Archive | November 2010

Book of the Week: The Photographer Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders

I had intended to have a weekly “Movie of the Week” post, but the movies I watched this weekend were overshadowed by this incredible book. From 1979 until 1989, the Soviet Union waged a massive war against Afghanistan that led to more than 1 million Afghan deaths, 5 million Afghan maimed and injured and the displacement of nearly half the population of Afghanistan. During the 1980’s more than half of all worldwide refugees were Afghan. Doctors Without Borders proactively provided desperately needed on the ground medical services to stranded and isolated populations, often at great risk to themselves.

French photographer Didier Lefèvre documents one arm of Doctors Without Border’s humanitarian efforts. Travel to medical sites had to be done on foot, as roads did not exist to the areas most starved for services. Doctors and humanitarian workers were smuggled over the Pakistan border under cover of night, riding along weapons supply caravans, where men literally carried munitions on their backs over mine filled mountain paths with few supplies.

Lefevre documents the entire 3 week journey to the inlands of Afghanistan, a month long stint providing medical services to multitudes of wounded men, women and children and a harrowing 4 week journey back. Interspersed with his incredible photographs is a graphic novel style telling of anecdotes from the journey, conversations with the humanitarian workers and interactions with Afghanis along the way. What results is not only an intimate view of life providing badly needed help to a wounded and scarred population, but also a complete portrait of an incredibly deep and complex culture. Lefevre’s work is exceedingly relevant given the current context of the Afghanistan war effort by the US and NATO, and perhaps essential to understanding at least part of the historical context which led to the Taliban takeover, 9/11 and our subsequent involvement.

My only complaint with the book is that the photographs are sometimes small and difficult to see (at least to my old man eyes), but the storytelling and presentation do well to fill in the blanks. This is a historically massive work. Lefevre’s document of events, along with Emmanuel Guibert’s artwork create a relevant and moving view of the senselessness of war and the great price that everyone pays in health and welfare.


Post Number 100

This is the 100th post on this blog (Woohoo!). I started this blog about 3 years ago, but didn’t begin writing seriously until the past year. My track record of continuing things is really bad so it’s surprising that I’ve gotten this far. Not many people read my rantings (I think I only have two readers at most), but I continue and will continue. Blog writing is therapeutic. Everyone should try it at some point, even though it feels a little like talking into the darkness at times.

It’s pretty mindblowing to read the earlier posts, where I was completely illiterate, to now, where I’m just barely literate. The past couple of years have been really good to me, and I’m thankful. I’m also thankful to anyone who reads this blog. According to my stats, somebody looks at this thing. Whoever you are, I hope that you get something out of my nonsense. Hopefully, I’ll make it to 200.

To celebrate my 100th post, I put then entire blog through some online text mining apps. Specifically, I used HyperPo and found out that I’ve typed 53,470 words, 7,189 of which are unique. While it’s astounding to me that I know 7,189 words, the average word length is only 4.7 letters long. My longest was 43 letters. I’ve written 3091 sentences on this blog, making the blog more than 168 single spaced pages long. If I’d been writing a dissertation, I’d be done with school.

Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count takes a more sophisticated approach. It claims that nearly one fourth of the words I use on this blog are more than 6 letters or “big words.” Only 2% of what I say on this blog express positive emotions, apparently. Supposedly, it can tell the difference between formal and personal writing. It’s interesting that big words make up a larger percentage of my formal writing, and social words, less. I’m not really sure what to make of this. Is 2% low? Does this mean I’m a less than positive guy? I don’t know.

Details of Writer: 41 year old Male
Date/Time: 28 November 2010, 7:26 pm
LIWC dimension Your data Personal texts Formal texts
Self-references (I, me, my) 2.23 11.4 4.2
Social words 5.89 9.5 8.0
Positive emotions 2.10 2.7 2.6
Negative emotions 1.73 2.6 1.6
Overall cognitive words 4.81 7.8 5.4
Articles (a, an, the) 8.48 5.0 7.2
Big words (> 6 letters) 23.42 13.1 19.6

Finally, I made some cool pictures with the Many Eyes app. Not being familiar with text analysis at all, I’m not sure how the algorithm works, but I get some cool pictures regardless. The picture below is a visualization of the network of words that are concurrent to one another. If you click on the link, it takes you to a page where you can zoom in on the graphic and even do your own textual analysis on this blog.

