Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Beware of Falling Space Rocks!

Earlier this week, I read that a Tunguska-sized meteorite is hurtling in our direction at great speed and immediately felt quite excited at the apocalyptic potential of this space-rock. For those not in the know, “Tunguska” refers to an earlier piece of cosmic debris that exploded above the Krasnoyarsk region in 1908, with a force 1000 times as powerful as that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Notes on the Landscapes Spotted in the Backgrounds of News Reports

Recently I started a daily ritual of watching Euronews after dinner. I’m not sure why I find the channel so absorbing, as when I actually lived in Europe I found it incredibly dull. And not dull in a smug, irritating BBC way but just… soul-crushingly boring, as is characteristic of anything that begins with the chilling prefix “Euro-”. Perhaps it’s only now, after years spent in a land where the news is delivered exclusively by pompous, Botoxed egomaniacs that I can appreciate the channel’s relatively understated style. Or then again, maybe I’m just digging the stuff I can see in the backgrounds.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Congratulations President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan on Your Outstanding Election Victory!

With the world currently rocked by political unrest and open rebellion, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan on his resounding victory in last week’s elections. Apparently he won 97% of the vote! This is quite spectacular, although admittedly not as spectacular as the type of result his predecessor Saparmurat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov regularly enjoyed. He could win reelection with 99.5% support. But it’s pretty good all the same.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Russia in Revolt as Viewed from Afar

Whenever something major happens in Russia, I wish it were a lot easier to get over there and witness conditions on the ground. For instance when Boris Yeltsin died, I really wanted to visit his corpse as it lay in state in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior to see for myself how people were reacting to this man who had caused so much chaos in his 8-year rule.
Right now I’m feeling the same frustration. Important events are taking place in Russia, the greatest symbol of which (for me) was the sight of Sergei Udaltsov tearing up a picture of Vladimir Putin at last weekend’s protest rally. Not so long ago only Eduard Limonov’s kiddie army did that sort of thing and they’d get arrested, beaten and jailed for their troubles. So what is the likelihood of meaningful change? How substantial is the protest movement?

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Young Person's Guide to Russian Politics

Following the recent street protests in Russia, international attention has been focused on the country’s political scene. A young person tuning in to the news coverage might be confused by all the long names ending with –ov and –sky, and the series of heads that resemble slabs of meat, lumpy potatoes or some other comestible. Too much of the commentary is targeted at initiates; beginners need a jumping on point. After all, today’s 20 year olds were barely crawling the last time Vladimir Zhirinovsky scored serious headlines in the West. So strap on your shapka and let’s go!

Learn Japanese the World War II Way!

Recently I was browsing in a used book store when I stumbled upon a soldier’s Japanese phrasebook from World War II. Between faded orange covers I found a treasure trove of fascinating words and phrases- certainly it’s the most useful text published by the U.S. War Department I’ve encountered since that pamphlet on sexual hygiene for GIs I found in a Texas ghost town a few years back. It does lack for detailed diagrams of human genitalia, however.

Scotland's Bid for Independence Explained!

Last week, Scotland made international headlines when First Minister Alex Salmond announced plans to hold a referendum on independence in 2014, potentially dissolving Great Britain FOREVER. As a Scot living abroad, I am often asked questions about my homeland and its relationship with England. So for those perplexed by all this independence malarkey, this week I decided to answer all the most important questions on the topic in one E-Z cut out n’keep guide. Let’s go!

1)    Is Scotland a country, or what?

The Art of Naming

This week I was very excited to learn that after all the scandal surrounding the baby bump of Beyonce Knowles (OMG, is it real or fake?!) the mega pop star had finally given birth to a beautiful baby girl, named Blue Ivy. What a great way to start 2012!

My New Year's Resolution- Become More Like Lenin

So it’s that time of year again, when - although our problems remain pretty much the same as they were on December 31st - the illusion of the “New Year” provides a sense that things are starting over. I don’t know about you, but this gives me a burst of energy that lasts around, oh, three weeks or so before inertia kicks in.
Anyway, given that I only have a very short time before the bubble pops, I’ve been looking for inspirational figures to help me attack 2012 with gusto. That’s why I just read Lenin, written by the English historian Robert Service.

