30 January 2007

New Feature! Kurt's Shared Items

At the top left, directly below the banner image, there is a box labeled "Kurt's Shared Items." These are interesting things that I've read or watched on the internet that I thought were interesting and wanted to share with you. They are all links to different sites and will be updated very frequently, potentially more than once a day, so you may want to check on it more often than you do the regular blog. Also, some may link to videos which will be difficult for readers using a dial-up internet connection. Unfortunately there is no way for me to warn you of this (though if the source is "Daily Show Videos" or something like that, you can bet that it is a video).

[Tech note for those who are interested: This is a widget that it getting live updates from my Google Reader account and posting my Shared Items list here. It's really easy to set up, but not as customizable as I would like (that's why it doesn't match my template exactly). Let me know if you are interested in setting this up.]

28 January 2007

Two Analyses, My Analysis

I recently read two different analyses on the situation in Iraq. The first was an op-ed from Liz Cheney, the veep's daughter, that ran in the January 23rd edition of the Washington Post

The second is from today's New York Time's Week in Review. It's Sabrina Tavernise's retrospective after having reported from Baghdad for 22 months.

The contrast between the two is striking, Cheney's piece is all conclusion with mostly rhetorical support. Here's a sample:

We are at war. America faces an existential threat. This is not, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi has claimed, a "situation to be solved." It would be nice if we could wake up tomorrow and say, as Sen. Barack Obama suggested at a Jan. 11 hearing, "Enough is enough." Wishing doesn't make it so. We will have to fight these terrorists to the death somewhere, sometime. We can't negotiate with them or "solve" their jihad. If we quit in Iraq now, we must get ready for a harder, longer, more deadly struggle later.
On the other hand, the Tavernise article gives you her impression upon departure without coming to an explicit conclusion. Here's a sample:
But the odds are stacked against the corps of bright young [American] officers charged with making the plan work, particularly because their Iraqi partner — the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki — seems to be on an entirely different page. When American officials were debating whether to send more troops in December, I went to see an Iraqi government official. The prospect of more troops infuriated him. More Americans would simply prolong the war, he said.

“If you don’t allow the minority to lose, you will carry on forever,” he said.
Now, I encourage you to read both articles before you come to any conclusions, but I for one am finding myself tired of ideological bluster at this stage in the game, especially with 21,500 more American troops heading into the black hole of Iraq. These soldiers and marines, this country as a whole, deserve better from its administration. I am chilled when I read the President's recent remarks:

President Bush, on a collision course with Congress over Iraq, said Friday "I'm the decision-maker" about sending more troops to the war. He challenged skeptical lawmakers not to prematurely condemn his buildup.

"I've picked the plan that I think is most likely to succeed," Bush said in an Oval Office meeting with senior military advisers.

The fact that the management of the war has come down to, "Well, do you have any better ideas?" shows a serious example of unclear thinking and grossly insufficient planning.

The fact remains, though, that there really are no good ideas left on the table, all of them entail serious concessions. The "phased redeployment" that most Democrats and a few Republicans are advising is basically cutting our losses. We come out from this shameful exercise after having spent about $1.2 trillion dollars (sorry, Times Select already), with our standing in the world significantly diminished and Iraq spiraling further into chaos (not to mention the tens of thousands of Iraqis dead and the more than three thousand Americans).

On the other hand, a surge of 21,500 troops has the chance to bring temporary stability back to Baghdad, but as long as the conviction of the Iraqi government is missing, it's doomed to failure. Basically, we're putting all of our chips on the table, in the hope that we can avoid the scenario above. In all likelihood, we are going to lose this bet, we are going to burn more money, and, tragically, put even more of our servicemen and women into harms way. If this doesn't work (and I want it to work) we are going to come out even worse than above, having lost after trying every last trick in the book. Just as Hezbollah was able to gain ground after this summer's war by saying that they resisted the full force of the Israeli army, so too will the extremists be able to claim that they resisted the full force of the American army.