Happy Thanksgiving on the Trail of Tears

No Thanksgiving would be complete without a remembrance of the incredible suffering that the Cherokee Nation (and other first nation peoples) experienced after Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Relocation Act in 1830. More than 4000 first nation persons died during a forced relocation of Cherokee Natives from the Southeastern United States from disease, starvation and exposure. Thousands more from others areas died during relocation, and those who lived lost their pride, homeland and culture to make way for white slave owners and opportunists. Let us never, ever forget. Let us make this a day not only to be thankful for what we have, but also a day to remember the plight of indigenous peoples everywhere. Let it never happen again.

A map of the paths of the Trail of Tears can be seen below:

And an interesting video here:

North Korean Schools in Japan: To fund or not to fund?

During Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula in the first half of the 20th century, Koreans were brought over in droves to provide labor to support Japan’s expanding war effort. After hostilities ceased in 1945, many stayed, but their official status and social position has been contentious ever since. Now, most people of Korean decent go to regular Japanese schools, speak Japanese at home and eventually take on Japanese citizenship, having nearly no ties to their ancestral homeland. Most, while proud and aware of their status as an ethnic minority in Japan, lives their lives as would people of Chinese or Japanese decent in the United States.

However, a particular faction of the Zainitikankokujin (people of korean decent who reside in Japan) support and recieve benefits from the North Korean government. The Chongryon , an official support group for Korean residents in Japan, even operate schools within Japan’s borders which actively promote North Korea’s repressive and, arguably, reprehensible government. The curriculum is taught entirely in Korean and propagates for the DPRK and the “dear leader.” Historically, these schools have received funding from local governments, and North Korean schools have served as indoctrination points for overseas support of the DPRK, despite Japan’s difficult relationship with North Korea.

As Japan’s economy continues to shrink, however, questions of the ability to fund any number of government projects have been brought to the fore. The question of funding schools which do not prepare students for life in Japan, and which promote a political ideology greatly at odds with Japan’s have been a significant part of political and societal discourse for the past few elections cycles. Supporters of the North Korean schools and of the Chongryon itself cry racism and call efforts to defund DRPK schools a violation of human rights and free expression. This is after several high profile raids of Chongryon connected offices and decades of ethnic marginalization of Koreans in general.

Given the recent attacks on South Korea by the DPRK, the Kan government has come out strongly and indicated that it will not fund North Korean schools. Japan provides subsidies for other private schools. This is likely to anger many residents who remember the incredibly poor treatment of Koreans in Japan. When I was in Kamagasaki (a community of largely homeless and itinerant laborers)over the summer, the issue of Korean schools was a focal point in issues of marginalized populations in general, with many publicly stating that the defunding of schools was yet another slap in the face of all ethnic minorities in Japan.

Personally, I find the larger poor treatment of North Koreans in Japan to be troubling. Violent acts by Japanese right wingers against female students has occurred in the past and will likely continue. However, realistically, government support of schools which do not prepare children for life in their country of birth and which profess an belligerent ideology (along support for a government rife with human rights violations) counter to that of Japan can’t be justified. Libya cannot set up schools in the United States and expect that local governments provide money to run them. Obviously, freedom of expression must be preserved and the right of ethnic and political minorities protected. How this difficult situation plays out in the future, remains to be seen.

Here’s a documentary on a member of the North Korean team which participated in the World Cup. There’s factual errors, but it’s good for what it is. It’s kind of odd to see people continue to support the DRPK despite the fact that people go hungry there, while Mr. Jong rides around Osaka in a Hummer. He obviously has no clue about the realities of North Korea nor about world politics in general. :

Movie of the Week: Afghanistan: The Lost Truth

Filmed shortly after the fall of the Taliban, Iranian actress and documentary filmmaker Yassamin Maleknasr crosses the border and does a round trip through the major areas of war torn Afghanistan, documenting the voices of a scarred and battered people. Maleknasr conducts interviews in what I assume to be Farsi, opening up a set of doors likely not available to western journalists. What results is an honest portrait of a powerful and prideful people. The majority of the film is constructed from a feminist perspective, emphasizing the hopes and dreams of young women and old from all over Afghanistan.