2011- The Year in Dictators

The year 2011 was an alarming one for dictators, as a series of mass uprisings toppled several authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. The so-called “Arab Spring” inspired wild hopes, with some optimists even declaring that the 20th century phenomenon of the dictator was finished, and a new era of democracy was dawning- just like in Eastern Europe in 1989. True? False? Let’s survey the Year in Dictators and find out!

What I Don't Want for Christmas

It’s that time of year again, when the perennial question is answered- will I get what I want for Christmas?

Sometimes of course, Santa gets it wrong, and this can be disappointing. Your inner child craved that Millennium Falcon scale replica, but the bearded old duffer at the North Pole decided you were too old and so- no dice. Perhaps, on the other hand, you got exactly what you wanted, but after opening the presents you experienced feelings of ennui and emptiness. What was the point of that? Did the acquisition of yet more material goods make me happy? Not really. And despair descends. 

Wind of Change

Sometime around the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a long period of abject Western media failure regarding the Putin phenomenon began. Journalists were so busy making fatuous comparisons to Stalin or hyping The New Cold War™ that they refused to address why the president was so popular in Russia. I suspect this is because many of them missed the 1990s, when Americans and Europeans had enjoyed near godlike status. Yeltsin had been no catastrophe for them, even if he was for 99.99% of everybody else.

Cloning the Mammoth

The other day I read that some Russian and Japanese scientists have decided to clone a mammoth. Apparently they’ve been thinking about it for some time, but it was only this year that they found a specimen frozen in Siberia, with “good nuclei” in its bone marrow, whatever that means.  Still, they sound like they know what they’re doing.

Like many people, the whole idea of cloning leaves me feeling queasy. For instance, what if a fly buzzes into the Petri dish while the scientists are fiddling about with cells, and a monstrous half- mammoth, half-fly creature with compound eyes and giant tusks emerges from the lab?  Or what if a renegade Nazi scientist living in Argentina gets his hands on the technology and breeds a new strain of Nazi mammoth that hates Jews and wants to conquer the world? Then we’d really be in trouble.

Attack of the Little Satan

In June 2009, I found myself glued to the TV set, watching the crowds in Tehran protesting the rigged reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran. I was amazed that things seemed to be falling apart so quickly for the motley crew of thugs, thieves, killers and millenarian fantasists that run the country. After all, their despotic regime was only 30 years old, and at that age the USSR was in the full, terrifying flower of Stalinism. It would be another four decades before it collapsed due to institutional senility and internal decay.

Even so, the revolutionary Islamists in Iran were still virile enough to repress those protests. And as the fists and boots hammered down, and young girls were shot dead in the street, there was precious little light relief until the Iranian authorities declared the British responsible for all the unrest.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

American Poverty

Last weekend, I met a woman who was in the process of selling off her house and many of her possessions. After losing her job over a year ago, she had scraped by on unemployment benefits for a while until she fell so far behind on her mortgage that she had no choice but to sell up. And that was how, in her mid-50s, not only a mother but also a grandmother, she found herself moving back in with her own 84-year-old mom.

It’s the story of our era, I think- at least it is if the newspapers and government statistics are to be believed. Indeed, I read in The New York Times not so long ago that 100 million people in America are either living in poverty or “near poverty.” Apparently the last census deployed a new system of wealth assessment, only to reveal the astonishing fact that one-third of Americans are either really poor or on the verge of destitution. 

Surprised By Fame

On Sunday, I was leafing through People, the journal of American celebrity worship when I spotted somebody I used to work with in the gossip pages. Apparently she’s dating a movie star and they are about to get married.


The fact that she was marrying a movie star didn’t shock me so much (her sister is a well-known actress) but rather that somebody I knew had made it into the pages of a tabloid. A law of nature had been violated: celebrity magazines should contain pictures of people I don’t know, like Angelina Jolie, or Jennifer Aniston, or Michael Jackson’s (ex) doctor.

So, I thought if my former colleague can get in then why not me?