Both are terrible prospects to look at. For me, the responsible thing to do is to pull your chips from the table and attempt to fix the harm that you've done back at home. Having lost all of your checking and savings accounts on the roulette wheel, you don't put your retirement fund on it too.

What's most tragic about all of this? That a gambling analogy is the most appropriate for a scenario the cost of which is thousands upon thousands of human lives. Mr. President, I curse you for ever stepping foot on this riverboat.

25 January 2007

Dictator Rising

The word in Venezuela the last few weeks has been "nationalization." Here's a brief summary if you missed it: the Chavez government wants to nationalize a few industries including but not limited to, telecommunications, natural gas, electricity, and air travel. Here's a nice article from the International Herald Tribune.

What industry is next you ask? How about automobile manufacturing. The national finance minister has called GM and Ford factories, "nice examples of national assets." Here's a video from Bloomberg.

More good news for Detroit.

[First read on The Drudge Report.]

The Life in Kurtistan Review of Books

I've been reading a lot lately, more than ever. I'm reminded of a scene from Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire where he falls into a river, almost fatally dehydrated, and feels the water soaking every inch of his body, inside and out. Surrounded by all of this French, I can crawl into an English language book and find some refuge and, if I'm lucky, maybe even learn a little bit about myself.

I should tell you that I feel that I am something of a selfish reader, I want a book to speak to me, to tell me something about myself that I didn't yet know. I want to feel that I am the character, that I am finding my way through the struggle of the plot. Good or bad, it's how I approach books, if I can't connect with it, it's probably not going to do much for me. I briefly review my recent reading list below. As you read it, keep my selfishness in mind. If I didn't like a book that you loved, it's probably this selfish tendency that's motivating my opinion. As always, I'm happy to hear disagreement, just put it into the comments section below.

Without further ado...

Prince of the Marshes, Rory Stewart

Over the summer I read Stewart's first book, The Places in Between, and really was impressed with the guy. He walked across Afghanistan. In the winter. A few months after the Taliban fell. Impressive stuff to say the least. So, I ordered his next book, The Prince of the Marshes: And other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.

Plot Summary:
A few months after the Coalition invades Iraq, Stewart is sent to administer a province in the South for the British (he's Scottish). The book details his experiences trying to bring order to chaos amid the clash of two cultures.

The Kurt Opinion:
Interesting read though not as impressive as his previous work. If you are curious to know what sort of daily problems "reconstruction" might run into, this book is invaluable. You begin to understand the challenge that the entire Iraq effort faces when you see this account from a competent manager (at least he spoke some Arabic, had spent plenty of time out of his home country, and made a real effort to respect local customs) trying to administer a relatively peaceful region. Extrapolate from this account and imagine the more chaotic provinces and their civilian administrators (who may have had to apply for a passport before going to Iraq, having never before been outside of the country) and it's almost surprising that the war has gone as well as it has.

The Bottom Line:
Stewart's an impressive guy and provides an enlightening glimpse into life in the Coalition Provisional Authority. Definitely read if you are curious.

Dreams from my Father, Barack Obama

I liked what I was reading about him in the press and I wanted to know more. My mom was going to send me a care package so I asked her to through in Obama's two books. I chose to read this one first so that I got to know where he was coming from before I read The Audacity of Hope which, I imagined, would tell me where he was going.

Plot Summary:
Obama recounts his his pre-political life against the shadow cast by his often absent father. We get a family history going back to his grandparents, followed by insightful episodes from his childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. We see him growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia, going to school in New York, and finally working in Chicago.

The Kurt Opinion:
If I liked him before, I like him a lot more after having read this book. He's honest, he doesn't shy away from a mildly turbulent past. He's empathetic, he wants to understand people before he attempts to diagnose their problems. He's, he's, he's... Well, I could go on, but the point is that I like him, a lot. From what I have read, I trust and admire him. Granted, it's easy to paint a rosy picture of yourself, but this book was written long before he had any presidential ambitions. In that sense, I find it to be a valuable source of information about the potential 44th President of the United States.