Maleknasr presents pictures of multitudes of women, long denied educational opportunities under the Taliban, expressing their greatest wishes to become doctors, lawyers, pilots and journalists. From this film, one can conclude that the hope for the future of Afghanistan, like many developing and war torn countries, lies in it’s women, arguably their greatest resource. Maleknasr does not, however, present only women. She also interviews the head of Afghan TV, the chief of the oldest newspaper in Kandahar (which still presses on handset letterpress), poets, and doctors who relate the travesty of Taliban health care. By far the most powerful scene to me is that of Latif Ahmadi, the head of Afghan film, who tears up when describing how the Taliban burned the entire film library, including a prized print of Tarkovsky’s “Solaris.” Honestly, until I saw this documentary, I wasn’t even aware that Afghanistan has a deep film history, and a vibrant group of present-day filmmakers. There’s even a Afghan monthly film magazine.

This is a fantastic work, that, unfortunately appears to have gotten little press.It is beautifully shot, with panoramic views of the Afghan countryside, interspersed with Afghan musicians from every end of the country. While many of her subjects willingly relate horror stories of the Taliban, Maleknasr conspicuously leaves out any signs of active conflict (the US is non-existent), aside from crumbling buildings and what once was Kabul’s cultural center. Maleknasr paints a human portrait, instead focusing on the incredible cultural riches Afghanistan still has; a wealth of brilliant individuals even the Taliban couldn’t suppress.

The film is widely available online and on YouTube. If you have the time, see it.

Poverty in America: The Expansion of Food Stamp Recipients

Animated map of the expansion of the population that receives food stamps since 2007…. and the trend of Boone’s Farm stocks.


This is from George Thindwa of the Malawi Secular Humanist Society, of which I appear to be a member. He is an advocate for women who have been accused of witchcraft in Malawi as well as a tireless and rational voice for those who believe that religion has no place in politics.

Malawi, along with most Sub-Saharan African countries suffers from widespread societal problems associated with baseless witchcraft accusations (see here for another post I did on witchcraft in Malawi). The accused are most often poor and elderly women, but children of either sex have often been implicated. In the worst case, the accused are beaten and burned by members of the community, but otherwise, they fall victim to local or state judicial systems.

Women who are accused of witchcraft are often tried and imprisoned on shaky grounds, with nothing more than the uncorroborated testimony of troubled individuals, and worse, the testimony of children. Fact here is much stranger (and more disturbing) than fiction:

Case no 176/10-Senior Grade Magistrate Court- Lilongwe

Fosna Lekitala was charged with two counts; Pretending Witchcraft and Unlawful wounding of Esau James as at 6/11/2010. Fosna Lekitala pleaded not guilty when the case came before the Magistrate in Lilongwe, Malawi on 9th Nov. 2010. Judgment on the case was delivered on 16th Nov. 2010. Mr. GeorgeThindwa, the Executive Director, Association of Secular Humanism was present during the judgment on 16-11-2010.

The State paraded 4 witnesses who revealed the following:

1. That Fosna was a witch. She had 10 seater magic plane which she used to take people to graveyards to feast on human flesh.

2. On the night of 5-6th November, Isaac James refused to accompany Fosna to participate in witchcraft. The boy is stabbed.

3. A Mr. Blackson-a witness -testified that the child was injured by a basket and that it was at the hospital that he revealed that it was Fosna that had wounded him during the night.

4. The boy in his testimony stated to the nurse at the hospital when he went for treatment that it was FOSNA that had wounded him.

5. The Police report stated that Fosna had agreed to stabbing the boy with a knife disguised as a washing basket.

Fosna defended herself by stating that she was on her way to draw water when she was confronted with the case of wounding Esau James through witchcraft. She denied practicing witchcraft. Her witnesses; her son and husband, collaborated her claims that she was not practicing witchcraft nor that she was witch.


The Magistrate –Mr. Ngoma- advised the court that it was an offense to accuse anyone of being a witch. He then went on deliver his judgment on the two counts purported to have been committed by Fosna Lekitala.

1. Unlawful wounding

The Magistrate noted that Isaac James was wounded. But went on to address the question of whether the wound was caused by witchcraft or not. Since the Law does not recognize witchcraft, he said that he was acquitting Fosna on unlawful wounding by witchcraft means.

2. Pretending Witchcraft

The Magistrate observed that Fosna had continuously denied pretending witchcraft all through her ordeal at her place of residence- Chiuzira Village.

However, he observed that Fosna admitted to pretending witchcraft from the statement that was recorded by the police. Therefore, he found Fosna guilty on pretending witchcraft.

The magistrate said that Fosna was beaten up and had her property destroyed at her residence on 6-11-2010. In these circumstances, he stated that he could not proceed to convict her but discharge her accordingly. He directed that the Police should facilitate her reallocation to her village in Nkhoma in Lilongwe.