Climbing Inside The Horse; or- The Uses of Animals

So anyway, yesterday I was driving down a country road when I spotted a decapitated stag lying in a ditch. The strange thing was that its head had been cleaved neatly from the body, leaving a perfect anatomical cross-section-type view of the interior of the neck. A car accident doesn’t do that - and even if it did, I’d still expect to see the head nearby, surrounded by turkey vultures pecking at the soft parts.

New Sensations

As you get older it’s easy to fall into a rut, to repeat yourself and to lose the child’s sense of wonder at the world. Fortunately new sensations can be found in unexpected corners of everyday life - you just have to keep your eyes open. Recently I’ve had three such experiences that came out of nowhere and added a little magic to my day. I’m glad each one happened.

#1- Generator of roadkill

American Election Watch III

So, since my last election watch update, a great deal has happened. We have witnessed a major flameout in the Republican race, and the “rising without trace” of a new contender. On the Democrat side, Mr. Obama is still, ah, doing stuff.

First, the flameout. When last I wrote, Rick Perry had just announced his candidacy and leapt to the front of the pack. He’s tall, Texan, masculine, has a good record on job creation… plus he once shot a coyote. The right developed a serious mancrush; the left started raving about a rock Perry’s dad had painted over decades earlier. Meanwhile, Perry opened his mouth.

Mr. Gorbachev Goes To Mexico

Like many children of the Cold War, I grew up anxious about Nuclear Armageddon, so when Gorbachev eased relations between the USSR and the West I was grateful. For many years I viewed him as a hero, pure and simple. It was not until I moved to Russia that I realized his reforms had been intended to strengthen the USSR, not destroy it.


Bourgeois Kids Of The World Unite!

When I first saw the mob of pasty-faced bourgeois Bohemian children camped out on Wall Street I thought: not again. Ever since the late 1980s, when all that hippy nonsense turned two decades old, a segment of Western youth has suffered from 60s envy. Thus we periodically witness attempts to rekindle the romantic flame of protest which - we are constantly reminded - burned so brightly in those halcyon days.

Me, I’ve never suffered from 60s envy. Woodstock is to blame: I was 16 when I watched the concert film and was shocked to learn how much of the music was not Jimi Hendrix but rather, puerile and twee garbage like Country Joe and the Fish or John Sebastian.

It was these 60s clowns who were responsible for the wasteland my peers and I inhabited in the 1980s, I realized. The Woodstock generation had jettisoned all that peace and love tosh to pursue money, power and status.

Operation Fast And Furious: A Very Baffling Scandal

A few months back I read about a truly mind-blowing scandal involving the Bureau of Alcohol Firearms and Tobacco. Apparently the organization had been supplying guns to Mexican drug cartels which - unsurprisingly- had since been used to kill people.

Now in many parts of the world you would assume that corrupt members of the ATF were boosting their income by moonlighting as arms dealers. In Mexico the police, government and gangs are closely interlinked, and nobody is shocked.  In the 1990s some Russian soldiers sold weapons to the Chechen militants they were fighting. Why? Everybody knew: to supplement their miserable earnings.

After The Fire; or - How The Chihuahua Was Spared

Last week, my friend Sandy sent me an email:

“Dan, do you want to come with me to Bastrop? I’m going to shoot some pictures of the ruins.”

Sandy is a photographer who documents disasters, and since Bastrop just suffered the most destructive wildfire in Texas history- a raging inferno laid waste to 1,600 houses and 34,000 acres of land - he was keen to record the aftermath for posterity. As for me, I had never witnessed the effects of Biblical hellfire before, so I was curious. I agreed to go.

Cherokees vs. African Americans in the 21st Century

Recently I saw a fascinating story in the news: the Cherokee Nation had just voted to expel the descendants of freed slaves from their tribe.

Reading on, I discovered layers of suffering spread across multiple generations.  When the Cherokee were expelled from their homelands in the 19th century and forced to resettle in what would become Oklahoma, the richer members of the tribe brought their black slaves with them. This doesn’t quite fit the modern image of the Indian as a New Age guru spouting wisdom about buffalo and rivers, but then again, the myths constructed by guilty white folks to compensate for past sins always disintegrate upon contact with reality.