codes of naturalization for gaining citizenship in the English Department. Of late, this movement of mine has appeared very much like a person lurching away from an accident—for anyone who has just arrived at the scene it is impossible to judge exactly where the screams are coming from, but what is undeniable is the fact of the twisted wreckage and the smoke and the shock.

"Haven't you noticed how we all specialize in what we hate most?" This is the question posed by James Dixon, the protagonist of Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. If there is abjection and fine defeatist humor there, it gets even better toward the end of the novel when Dixon is getting ready for his public lecture and quickly getting incapacitated with drink. In the course of his climactic, doomed lecture, our anti-hero will have proven himself unfit for the teaching profession and, more happily, drawn the approval of a rich patron who will offer him suitable employment in faraway London. But before this happens, while in conversation with said patron, Dixon declares:

I'm the boredom-detector. I'm a finely-tuned instrument. If only I could get hold of a millionaire I'd be worth a bag of money to him. He could send me on ahead into dinners and cocktail-parties and night-clubs, just for five minutes, and then by looking at me he'd be able to read off the boredom-coefficient of any gathering. Like a canary down a mine; same idea. Then he'd know whether it was worth going in himself or not. He could send me in among the Rotarians and the stage crowd and the golfers and the arty types talking about statements of profiles rather than volumes and the musical...

We know from Dixon's experience—and sadly, our own—how this talent for discerning boredom is the result only of a long intimacy with it. An intimacy nurtured over countless departmental meetings, lectures, corridor conversations, numbing conferences, not to mention attendance at academic parties, where neurotics are nearly as numerous as blowhards.

You'd think there would be regular revolts against this culture of oppression. But we hardly witness any institutional uprisings. A few novels written about poisonous campus life, sure, but no prison breaks. In fact, going by what I have seen at the places where I have worked, it is more common to see the formerly oppressed slip easily into the role of the new, more brutal jailers. The behavior of some of my coercive colleagues in a department where I worked was regularly explained away as only the result of "past wounds" inflicted during the process of acquiring tenure.

But I digress. I was talking about boredom. One of the things that can be said about much of postcolonial criticism is that it is boring, although it'd be more accurate to say that it is often unintelligible and boring. However, when I arrived in this country, in the late eighties, and read postcolonial critics for the first time, I was intrigued. They seemed such a welcome change from my teachers in Delhi. As an undergraduate at Hindu College, I would take a bus to the university. I'd look out of the window, and when we were crossing the gates of Nigambodh Ghat, I'd sometimes see men carrying in their arms little bundles wrapped in white. Each bundle was a child whose corpse was being taken to the river by the father. A small mute procession would follow some men, but often a man would be alone with his enormous burden. I would watch for a few moments from the bus—and then I'd arrive in class. My professors would be delivering lectures on Locke or Rousseau from notes held together with tape—the yellowing paper would flake off in little pieces when shaken in the air.

The pedagogical climate appeared dramatically different when I came to the US. In this country, I suddenly felt that criticism was something that was both fresh and live. My teachers were the critics whose writings one read in academic journals. What I was being taught was original work. In some classes, such work also felt urgent. I had never read Edward Said before, or others whose names brought them somehow closer to me in my imagination, critics like Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. But I didn't share the belief, seemingly dear to the editors of special issues devoted to postcolonial theory, that the 3.2 million poor in Chiapas or the half-million beggars in Calcutta hungered to read debates between the elite of New York and New Delhi in the pages of scholarly journals. My indifferent education in Delhi meant that I hadn't received any real training in writing, academic or non. But it became clear to me, as the years passed, that I wanted the words I wrote on the page to be worldly, sensual, even personal. I was trying to make postcolonial theory look more like what the larger world associated with postcolonials like Salman Rushdie. Couldn't our analyses become more exuberant, imaginative, and even playful? I wanted very badly to be a writer, and any writer needs readers, but it seemed impossible that postcolonial theorists would ever acquire a real audience.

