Three Cups of Tea:  One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (Penguin Books, New York, 2007)

Greg Mortenson, the son of missionary parents, had a happy childhood in Africa, but his return to the United States as a teenager was rough, and it took him a long time to find his way.  As he tells it, it took a dramatic failure to lead him to his calling—but I disagree that someone has failed who has not succeeded in climbing the infamous K2 because he expended too much time and energy rescuing a climber in distress.  Whatever you call it, from that point in 1993 on, Mortenson's energies would be spent on a different form of rescue:  building schools and promoting education, especially for girls, in the remote, impoverished villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Mortenson was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009; even President Obama's most enthusiastic supporters cannot read Three Cups of Tea without entertaining a doubt or two as to the wisdom of the Nobel Committee's final choice.  (The Nobel Committee overlooked Gandhi, too, so their peculiar judgement is not without precedent.) (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, March 1, 2010 at 4:44 pm | Edit
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The Occasional CEO is one of my favorite non-family blogs, not only because Eric Schultz is a good writer, but also because he is a good compiler:  He's great at weaving into a coherent essay the common threads from varied sources I'd never find on my own.  His most recent post, with the unassuming title of Odds and Ends, led me to Paul Campos's excellent Wall Street Journal article, "Undressing the Terror Threat."

Both essays are well worth reading in their entirety.  The first quote box below is from Mr. Schultz; the rest are Mr. Campos's words.

[W]e are buried by data, and are constantly searching for ways to separate signal from noise....Someone wants to take flying lessons: that’s noise.  Someone wants to take flying lessons but doesn’t want to know how to land the plane: that’s signal.  Similarly, someone gets on an international flight, pays cash, and checks no bags—that might be signal.  Someone sews explosive into his underwear: Signal.  Panic.

The question is, how much do we pay to find out?  What’s the real risk of dying at the hands of a terrorist in America?  And if 1,900 Americans [under age 65] die today from a variety of preventable causes, how much are we willing to invest to save those lives?

 (More)
Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 11:02 am | Edit
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In Forgetting the Unforgettable, I remarked on how ordinary were my diary entries when the Berlin Wall was breached.  In a subsequent comment, Stephan mentioned that he barely remembers the event, despite living so close to Germany.

Soon thereafter, while taking my customary walk and listening to a history lecture on my trusty mp3 player, I was reminded that the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred when I was the age Stephan was when the Wall fell.  I have no memory of the event whatsoever, nor of any particular anxiety because of the imminent threat of nuclear war.  We had "air raid drills" in our elementary school, but that was nothing new; they were a normal part of school, like the equally-frequent fire drills.  If the adults in my life worried about the situation, none of that filtered down to me.  My life comprised surviving fifth grade, playing with my friends, and enjoying my new baby brother.

Curious, I delved into the journals that my father had kept, hoping there would be entries for October 1962, and there were.  I looked forward to hearing how he and my mother had dealt with the fears that, I'm told, caused families eating breakfast to wonder if they'd still be alive at dinnertime. (More)
Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 10:06 am | Edit
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Where were you 20 years ago today?

My own journal entry is remarkably filled with the mundane details of life with two young children.  There is one exclamatory sentence, "Would that every day could be like this!" but it was referring to Heather's having awakened with her alarm clock, showered, dressed, made her bed, cleaned her room and finished all her chores before school.  Not as momentous as events on the other side of the world, but a personal triumph. (More)
Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, November 9, 2009 at 7:47 am | Edit
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More from the backblog . . .

The Strange Double Standards of Abortion  John Stackhouse muses on the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller, vigilantism, and hypocrisy. (More)
Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 9:01 am | Edit
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Writing in the Wall Street Journal, physician Scott Gottlieb blames governmental overcaution for the shortage of H1N1 flu vaccine.  Unlike Europe, the U.S. (1) does not allow additives to the vaccine that stimulate the immune system and make a smaller dosage effective; (2) requires single-dose syringes, which require less of the mercury-containing preservative thimerosol than do multi-dose vials; and (3) continues to use the slower, egg-based manufacturing system rather than a new procedure using mammalian cells.