The Bottom Line:
Insightful and engaging, it explores the way in which race and family have shaped a man who is quickly becoming a front-runner for the Presidency. A must-read for the politically curious.

The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama

Feeling that I had some idea about the man's history, I was curious to know what were his thoughts for the future of the country.

Plot Outline:
Obama spends about 60% of the book talking politics, both evaluating the current political climate of the United States, evaluating past policies, and providing proposals for future policies. The remainder of the book is more personal history and modern anecdote. There is maybe 10% overlap between the two books.

The Kurt Opinion:
Obama's got some good ideas, though they don't yet seem to be completely formed. At the stage of the game that Obama was at when he wrote and published the book, it would make sense to not make too many positive proposals. The book exists more in generalities than in specifics but it is not the actual proposals that inspire interest in Obama, it is his attitude. From his perspective, American politics are stuck in the culture wars that were bred on college campuses in the 60's. Those activists are now our politicians and are having their demonstrations, sit-ins, and counter-demonstrations on our national stage. This is not a good thing for the world's sole super-power to be doing and Obama is looking for a way forward. It's an attitude that I generally agree with and puts me further into the Obama camp.

The Bottom Line:
Sets the stage for the Obama '08 run, though he will have to bring some impressive policies proposals to the table in the next 4o0 days to justify the interest that he has already garnered.

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

When friend Neil stayed a few nights here on his trek across Europe, he left this semi-worn paperback behind, having already read it. Everything that I had ever heard about it was universally positive and, even though I had been on a big non-fiction kick, I decided to give a novel a try and see what I could learn from a story.

Plot Summary:
Pi is an Indian boy who likes religions. He's a Muslim, Christian, and Hindu. That poses no problem for him, though it doesn't sit so well with the rest of society. Then he gets on a ship. The ship sinks and he is stranded in a life boat with a zebra, hyena, orangutan, and Bengal tiger. The majority of the novel is him floating around in the Pacific for more than a year.

The Kurt Opinion:
One of the acclaim snippets in the first few pages of the book exclaims that Martel's mastery is evidenced in his ability to make even the most implausible storyline seem perfectly reasonable. That pretty much sums it up for me. The book is marvelously written, from the seeming discontinuity to the incredible last 20 pages, everything simply works. What's more, the book, as a whole, is about the story of life, that is, what story you prefer to explain the universe. While the story is supposedly one that will make you believe in God, Martel, through the voice of Pi, tells us that he is just as happy with atheists too, it's those agnostics that boil his blood. "You can't just walk around not even trying to know!" you can almost hear him scream. The point is that if you really want to know what existence and life are all about, you have to have some degree of faith. For religious people this faith is clearly manifested, for atheists it is shown in their faith in scientific models and explanations. Though I don't completely agree with this point, I am pleased to find a pro-religion book being 1) supportive of all religions and 2) giving atheists a fair shake too.

The Bottom Line:
All in all, a masterfully constructed novel that will make you think, though may not make you believe in God.

The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

When my mom sent this to me she hadn't yet read it, she had only heard good things about it and thought that I might like it. A few days ago, I got an email from my mom telling me that she had read the book along with the the friendly disclaimer, "I DID NOT SEND YOU THIS BOOK BASED ON ITS RELIGIOUS THEME- I DID NOT KNOW IT HAD A RELIGIOUS THEME- READ THE COVER FLAP- NO MENTION OF RELIGION THERE" (original emphasis). Well, what did I think of it? Read on...

Plot Summary:
This is the story of the boy Santiago from Spain. He has a dream that he will find treasure at the Pyramids in Egypt so he goes there. It's not easy and he learns a lot on the way.