May I posit a second credo here? A part of the search for readers is a search for venues that will publish you. I was fortunate to receive valuable support from this journal. As a beginning assistant professor, I published in these pages one or two critical pieces but also poems, photographs, and even a bit of doggerel verse written on the evening of Princess Di's death. And during those years, the journal's editors, Jeff Williams and also Mike Hill, collaborated with me in several discussions about academics and intellectuals who wrote for a wider public. While this was an often repetitive, and even self-congratulatory, exercise on our part, it also represented a demand for legitimation, and a search for a broader argument on behalf of a brand of writing that would earn us, if not hordes of readers, then at least tenure.

I'm talking of events that occurred more than a decade ago. The book that earned me tenure was Passport Photos, a multi-genre report on what has been called immigritude. The book was published at a time when not only postcolonial theory but the entire enterprise of pure theory was beginning to lose its hegemony. I was very much aware that there were no people in postcolonial theory, and I tried to put in my book details of ordinary lives, including photographs and poetry about migrants. Tenure should have freed me to pursue more unconventional writing, but I have never again attempted the formal experimentation of Passport Photos. What tenure really allowed me to do was to quietly settle into the habit of writing what, til recently, I would have considered unexciting because it wasn't fragmentary or hybrid and relied on narrative, the style more associated with memoirs and long-form journalism.

In this turn toward more old-fashioned writing, I was helped by the emergence of a new, younger body of Indian writers who were just then making their mark in India as well as abroad. I'm talking now of the latter part of the nineties and names like Arundhati Roy, Pankaj Mishra, Amit Chaudhuri, Raj Kamal Jha, and Jhumpa Lahiri. I remember reading these writers and experiencing a great deal of excitement; I made an effort to get in touch with them, and some of these writers also became my friends. It couldn't have happened overnight, but in those days it seemed as if this single fact had allowed me to escape the small world of the English Department. For years, I had not read a single novel; now I began to read fiction written by both well-known and emerging Indian writers. This was also the time when the Internet arrived and, suddenly, the Indian newspapers I was reading were no longer two weeks old. This meant that the new fiction I was devouring no longer seemed to be reporting on an impossibly distant country. Cricket matches, riots, the deaths of politicians, murders as well as mergers, the release of Bollywood films, literary gossip, everything that was happening in India acquired an immediacy again. It became easy for me to write for the Indian newspapers and magazines that I was regularly reading on the Web. "Location, location, location" sounds very much like a postcolonial mantra, but it has amazed me—and this, too, amounts to a credo—how profoundly a writer's sense of the world, and also of fellowship, has been transformed by the emergence of the World Wide Web. You can be working at a disgustingly badly-paid job in an acrimonious English Department at the University of Florida, but when you sit down at the computer and are able to file a story for a newspaper in India, a story that will appear in its published form on your screen only a few hours later, it becomes easy to imagine that you have escaped your immediate setting.

A few years prior to the period I've been just describing, I had read an article by Frank Lentricchia that had been published in the now-defunct journal Lingua Franca. Lentricchia's essay, which was entitled "Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic," was an odd, slippery text. One moment it seemed to be arguing against overly political literary criticism, but just when you were expecting an elaboration of an alternative literary approach, Lentricchia slipped into a more vociferous railing against the incompetence of all literary critics. In the end, you could forgive the essay's incoherence because the argument Lentricchia was putting forward was against any system or method of literary appreciation. All one could hope to do, and all that Lentricchia himself wanted to do, was become a worshipper of great literature.

But this was not my aim. Unlike Lentricchia, I had much still to learn. About theory and criticism, and also about literature and the world. I didn't see myself reading the Indian writers I liked without exercising my judgment, and I certainly didn't want to write while pretending that I was in some kind of a trance. For good or bad, I was still very much a part of the academy.

The best allies I found in developing a language of reading not only texts but also people and places were academics from my field, or fields close to mine, who were writing long narrative pieces as well as books that mixed memoir and analysis.

