Friday, July 07, 2006

Funny North Korea story

When I was working in the UN I knew a very polite Swedish man - we'll call him Janus - who worked on a project in North Korea. A few weeks after he first arrived he was speaking to another Swede on the phone. Suddenly a voice came on the line asking him if he could please speak in English -- noone listening in could understand Swedish.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Ignoring Japan

In advocating a move that would raise the spectre of a regional war, Carter and Perry (If Necessary, Strike and Destroy, Washington Post June 22, 20006) breezily dismiss a wider conflict on the Korean peninsula, but seem to entirely overlook the much more likely (and obvious) way in which the conflict could escalate. The first response from North Korea would almost certainly be an attack against Japan. This would not come as a surprise to many (other than these two writers) as North Korea has promised just such a retaliation for the past fifty years. The sophistication or the logistics of the strike would be unimportant -- what matters to North Korea is that opinion in the South would immediately turn against the US. South Koreans, already extremely divided on the US presence, will not be on the same side of Japan in a conflict against other Koreans.

The residual post-war anger felt by the Chinese public would force the CCP to enter the conflict. In Chinese eyes, any military reaction taken by Japan would be seen as a return to militarism. It only took a few Japanese textbooks to get millions of Chinese into the street in violent demonstration. A Japanese naval buildup, or even just aggressive words, could easily cause an explosive public outcry in China and force its leaders to support North Korea in the conflict.

From that point there are many ways that the conflict could go and none of them would be good.

I'm not sure what the appropriate response is to North Korean long range missiles. Perhaps destroying them is the way to go, but I'm very worried by writers like these who are big on bold, violent ideas but short on basic background knowledge. We Americans have made some pretty bad mistakes with this type of thinking

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Campbell Soup

On the train ride into Toronto I had a conversation that was oddly appropriate for an America exit run. Much of the 17 hours from DC to Ontario was spent chatting with the man sitting next to me about his wife -- a food scientist who specializes in engineering new types of Campbell soup. It turns out that creating the next line of the quintessential American consumer product can be dissatisfying in many of the same ways as running for political office. Living in New York Ted and Vicky – a Kentucky native – grew to love Italian Lobster Bisque. Wouldn’t it be great to turn this into a Campbell line? Before going to market a soup has to be tested in focus groups in each region across the U.S. Because of the company’s behemoth production requirements, the new soup needs to get at least a passing mark in every region or it (doesn’t) get/s canned.

In the case of the Italian Lobster Bisque, Vicky held the Southeast focus group in her home state of Kentucky, only to find that her palate had apparently grown too sophisticated during her time in the big city. The Kentuckians wanted a heartier soup, something with beef and and potatoes. “Your state's a bunch of bumpkins,” said Ted after his wife told him about the trial. The soup got good ratings in the Northeast the Northwest and even the Midwest but with a good intended for sale in every grocery in the union, one region gets veto power over all.

A similar line of thinking also goes for the amount of salt added.

When Vicky is conducting focus groups on how much salt gets put into a new soup, those with the greatest sodium craving usually get their say. Someone who is use to more salt will not accept a product that doesn’t have enough whereas a person who doesn't usually like as much salt will often still enjoy a soup with a bit too much -- and after he becomes use to more salt this amount becomes his expectation.

And so you can see why we have a single can of soup fulfilling 80% of our daily sodium needs.

Herein lies the potency of American products abroad. If a brand (or style, or film) is able to fit across the entire spectrum of the American palette it is likely to be something that people will consume (but not necessarily love) around the world.

There has been a great deal of talk of a Global McDonalaldization. A kind of unending march of monstrous Ronalds consuming whole the indigenous cultures of developing nations. Everywhere I have gone I've found something very different.

For people in Bangkok, the trip to McDonald's or KFC is a rare cosmopolitan indulgence in life that is otherwise rich in local culinary diversity. Look at TV anywhere in China and you might see a Hollywood movie but more often you will see a Ming dynasty costume soap opera.

The horror of what has become of the American roadtrip -- a Twillight Zone affair of eternal visual reruns -- makes it clear that it is not the developing world that is most threatened with omniculture. Our next generation will grow up without even the memory of a neighborhood store. A nation without local commercial identities will be a human first and it is frightening to think of the consequences. Nations undergoing identity crisis often vie for relevance through external belligerence. Perhaps this crisis has started.

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Friday, June 09, 2006

Rethinking internet optimism in China

In an earlier post ( New Chinese Words) I supported the opinion of internet optimism in China. This view holds that CCP's censorship efforts are crude plugs in a breaking dam that is about burst with a flow of ideas and discourse that not even the Three Gorges project could hope to contain.