President Obama, the doctor believes, should be pushing us forward, dropping the precautions put in place to protect us.  Perhaps the doctor has forgotten 1976, when President Ford's swine flu vaccination program resulted in an unacceptable level of fatal or debilitating side effects.  Perhaps he has also forgotten the thalidomide tragedy, in which our cautious Food and Drug Administration's refusal to approve the new drug largely spared our children the horrible birth defects that afflicted the Europeans.

My hat's off the the president on this one.  Or it would be, if I were wearing one, which I hardly ever am.
Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, October 27, 2009 at 7:19 pm | Edit
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On the Nobel Prize system, that is.

I mean, it's bad enough they don't have anything for mathematicians.

When I was in college, my roommate's father was a chemist.  Whether he ever had a chance at a Nobel prize I never knew, but we always watched the Nobel news carefully because he certainly knew many fellow chemists who did.  In the process, I learned that there was often a signficant time lag involved, the work for which the prize was given having been done many years earlier.  When I thought about it, that made sense:  one never knows the true impact of a discovery or an action until one can look back on it from a more distant perspective.

But now we have the Nobel Peace Prize given, not for actions proved peace-promoting from the perspective of history, but to encourage actions that might, maybe, possibly, we hope will do so?

President Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in a stunning decision designed to encourage his nascent initiatives to reduce nuclear arms, ease tensions with the Muslim world and replace unilateral American action with international diplomacy and cooperation.

For once, words fail me.  To his credit, I hear President Obama was surprised.  It would be greater credit if he refused the honor on the grounds that he doesn't deserve it, even if he hopes to someday.  But that may be too much to expect of any human being, let alone a politician.
Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, October 9, 2009 at 10:48 am | Edit
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I'm sure there must be a legitimate reason behind the new Federal Trade Commission rules for bloggers, but it looks pretty nonsensical from my perspective, another example of one-size-fits-all rules that inconvenience millions in an attempt to collar a few offenders.  It invites comparisons with the TSA's airport screening, except that I'm a lot more worried about terrorists than about those "I lost 300 pounds on this simple diet" ads.

The Federal Trade Commission on Monday took steps to make product information and online reviews more accurate for consumers, regulating blogging for the first time and mandating that testimonials reflect typical results.  Under the new rules, which take effect Dec. 1, writers on the Web must clearly disclose any freebies or payments they get from companies for reviewing their products.  Testimonials will have to spell out what consumers should expect to experience with their products.  [From the Hartford Courant, October 6, 2009]

So here goes.  I suppose I'll have to put it in my About link, too.

I have no idea what others should expect from anything I review or comment on.  I'm one person, not a research laboratory.  You may love a book I find objectionable; you may dislike the recipe I say is fabulous.  Such is life.  Sometimes I get books for free, from publishers, which I'll acknowledge in the review, but no small tip is going to make me say I liked a book when I didn't.  (So far, I've received all of one book this way, and I haven't read it yet, which is why you haven't seen any such acknowledgement.)  I also get incalculable return from Lime Daley, but I like to think that's because of my familial relationship with the owners, not because of any endorsements I make on this blog.

I don't mean to pick on the FTC; they have a tough job.  But I'm much more interested in disclosures, say, of gifts given by textbook publishers to school boards, or from pharmaceutical companies to doctors.  When Internet bloggers attain the respect, authority, and power of doctors and school boards, when it takes more than common sense to realize their reviews might not have universal applicability, then I may be convinced of the need for regulation.  I won't be in that category anyway.  Smile
Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 8:45 am | Edit
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Learning the lesson of Napoleon and Hitler.  Never underestimate Russia.  C. S. Lewis observed that mankind tends to alternate between taking the Devil too seriously and not taking him seroiusly enough.  Without making any implications on the order of "the Great Satan" or "the Evil Empire," it's a good analogy for the way we look at other countries, whether friend or enemy.  During the Cold War, for example, our fears of Russia—especially in the 1950s—were probably exaggerated, and it's likely that now we're not sufficiently worried about how far the influence such a large country with so many resources might reach.  Here's a New York Times article on the activities of Moscow's mayor, not to provoke fear, but to make us think.  The article is a bit dated, but the ideas are not.