One of my earliest models was Manthia Diawara's In Search of Africa. It was an inventive book and yet it performed the old task of story-telling. In the book, Diawara goes back to Guinea looking for his childhood friend. This search, spanning over the course of the entire book, becomes a way of introducing the reader to everything from the legacy of the dictator Sekou Touré to the traditional arts of the griots and mask-makers. Diawara also exercised an additional fascination over me. I had tried my hand at documentary photography for several years, and Diawara interested me because he was making documentaries about Africa. In a wonderful example of counter-anthropology, he had made a film called Rouch in Reverse about the classic French filmmaker Jean Rouch. Even In Search of Africa was actually the result of a documentary project of the same name. In elegant essays on photography, particularly in his studies of West African photographers like Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe, Diawara would offer a language that I had wanted to use for so long. He wrote simply and yet with sensuous precision. Equally important, departing from the kind of sour, astringent critique that quickly becomes second nature to academic critics, Diawara celebrated the practice of art. He found joy in the work of street photographers, and his writing eloquently communicated that joy to the reader. After a decade of metacritical discourse about the constructedness of culture, it was refreshing to find in Diawara a sophisticated but honest search for authenticity and the good life. When I finished reading In Search of Africa, I couldn't wait to begin writing about Hindi poets struggling in obscurity, or the Indian novelists that I admired, and even the Bollywood filmmakers I had adored since childhood.

There were also other writers from inside academia who helped me give shape to a narrative voice. The names that readily come to mind are Amitav Ghosh (In An Antique Land), Michael Taussig (Nervous System), and Edward Said (Out of Place). But perhaps the example that meant the most, and which I also offered to my students as a model, was Dreambirds by Rob Nixon. As a graduate student, I had read Nixon in the pages of the Village Voice or the Nation, and later still I pored over his magisterial book on V. S. Naipaul. But in Dreambirds, which came out in 1999, Nixon successfully enacted the turn I had been practicing in the privacy of my room, the transformation of the critic into a memoirist and travel-writer. Brilliantly using the ostrich and its migration across history and continents, Nixon had produced a book that was as much a rich cultural history of capitalism as it was a deeply affecting memoir about his own South African childhood.

Later, when offering a course for graduate students that I had entitled "Top Ten Reasons for Doing Cultural Studies," I used Nixon's Dreambirds as a prime example. Apart from some of the books mentioned above, the other books on the course-list that semester were Michael Bérubé's Life As We Know It, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed, Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, and Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life. These weren't all books by academics, nor were these the only books used in that course; but these titles most clearly represented what I wanted my students to attempt in their writing. Not simply the range from the journalistic to the philosophical, or from the overtly political to the very playful, but also the right mix of the personal and the public. God knows, I was trying my best to do the same. I had long complained that ideological certainties arrived at in seminar rooms needed to be replaced by the real, often contradictory, complexity of people's lives, and now I wrote narratives that relied a great deal on reportage. This turn toward journalism, in some instances resembling what Andrew Ross calls "scholarly reporting," seemed to be the right response to the dead end of postcolonial theorizing.

In the face of a dead critical vocabulary, what was needed were works of imagination. And I began to think that maybe even journalism wasn't the right answer, not conventional journalism anyway, with its pretense of objectivity and distance. We needed writing that examined entanglement, complicity, and compromise. In other words, writing that said clearly that there is no clean independence from anything. That too would be a sort of declaration of independence, I think.

That there is no escape into pure certainty or into some antiseptic haven of academic political correctness. That radical statements made at venues like the MLA Delegate Assembly falsely assume that bold posturing will change the profession and indeed the wider world. That, if we were more honest, there would be in what we say or do more self-questioning and doubt. And that our writing should express that condition. I'm putting this down, somewhat crudely and almost like bullet points, and yet I realize that I should perhaps be doing a better job of it because for some years now I've adopted this position as a credo.

This position is far better described in a passage in V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River. The narrator is an African of Indian origin; he is named Salim and runs a shop in a turbulent republic that resembles Zaire. One night Salim is at a party at the home of a Western intellectual favored by the country's dictator. Two or three couples are dancing in the tastefully darkened room. There is music playing, Joan Baez is singing "Barbara Allen." And then other songs. Here's how Naipaul describes the scene:

Not all songs were like "Barbara Allen." Some were modern, about war and injustice and oppression and nuclear destruction. But always in between were the older, sweeter melodies. These were the ones I waited for, but in the end the voice linked the two kinds of song, linked the maidens and lovers and sad deaths of bygone times with the people of today who were oppressed and about to die.