The Kurt Opinion:
The book is fantastic and really struck a chord with me. It's a pretty straightforward story of a young man (Coelho calls him a "boy" throughout, but I have to put him around 20 years old) but the message is pretty powerful (and requires no religious sympathies to appreciate). The idea? Go for your dreams. Figure out exactly what it is that you want to do with your life, what it is that will make you most happy and don't let go of it. Most importantly, don't make excuses for why you can't get it. Things like "loved ones" and "other commitments" get in the way. The point is, your loved ones want nothing more than you to be happy and they are going to benefit from you being happy as well. If we all started making ourselves happy, the world would be a much better place!

There is another side to the book as well, it's about a loose kind of predestination. Coelho writes about the "Soul of the Universe" wants you to achieve your dreams and will help you a bit to that end (things like providing omens when necessary) and will, ultimately, be very happy when you reach your goal. I don't see that this part need to be construed as anything at all "religious" and actually got me thinking quite a bit about consciousness and predestination. Really, it was an intriguing book.

The Bottom Line:
Absolutely recommended to everybody. At 200 pages, it's not much of a commitment and it's very likely that you'll get something meaningful out of it. And mom, no need for any capitalized disclaimers, it was an excellent choice!

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

Everybody loves this book. It's enjoyed favorable reviews from pretty much everyone. If you sit next to a shelf that holds this book, it seems that you would be compelled to remark on how well it balances against the other books on the shelf. (It's been on the NY Times Best Seller list for 108 weeks in paperback form, currently ranks at 15, and was called by that publication, "[a] powerful first novel... [a] vivid and engaging story...")

Plot Summary:
Amir lives in Afghanistan during the time before the Soviet invasion when there was some hope that the country would eventually progress into a more fully developed state. He is a rich boy and his father has a servant whose son, named Hassan, Amir plays with. Amir is a weak and spoiled child, often cruelly ridiculing Hassan for his own pleasure. Hassan repays him with unyielding admiration. Some really bad things happen to Hassan that Amir could have prevented. Amir feels bad for a long time and struggles to find redemption.

The Kurt Opinion:
I got nothing from this book. I think that it owes to the fact that, as stated above, I'm essentially a selfish reader. This book did not speak to me at all. I could not imagine myself as either of the two main characters, nor could I engender even an ounce of empathy for the miserable main character. What's more, I didn't find the book particularly well written, some stretches were a real burden to get through and Hosseini seems to overreach in his attempt to place symbols throughout the book.

Maybe I should be able to look past the faults of the main character, but I'd prefer not to read a book that puts such a coward forward as it's hero, it just doesn't resonate with me.

The Bottom Line:
According to everybody else, this book is touching, devastating, amazing, mesmerizing, redeeming, etc... According to me, it's not worth the time it takes to read it. You are free to choose which recommendations you want to trust.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway

Every now and then you realize that you are walking around with a huge whole in your general knowledge. Not long ago I realized that my hole had a name and it's name was Hemingway (there's a blurb to go on the dust jacket). Also, it seems appropriate that I should fill this hole in Paris as it was Hemingway's residence for a long time. The Wikipedia article on him (link here) has some pictures of the cafés that he would hang out in and they are all in the area where I have my phonetics classes. I'm not sure why I chose For Whom the Bell Tolls as my introduction to Hemingway, but it ultimately served its purpose quite well.

Plot Summary:
Robert Jordan is an American from Montana fighting with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.

[Side note on American education: I realized that I knew almost nothing about this war, even though it had significant implications for World War II. Esther mildly mocked me for my knowledge deficit and I read a lot about it. I feel that the only classes that where an American would be be taught about this war are perhaps in an AP European History class in high school, and more specialized classes at the university level. Also, because of the lack of direct American involvement, secondary educational sources such as the History Channel seem to ignore it as well. This is really a shame because 1) it is an important war for modern history, 2) it is a compelling story, and 3) it might have something to tell us about the war we are stuck in today. The New York Times wrote an interesting article on this point in the January 14 Week in Review. Here is the link, though it has already been archived and requires a Times Select membership to view it.