With approval from the Kawale Police, Mr. Thindwa of ASH accompanied by one police Officer delivered Fosna (with her husband, sister and her two children who came to attend to her judgment to Nkhoma, some 50 kms away from Lilongwe.

The story of FOSNA as we see it -in brief

Esau James was injured by a basket during the night at his home. The sharp edges of the basket showed blood stains- it was tendered as evidence at the court. The parents took the boy to Kawale hospital for treatment. At the hospital when the nurse posed the question of how the wound came about, Essau James twists the story and alleges it is a witchcraft wound. He accuses Fosna Lekitala as being responsible. He commits a crime by this naming!

Fosna wakes up on 6-11-2010 and goes about with her daily chores. At about midday or thereabouts, some villagers including the area chief confront her that she has caused a witchcraft wound to one neighbor’s boy, Esau James. She is beaten up as a witch, and locked up for a beating.

The father of the child shields away her attackers and from the full fury of the mob justice. The 997 Police are called and rescues her and takes her to Kawale Police. At Kawale Police, she was quizzed, put in a cell for 3 days and charged for pretending witchcraft after being accused of being a witch. Her accusers went free without being charged! Those who beat her up were never charged as well.

TV Malawi is called to interview her about witchcraft. She appeared on TVM on Tuesday morning on 16th November, 2010 to talk about witchcraft.

Attached is the picture of Fosna Lekitala at the yard of the court on 16-11-2010. With Mr. Thindwa in the middle. Her two sons and the husband. Fosna has five children.

Dr. Denis Mukwege

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the size of western Europe and has seen the largest conflict the planet has known since World War II. Since 1998, more than 5 million people have died, more than Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Most have died of malnutrition, starvation and disease. Millions more have been displaced. Worse, is the widespread use of sexual violence by all parties involved in the war. More than half a million women and children have been raped, sexually mutilated and left to die in an all encompassing strategy to impose fear and subservience in a weak and vulnerable population. Women are raped in front of their families and are thus sunned from their children, husbands and the wider community. Often women are physically wounded, suffering from vaginal mutilation which can include cutting, forced insertion of objects and gun shots. Women often can never bear children again. Victimized women frequently suffer from intense tearing that leads to fistula, a condition of incontinence which isolates women even further. It’s a disgusting chapter in human history and continues as I write this.

The war is largely fueled by the DRC’s vast trove of mineral resources which are in high demand among developed countries. Groups fight for control of minerals required for the manufacture of cell phones, computers and televisions. Wealthy countries are happy to purchase these resources from who ever is selling, and ask few questions as to where and how they were procured. Nonexistent governance and a powerless population create a perfect storm for groups which seek to grab market shares through violence. Everyone who owns a cell phone or a computer is at least somewhat complicit in what is happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo. To this end, bill HR 4128, a bill to “To improve transparency and reduce trade in conflict minerals” was introduced in Congress in 2009, but has yet to see a vote. Please go here and write to members of Congress to call for a vote on this bill.

Last night, the University of Michigan’s Raoul Wallenberg Award was presented to Dr. Denis Mukwege. Dr. Mukwege operates a women’s hospital in the city of Bukavu in eastern DRC. The Panzi Hospital treats women who have been subjected to sexual violence, offering psychological services, medical treatment, reconstructive surgery to repair the incredible physical damage and support services to help women transition back into society. They see approximately 3600 patients a year and he personally has performed more than 21,000 reconstructive surgeries over the past decade. In short, Mukwege is a human rights champion and a selfless advocate of women who have been subjected to sexual violence. Presently, he is in the United States attempting to raise awareness for the dire situation of women in the DRC.

People like Mukwege are not alone. Behind him is a small army of medical and women’s advocates in the DRC, who tirelessly and often at the expense of their own welfare and security work to make the troubled world they live in a better place. Every single one of them are deserving of this award.

Measuring Travel Times with GPSTrack: Monday, Nov 15th

In gearing up for a research project on travel times to health facilities in developing countries, I used a GPS app for my iPhone to track my travel route yesterday. GPSTrack is a free app which tracks one’s lat/long positions and elevation at intermittent points throughout a specified time window (you can pause it, it’s a battery hog). One is then able to export the points as a data file and can then import it into a GIS program such as ArcGIS to view it, as I have done to the left. A close of up my travels through Central campus on my lunch break gives you an idea of the accuracy of the readings. It’s pretty good; I can even track my movements within buildings:

The app not only allows one to produce pretty pictures, but, with a little computational pushing can allow one to calculate speed travelled between points. Below, I have two graphs, one is on an absolute time scale, the other is just for the series of measurement points, ignoring the time that passes between points:

It’s pretty easy to spot the difference between travel by foot and by bus, and to notice that I do a lot of sitting on my butt throughout the day. Unfortunately, travel distances while in front of a computer are 0. You can even spot stop lights and pausing in front of doors, desks, etc.