It was make believe—I never doubted that. You couldn't listen to sweet songs about injustice unless you expected justice and received it much of the time. You couldn't sing songs about the end of the world unless—like the other people in that room, so beautiful with such things: African mats on the floor and African hangings on the wall and spears and masks—you felt that the world was going on and you were safe in it. How easy it was, in that room, to make those assumptions!



MR BOOKS

Critics at Work
ed. Jeffrey J. Williams.
Critics at Work offers a guided tour through the central, sometimes confusing and frequently controversial developments in contemporary literary and cultural criticism. The tour guides, however, are not distant observers but have been primary participants in those developments, and they report on theory, cultural studies, the literary canon, the recent focus on race, sexuality, and other identities, the state of the univerisity, and the role of the intellectual. Throughout, they consider the not always easy negotiation of politics and culture.
Purchase Critics at Work.




Quote from the mother

When one hears music, how should one truly hear it?
For this - if one can be completely silent, you see, silent and attentive, simply as though one were an instrument which has to record it - one does not move, and is only something that is listening - if one can be absolutely silent, absolutely still and like that, then the thing enters. And it is only later, some time later, that you can become aware of the effect, either of what it meant or the impression it had on you.



- The Mother [CWMCE, 6:381-82]

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Profiles in Courage

Madre profiles the following Afghan women that have been assasinated in Afghanistan.

Women in Afghanistan are routinely denied basic human rights, including education, healthcare, freedom from violence, and freedom of movement. Afghan women who fight to change this reality are attacked and even assassinated by ultra-conservatives.

Meanwhile, US airstrikes that kill civilians further endanger Afghan women and their families. They also increase the power of the Taliban and other reactionary forces as more Afghans turn to them for protection from the United States.

Each woman who is targeted and killed is meant to serve as a warning to any woman who would dare to stand up for her rights. Yet Afghan women continue to do just that. MADRE is supporting their courageous struggle through our Afghan Women’s Survival Fund.

Below, we profile a few of the women who have been killed or threatened for daring to demand their rights.




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Sitara Achakzai spent the years of Taliban rule in Germany and returned to Afghanistan in 2004 to join women working to promote their human rights and struggling to secure peace. She became a member of Kandahar’s provincial council, using that position to advocate for women’s rights.

For International Women’s Day on March 8, 2009, she played a major role in organizing a national sit-in of more than 11,000 women in seven Afghan provinces. They were joined in this effort by women across the globe, who wore blue scarves in solidarity with the call for peace with justice.

On April 12, 2009, Sitara was gunned down in broad daylight in front of her home. As she stepped out of her car, four men on motorcycles drove by and opened fire. A Taliban spokesperson soon claimed responsibility. Just two weeks before, she had survived a suicide bomb attack on the provincial council building that left 13 people dead.




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Safia Amajan fought for women’s rights in Afghanistan for decades and served as the head of the women’s department in Kandahar’s city government. She began her career as a teacher at girls’ schools. Her popularity as a teacher led people to refer to her as “Amajan” or “dear aunt,” a name that stuck to her.

She opened six schools in Kandahar, training over 1,000 women. Her fight to ensure the right of girls to attend school made her a target of the Taliban.

On September 25, 2006, Safia was gunned down while leaving her home by two men on motorcycles. A Taliban spokesperson later announced that she had been “executed.” Malalai Kakar, a woman who would later lose her life in much the same way, investigated her murder and said, “She was this wonderful person we heard about growing up in Kandahar. I made a point of meeting her and I took guidance from her.”




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Malalai Kakar was Afghanistan’s most prominent policewoman, serving as the head of Kandahar’s department for crimes against women. She was the first woman to attend and graduate from the Kandahar Police Academy.

She had joined the police force in 1982, following her father and brothers. Malalai knew that her high profile made her a target. She survived multiple assassination attempts, once emerging from a shoot-out with three assassins. In reference to threatening letters regularly pinned to her front door at night, she said, “The notes say things like ‘Quit the force, or else.’ Of course, I won't.”

On September 28, 2008, as Malalai left her home for work, she was shot in her car and died instantly. Her teenaged son was injured in the attack. After her death, a Taliban spokesperson announced, “We killed Malalai Kakar. She was our target, and we successfully eliminated our target.”