Of course, Wikipedia can give you an excellent history lesson if you are in need, as I was. Here's the link.]

Back to the plot summary...

Jordan is charged with the task of blowing up a bridge at a specific time and has met up with a group of partisans in the mountains and enlists them to help him. There is much drama and intrigue, plenty of plot-building flashbacks, and a tremendous amount of drinking (preferred drink: wine straight from the skin). The entire story takes place over just 4 days but easily fills 500 pages (this with Hemingway's famed economy of writing no less). It covers a lot of ground, personal and political, and ends the way a book like this must.

The Kurt Opinion:
This is a book, this is a real book. I'm not sure if I can give my appreciation of it justice without sounding like a doofus for not having read it already. But really, it's fantastic. The characters are so richly developed (and in so few words, no less) that you can't help but be drawn into the story. Robert Jordan is not some stock hero, swinging in with the explosives and out with the girl. He's a normal guy doing an extraordinary thing and, at times, he scares him to death. The tensions of the characters are so expertly drawn that you believe that you are in the novel yourself.

It's about politics, love, courage, and cowardice. It's amazing, it's great, it's a triumph of a novel. In all seriousness, I am coming up short on the proper adjectives to describe this book. If you have read the book maybe you will understand my enthusiasm or, perhaps, you will learn something about me from my enthusiasm.

The Bottom Line:
Spectacular in its subtlety, amazing in its reservation, Hemingway clearly deserves his high rank in the American literary canon. Read it and learn.

Well folks, there you have it, the Life in Kurtistan Review of Books. As I read more books I'll review them more quickly so that I don't have to write such a gargantuan post again. It'll be easier on me and you. Also, please remember that if you agree or disagree with my reviews, put your thoughts into the comments section below. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, especially given that it has taken me so long to write it. Finally, if you have any book suggestions for me, please let me know, I'm always on the lookout for new material.

Now Easier to Leave Comments!

I changed some overly-restrictive settings to make it easier to leave comments to my posts. With this I hope that people begin to comment a bit more, it makes the whole experience more fun. I have this incredible fear that I will write these posts and they will just float around, frozen in a big series of tubes.

Why post comments, you ask? Because it's fun! A blog shouldn't be about me preaching to you, telling you my opinions about everything. Blogging changes the traditional dynamic of publication, instead of there being a reader and a publisher, now everyone is a reader and publisher. If you comment, I promise I'll respond. That's the great thing about these "inter-webs", it's all about communication.

In any event, thanks for reading my blog at all, I really do appreciate it!

22 January 2007

Towards French, Slowly but Surely

Saturday marked a notable day in my progression toward French language proficiency; I had my final exam for the first semester at the Sorbonne. It had been a while since I had taken an exam and, even though the grade that I get in this class has no bearing on my future, I found myself pretty nervous going into it. Thankfully though, the nerves turned out to be unfounded as the exam went off without any serious hitch. I made some mistakes but nothing too serious and I think that I proved to them that I have succeeded in attaining niveau élémentaire (elementary level) and that I deserve to move onto niveau intermédiare. The good news is that I feel that I have made a lot of prgoress in my French, even if Esther and I don't speak it at home as often as we should. I imagine that after the next semester I should be even more comfortable using the language in social settings.

So, off to the next semester I go with all of its verb tenses (plus-que-parfait is my current favorite), grammar, and vocabulary. Sounds like fun!

Coming soon from Life in Kurtistan:
A major book review post is in the works. If you were wondering not only what I've been reading but what I thought of it too, you're in luck! It should be up in a few days...

16 January 2007

The Much-Delayed Vacation Report

Illustrated Edition!

So here some of the better pictures I took in Germany, as well as two "just for fun" series of Pete. Like I said in the preceding post, I'll try to get some links up to Pete's pictures on his Facebook account. I can tell you, the kid has got quite and eye for photography...

Anyway, here you go!

Don't forget to read the captions!

The Much-Delayed Vacation Report

And a Return to More Regular Posting...