A cool feature is being able to track changes in elevation throughout the day, as I show below. To get from North Campus (where I live) and Central, one must travel through a bowl along where a river flows, hence the dips.

All in all? A cool free app. Unfortunately, the data export requires a little coaxing to get it to do what you want to do, and you have to filter out odd points when the cel phone is trying to figure out where you are. However, for the price, it’s worth it. In the future, we hope to attach GPS readers to mothers on their way home from health facilities, in order to accurately track the amount of time and the means of getting there and back.

Minamata Museum Faces Decay

I first became aware of Minamata through a Dead Kennedys song and learning about it truly hit home. I was born in Midland, Michigan, home of chemical giant, Dow Chemical, who make, among other things, the ubiquitous Zip-Loc bag. Dow dumped toxins into the environment for years, poisoning the largely silent local populace, which would rather have jobs than health. Cancers are rampant in people from the area. For myself, it’s a fact that I’m conscious of every single day. My mother contracted stomach cancer at 26, and I have an uncle who fought leukemia as a child. Given the lessons that we should be learning from Minamata and Dow, it’s frightening to me that the American right would call for less environmental regulation and consider even basic environmental standards to be unAmerican and inherently anti-business. While the government in both cases was entirely complicit in these vast health disasters, we should be increasing regulation and encouraging greater transparency in environmental hazards, not lessening them.

Minamata’s history is this: throughout the twentieth century, the Chisso Coporation operated a factory in Kumamoto Prefecture on the western island of Kyuushuu, Japan. Chisso makes liquid crystal for LCD displays and televisions and continues to operate to this day. For nearly 34 years, Chisso regularly dumped methyl mercury into the water surrounding Minamata bay. In 1959, a five year old girl appeared in a Chisso factory hospital having difficulty walking , convulsions and slurred speech and days later, her sister showed the same symptoms. What happened after that, was a turbulent unveiling of Chisso’s pursuit of profit at the expense of human health and safety and a community torn apart by the seams, along with more than 3000 officially recognized cases of Minamata disease. Those who profited from Chisso and stood to lose by the unveiling of contamination, clashed with victims seeking compensation and an end to Chisso’s using Minamata Bay as a toxic dumping ground.

Given the complex web of complicity in the Minamata poisoning which includes individuals at every level of local, business and Japanese administration, it is no surprise that the Japanese government has been unwilling to pony up money to support the decaying supporting centerr for theMinamata Disease Museum. The City of Minamata operates the museum on a shoestring and cannot support even basic archival standards. Documents chronicling the event, it’s after effects and the long legal battles in it’s wake, are now beginning to rot, with some photographs showing signs of mold and insect infestation. Now, the museum, which arguably is a necessity to preserve the incredible struggles of citizenry against exploitation by big business, must find a way to raise funds to preserve it’s archives, not an easy feat in a sinking economy. The disappearance of these documents would no doubt be welcome to big business and rightist members of the Japanese government. What is forgotten, no longer exists and history then can be rewritten however one sees fit.

I leave you with the lyrics to the Dead Kennedy’s “Kepone Factory.” Mostly I find Jello (the vocalist) annoying, but these lyrics are right on:

“Kepone Factory”

I finally found a job in a paper
Movin’ barrels at a chemical plant
There’s shiny-looking dust on my fingers
Goin’ up my nose and into my lungs

It’s the Kepone poisoning-Minamata
Kepone poisoning-Minamata
At the grimy Kepone Factory
Turning people into bonzai trees

Now I’ve got these splitting headaches
I can’t quite get it up no more
I can’t sleep and it’s driving me crazy
I shake all day and I’m seeing double

Kepone poisoning-Minamata
Kepone poisoning-Minamata

Gonna go down your big metal building
Gonna slam right through your bright metal door
Gonna grab you by your sta-prest collar
And ram some kepone down your throat

The lawyer says ‘That’s the breaks, kid
Gonna gnarl and rot the rest of your life
If you don’t sue, we’ll give you a Trans-Am:’
That I’ll never drive cos I shake all the time

‘Cause of the Kepone poisoning
At the grimy Kepone factory

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