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Shaima Rezayee became a pop culture icon for Afghan youth, as the host of “Hop,” a music show on a private television network. Her appearances on the show, often wearing make-up and without a burqa, drew the condemnation of conservatives.

When questioned by a journalist, Shaima warned, “Things are not getting better. We made some gains, but there are a lot of people who want to take it all back. They are not even the Taliban, they are here in Kabul. … The bad days are coming back, we’ll have to go into exile again.”

On May 18, 2005, Shaima was shot and killed in her home.




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Zarghuna Kakar (no relation to Malalai Kakar), a member of the provincial council in Kandahar, has repeatedly requested additional security from the government, knowing that being a woman politician puts her life at risk. She turned to Afghan President Karzai’s brother for support, and she reports that he dismissed her saying that she “should have thought about what may happen before [she] stood for election.” Zarghuna was with her family in a market when they were attacked, and her husband was killed. She has now fled her home and is in hiding.




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Suraya Pakzad founded the Voice of Women Organization in 1988, secretly teaching Afghan women to read and providing shelter from domestic violence. The organization emerged from the underground with the end of the Taliban regime, but today she warns of the resurgence of those forces.

Her own life has been threatened because of her work, and she worries for her safety everyday. In an interview, Suraya said, “I change routes to go to the office. I cannot share my schedule even with my friends, with my staff and even sometimes I’m not secure using the phone.”




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Jamilla Mujahid Barzai, a member of the police force in Kandahar, was a colleague of Malalai Kakar. She decided to remain in Kandahar to continue her assassinated boss’s work. She remembers having witnessed a woman summarily executed by the Taliban in a soccer stadium, and these attacks on women have stiffened her resolve. She explains, “It is most important that now women try to get to positions of power to stop things like that happening again. It is dangerous. But we cannot go back to those days again.”




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Mothering Magazine on Divorce

The other day a friend of mine, recently divorced, told me, “When I met her, I stopped living day to day, and started planning for the future.” Then, after a series of unforgivable transgressions, he accepted the inevitability of their divorce and realized the transiency of the future. He is, once again, living day to day and enjoying every moment he can with the knowledge that nothing is permanent. As Alisa Holleron says in “The Woman in My Seat,” “I cried because life often turns out so differently than you imagine it will.”
That doesn’t mean the changes, as difficult as they may be, are not for the best. Articles editor and product reviewer Candace Walsh recently released an anthology called Ask Me About My Divorce. “As a mom and a woman,” explains Candace, “I made a very specific decision to divorce my own experience of our family's shift from the old-school, stigma-ridden general perception of divorce.” Her anthology is a collection of essays by women who have experienced divorce, and broken out into a new life full of the possibility of renewal. Candace explains, “The change contained the requisite stress and pain for each of us, but it also opened up vast tracts of potential for joy and growth.”
Of course, divorce can be harder when there are children involved. The emotions, guilt, and responsibility are much greater. It’s often hard to believe that a better life awaits your children, as well—one that doesn’t include routine fighting, the cold shoulder, or tension. Joy Johnson addresses common misconceptions about divorce and how it affects children in “Resources for a Healthy Divorce.”
That’s not to say that every partnership doesn’t undergo trying times. Hurt feelings, anger, and the boredom of daily routine all contribute to difficult moments for even the strongest marriages. These moments, too, can serve as a cleansing for us and for our partners. We go deeper, know each other better and come out stronger. Candice White shares her heart-wrenching experience that, in the end, allowed her to stay with her husband.
When the best thing to do is move on, a little support can go a long way. As Joy Johnson puts it, “It's a death of a relationship with no corpse to mourn.” You can find support within MotheringDotCommunity. Also, Mothering expert Ellen Craine has extensive experience working as a mediator, social worker, and coparenting facilitator. And, finally, Wendy Strgar, owner of Good Clean Fun, specializes in helping to keep relationships sustainable and healing intimate connections.
Relationships, after all, are part of our personal journey.

Elon Musk going off the rails

Elon Musk needs to know that there are other ways of doing things