I've been trying to explain to Esther how difficult it is to come back to work and school after three weeks of vacation. Alas, I am not sure that she gets it. Her response always includes something to the effect of, "Yes, I understand that you find it difficult, but try not to forget that some of us had no vacation and have been working the entire time you've been hopping around Europe." Some days I wonder if we will ever communicate successfully...

In all seriousness (well, maybe not all of it, but a lot of it) the vacations were really great for me. It started out with the week in Scotland (see preceding post). I came back to town for not quite a full day, just long enough to unpack and repack, and then Esther and I set off for her family's house in Normandy. (Click here for a Google Map of the town, Villerville.) We were there for 4 days all together, including Christmas. It was just the two of us so it was pleasantly tranquil the entire time. We didn't do anything particularly exciting (that was, more or less, the idea of going there) so there isn't too much I can report here.

After we returned from Normandy, however, Pete arrived. Having read this post, you all know how excited I was for his arrival. Well, it pretty much lived up to expectations and, in fact, exceeding them in many cases. The only low point was that I fell sick for a couple of days and had to spend some time getting my strength back. Other than that, it was really a great 10 days. The first 5 days were spent running around Paris. I took Pete to all of the usual suspects and feel that we covered a lot of ground in a matter of a few days. I imagine can Pete can attest to this too. I didn't take any pictures during this, I left that up to Pete. He has his pictures up on his Facebook site and I'll talk to him to see if I can get a link to that so that people without a Facebook account to view them.

I think some of my favorite moments from this period were watching Pete eat a lot of pastries and laughing at French things with him. He really was the biggest guy around. Also, having lived with Esther for a while now, I was beginning to feel like a real pig in regard to the quantities of food I eat. Thankfully, Pete came and showed me that I really had nothing to worry about. Seriously though, French pastries are really good and readily available. Ask Pete.

We stayed in Paris until January 1st when we got on our Air France flight to Munich. I was just getting my strength back during this period so the traveling was a bit difficult but we got settled pretty easily in the city. I had found a promising hotel online (thanks kayak.com, best travel site ever!) and we found it to be quite nice upon arrival.

It didn't take me long to realize that German cuisine isn't exactly conducive to vegetarians, or people who want to avoid meat at even one meal per day. Thankfully the first night we found a great traditional restaurant that is more directed to the tourist crowd (though not to the degree of the famed Hofbrauhaus) and had a few vegetarian options, though with a considerably German twist. I had spaetzle (really thick, short noodles) baked with sauerkraut and really salty cheese all of which was washed down with a pint of Lowenbrau helles bier. It was good, really good, and the first real meal I had since regaining my health. Nothing like a trial by fire to see if the system is back in full working order. Good news, it was! We spent the next day seeing the sights of Munich with a highlight being the Deutches Museum, a museum of science and technology. I'd recommend it to anyone who finds them self in the area.

We then rented a car and drove up to Nuremberg and Fürth (the hometown of Oma, my grandmother). The following day we drove south to Schloss Neuschwanstein, the castle that served as the inspiration for the Disney castle, and made a short pass through the German and Austrian Alps. I feel that the pictures from this part of the trip speak for themselves so I'll let them do the talking.

On the last day in Germany we took the train just outside of Munich to the city of Dachau and its concentration camp. The gravity of this subject demands a separate post outside of this travelogue. Look for it here shortly.

We had a late flight back to Paris, got Pete ready to depart, and then took him to the airport the next morning. All in all it was a bit of whirlwind, but a really pleasant whirlwind, not the type that brings wicked witches and flying monkeys. It was great to see Pete, as a representative of the family, during the holidays. I was surprised at how homesick I found myself during this time of year. Further proof that I'm not the tough guy that I think I am...

All in all though, it was a great three weeks and coming back to normal was a bit of a shock. I'm starting to understand how working for the same three weeks could have been "worse," as Esther puts it, but I'm still not fully convinced...

Oh yes, and,

Happy New Year!