 


 

And it doesn't even mention health care.  This analysis of then president-elect Obama's upcoming challenges was written nearly a year ago.  It is left as an exercise to the reader to decide how well he is meeting them.

U.S. President George W. Bush demonstrated that the inability to understand the uses and limits of power can crush a presidency very quickly. The enormous enthusiasm of Obama's followers could conceal how he—like Bush—is governing a deeply, and nearly evenly, divided country. Obama's first test will be simple: Can he maintain the devotion of his followers while increasing his political base? Or will he believe, as Bush and Cheney did, that he can govern without concern for the other half of the country because he controls the presidency and Congress, as Bush and Cheney did in 2001? Presidents are elected by electoral votes, but they govern through public support.

 


 

And now for something completely different.  A long and ususual but fascinating look at changes in Austria (and the world) since the days of Kaiser Franz Josef.
Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, October 3, 2009 at 8:07 pm | Edit
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Until recently, Cairo had a refuse-collection system unlike any you'll find in the United States, but it worked—and might even be commended for its efficiency and environmental responsibility.  Cairo's households enjoyed free or inexpensive garbage collection, right from the door, by the zabaleen ("garbage people"), an impoverished community of Egyptian Christians living in an area of Cairo known as "Garbage City."   The collectors and their families then sorted the trash, reusing, repairing, and recycling what they could, and feeding the organic waste to their livestock, primarily pigs.

Sanitation workers do not generally enjoy high status anywhere, and the zabaleen are despised not only for their jobs, but also for their poverty, their religion, and their willingness to keep pigs as livestock.  However, as even American cities discover during a protracted sanitation strike, we do not do well to devalue other human beings, least of all those responsible for keeping us from suffocating in trash. 

In a misguided effort to stave off a swine flu epidemic, Egypt ordered that all the pigs be killed, even though the disease is not, in fact, spread by pigs.  By the law of unintended consequences, Cairo's citizens are now more vulnerable to disease than before.  The zabaleen no longer collect the trash, and the government's effort to replace them with multinational corporations has largely failed.  The poorest of the poor have lost their only livelihood as well as their source of food, and Cairo's streets overflow with filth.

I don't write this to belittle Egypt or the Egyptian government, but as a warning.  Our country has a problem:  Our healthcare system, once arguably the best in the world, is falling apart.  (We can disagree over the causes, or even the definition, of "falling apart," but that's not the point here.)  There's no shortage of wrangling over what the intended consequences of a federally-imposed health plan might be, but whatever shakes out of that debate, I fervently hope that we will consider the possible unintended consequences before killing off the pigs.

(Sources used for this post included The New York Times and Wikipedia.)
Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, September 20, 2009 at 11:19 am | Edit
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Today marks our Constitution's 222nd birthday, in honor of which I present another depressing civics quiz.  The questions are drawn from the test prospective U.S. citizens must pass, and if these standards applied to all, apparently 97% of Oklahoma's public high school students would be in danger of losing their citizenship.  I'm sure no one is under any illusions that the problem is limited to Oklahoma.  Here are the questions; for the answers, and what percentage of the students surveyed answered each question correctly, see the original article.