I am no longer so sure. Google's entry into the scene changes things.

This one company has changed the entire culture of the internet, and perhaps the world, by organizing billions of discrete ideas, groups, and individuals into an online nation with an indexed map that anyone can use. The individual of the internet in the mid nineties was a lost particle, a jane003490, in a vast sea of irrelevance. The user of today finds that no matter how unique his desires, his ideology, he will find a community that he is seemlessly made a part of. Google has not just allowed people to search masses of webpages, it has allowed individuals to zoom in on themselves from up above and know just where they fit into this new world of created identities and endless choices.

But if Google is already transferring these capabilties to government censors -- capabilities that allow observation of the movement and development of thought on a individual and collective scale -- it might be that the personal computer in China, and its integration into social life, will represent an era of greater repression and thought control.

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Ahmadinejad's Charm Offensive

Since his election Ahmadinejad has attempted to push Iran back to the days of its revolutionary prominence . His charming speeches, in which he called the Holocaust a myth and suggested that Israel's Jews be relocated to Alaska, as well as the push for nuclear capabilities seemed to be geared at reinvigorating Iran's leadership role in the world of Islamic radicalism. Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, Iran with Ayatollah Khomeini at the helm, was the unquestioned center point of a what seemed a new fundamentalist-based Islamic revival.

Ten years of war with Iraq, with fighting that in its futility and savagery greatly resembled World War I trench battle, and the success of Sunni mujahadeen in driving the Soviets from Afghanistan, pulled this leadership role of radical Islamic revivalism from the hands of Iran's Mullahs. The now deceased Zarqawi's explicitly anti-Shiite jihadism went beyond overshadowing Iran's role in the movement by actually placing Shiites -- and thus the people of Iran -- as corrupters of Islam in the same cateogry as Zionists and Crusuaders. The words and actions of Ahmadinejad are part or strategy to reclaim leadership -- a Shiite leadership -- over Islamic fundamentalism, a movement that he believes is the future for the muslim world.

The interview in Der Spiegel, Germany's most popular magazine, is part of a strategy of gaining help from some sections of the West. Ahmadinejad is attempting to enlist the support of both the German right-wing nationalists and the European far-left in neutralizing European involvement in the Middle East and further isolating Israel.

To appeal to the left, increasingly opposed to Israel's policies since the start of the Second Intifada, he couched his words in anti-colonialism. On the existence of Israel he said "We argue that neither you nor we should claim to speak for the Palestian people. The Palestinians themselves should say what they want. In Europe it is customary to call a referendum on any issue. We should also give the Palestinians the opportunity to express their opinion....The Palestinians were there, in Palestine. Now 5 million of them have become refugees. Don't they have a right to live?."

To address German new-nationalists on the right Ahmanidejad invoked the unfairness of German collective guilt "Why should [Germans] have feelings of guilt toward Zionists? Why should the costs of the Zionists be paid out of their pockets? If people committed crimes in the past, then they would have to have been tried 60 years ago. End of story! Why must the German people be humiliated today because a group of people committed crimes in the name of the Germans during the course of history?" Interestingly, Ahmanidejad even tapped into the anti-immigrant feeling (a sentiment that is largely aimed at Muslims) that is gaining force in many of Germany's cities and suburbs. In justifying his calls to destroy the Jewish state he questions the origins of its Jews. "Where are Israelis from?" The obvious next question being why can't they go back there? Much of the German right-wing is asking just such questions of Moroccan emigres.

Could there be an allliance or at least a cooperation of interests between Iran and either the German right or the European anti-Zionist left? Growing friction between many Europeans and Muslim immigrants might suggest otherwise, but it is possible that these very tensions, exasperated by the continuing conflicts in the Middle East, will create pressure for European politicians to turn away from support for Israel and weaken its reapproachment of Iran on the nuclear question. And this is just what Ahmadinejad is pushing for.

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Friday, May 12, 2006

Majorities shouldn't decide on privacy

Poll: Most Americans Support NSA's Effort
The assumption implied in this piece -- that violations of privacy by government surveillance are somewhat legitamized by majority approval -- is a very dangerous one for a liberal democracy. Much like freedom of speech, the right to privacy is a way of protecting minority practices or opinions not just from the government, but also from majorities such as the one shown in this poll. If the balance between security and privacy is to be decided by opinions of greater numbers, then there is no telling how far we will slide away from privacy as those with the most common of views and behaviors are not the ones in need of strong protections.

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