  1. What is the supreme law of the land?   
  2. What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?
  3. What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress?
  4. How many justices are there on the Supreme Court?   
  5. Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?
  6. What ocean is on the east coast of the United States?
  7. What are the two major political parties in the United States?
  8. We elect a U.S. senator for how many years?
  9. Who was the first President of the United States?
  10. Who is in charge of the executive branch?
What I find interesting about this quiz is that, although I did get answer every question correctly, I would say few if any of my answers were due primarily to what I learned in school, but rather to merely living life.  When it comes to history and politics, I admit to being abysmally ignorant; I wangled my way out of Pennsylvania's required semester of American Government by taking an extra year of independent study physics.  (Don't ask me why they let me get away with that, but I trust the Statute of Limitations covers it somehow.)  I loathe politics in general and other than voting am shamefully neglectful of my civic duties.  Yet even with my notorious lack of observational skills, I couldn't avoid learning enough to pass the test.  Perhaps my additional years on this planet do count for something.
Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 1:19 pm | Edit
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My Swiss family doesn't let me forget that "universal health care" does not necessarily mean a system like that in the United Kingdom.  For this I am grateful, because of the horror stories that keep emerging from that system, such as the cases of Charlotte Wyatt, Leslie Burke, Linda O'Boyle, Jayden Capewell, and too many others to write about.  It's worth looking at alternatives, and T. R. Reid's The Healing of America does just that.

I haven't read the book; my opinion is based on the New York Times review. There's much I don't agree with in the review, and I'm sure in the book also, but I like the gimmick:  Reid had shoulder problems that were interfering with his golf game, and he decided to present the case to 10 different doctors around the world.  The results?  (More)
Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 3:40 pm | Edit
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I've been avoiding this topic for some time, hoping people would come to their senses and get on with real political debate, but it just won't go away.  President Carter now chimes in:

"I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man....[The] racism inclination still exists, and I think it's bubbled up to the surface because of belief among many white people...that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country....[Responses like comparing Obama to a Nazi] are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national program on health care...."

What is so intriguing, and frustrating, about these remarks is that they are held by so many otherwise intelligent, educated, and reasonable people.  What is it in the mental make-up of what I'm loosely calling the American Left that blinds them to two stunningly obvious facts:  (More)
Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 9:47 am | Edit
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It would not be too strong to say that I loathe politics.  I vote, and have done so since I was first able to at age 19, but mostly without enthusiasm; choosing the least objectionable candidate is gritty, unsatisfactory work.  Other than that, I try to ignore politics.  Unfortunately, politics does not return the favor, so I occasionally give in to the prodding of my conscience and attempt to articulate a political opinion in a blog post, or write a letter to an elected official, or attend a political meeting.

The last is rare indeed, but that's what I did the other night.  Our state representative held a health care "town hall meeting."  On my list of preferred activities it was somewhat below scrubbing the bathroom floor with a toothbrush, but I put on my Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and ventured out into the rain anyway.  Not without a bit of grumbling under my breath, but this was one of the few candidates in memory who actually impressed me in his campaign—or maybe credit goes to the campaign worker who rang my doorbell; those of you who know me know that it takes someone really special to impress me after starting out on such a wrong foot! Anyway, I decided to go because I can't very well complain about what they're doing to health care if I don't express my opinion, and because I think our representative is a good guy and what a shame it would be if he held a meeting to get people's opinions and no one showed up.  I thought I'd at least go and say hi and maybe get to know him better.  (More)
Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, September 6, 2009 at 11:30 am | Edit
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I don't expect most of my Loyal Readers to wade through the entirety of Paul Gottfried's Voices Against Progress: What I Learned from Genovese, Lasch, and Bradford at the Front Porch Republic, but I include the link for those of us who were students at the University of Rochester during those times.  I find it fascinating to glimpse the political maneuverings that were going on over the heads of mere students.  I knew neither Eugene Genovese nor Christopher Lasch; I stayed as much as possible in the science and engineering part of the school, and never set foot in that "hotbed of the New Left, the University of Rochester history department."  But everyone had heard of Genovese, whom we usually referred to as Our Resident Commie, and his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, the Resident Feminist.

Of even more interest is how the thoughts and ideals of these people changed over time.  I don't regret having avoided the U of R history department in the 1970's, but find myself wishing I had known these folks as friends.
Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, August 14, 2009 at 12:08 pm | Edit
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