Tuesday, December 4, 2012

I'm going off the journalism grid for a while to focus on my social enterprise Rainworks Omnimedia www.rainworksomnimedia.com and to finish Liberty Landing, my big, spidery multicultural fictional web. The most memorable thing I read recently is singer, Fiona Apple's letter to her fans about her dying dog.  http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/11/fiona-apples-defense-of-canceling-concerts-to-be-with-her-dying-dog/265573/

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

I am Migrating to Blogger

Moving to a new country in blogosphere from old Serendipity platform to Blogger. Please ignore  large scale archivist dump of all my posts in seemingly illogical,  non-chronological order.

President Obama's "Spock" Rationale On Iraq War Investigation Untenable - 5/30/2009

First published in Huffington Post

In a recent interview with Newsweek, President Obama mentioned seeing the latest Star Trek movie and that everybody was saying he was Spock. In another interview a while ago, the First Lady said, "The President is a very rational man."

This explains a lot. The President's refusal to investigate the Bush Administration's policies and actions relating to the Iraq War is the embodiment of Vulcan logic, free from messy human emotions and moral obligation.

The President has said he wishes the country to move forward instead of looking back--a nice mantra for our collective denial. Let's nail that to the wall, next to Bush Labor secretary, Elaine Chao's call to Iraqi women after their lives had been reduced to rubble by 'Shock and Awe': "In a democracy, the most important factor is energy." Taxidriver husband in Abu Ghraib? Daughter raped in US custody? Teenage son sodomized with a truncheon? Never mind all that. The cure for your blue funk, citizen of Iraq -- whom we saved from Saddam, (ignore that pesky photograph of your Lion with our Fox, Donald Rumsfeld) - is to move forward, without looking back ... with energy.

Other countries have seen the necessity for truth and reconciliation. In Congo and elsewhere, where perpetrators and victims of human rights violations and atrocities are often known to each other--frequently they're neighbors--truth and reconciliation forums are seen as a necessary instrument, one that allows perpetrators and victims to continue living in the same community.

"Taking into account collective memory and the inadequacies of the justice system, one must set up a mechanism which will help people to express themselves, giving truth its proper place. It would help people to freely discuss, as though in a family, those events in which they were the perpetrators or the victims, thus creating an atmosphere for reconciliation," said Gilberta Tandia, a human rights activist in Congo.

There are those who wish President Obama to release the remaining photographs that show, according to General Antonio Taguba, "torture, abuse, rape and every indecency." I am not one of them. I have lived and traveled in Muslim countries long enough to know that strong notions of modesty, shame, communal and familial judgement, and the fear of honor killings of women believed to have been raped in US custody, would prevent most Muslim men and women from supporting the release of these photographs.

But the Pentagon's recent denial that photographs of Iraqi prisoner abuse do not include images of rape and sexual abuse is a confabulation. Following Donald Rumsfeld's testimony on the Abu Ghraib hearings in 2004, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R. South Carolina) said, "The American public needs to understand we're talking about rape and murder here." Press Secretary Robert Gibbs can thrash the British media and disavow information all he wants, but this isn't 1990 and this isn't Myanmar. There's this hardly worth mentioning, insignificant little archivist and global memory keeper that can call you a liar in less than a New York minute.

Accounts of these atrocities have already been reported in news outlets around the world including Guardian UK and Australia Age, and the images of rape have already been published in various online news outlets such as La Voz de Aztlan and Jihad Unspun, and posted on porn sites including the Norwegian based Sex and War. According to a 2004 article in La Voz de Aztlan, which was accompanied by photographs of the rape of a young girl in US custody, "It is now known that hundreds of these photographs had been in circulation among the troops in Iraq. The graphic photos were being swapped between the soldiers like baseball cards ... Speaking on condition of anonymity, one Mexican-American soldier told La Voz de Aztlan, 'Maybe the officers didn't know what was going on, but everybody else did. I have seen literally hundreds of these types of pictures.' 'Many of the pictures was destroyed last September when the luggage of soldiers was searched as they left Iraq,' he said."

Vice-President Dick 'We have nothing to apologize for' Cheney, and in the last few days, President George 'I will yield when my gut does' Bush, have made their case, with passion free from logic and legality, about the rightness of the Iraq War and US sponsored torture. We may continue to tolerate their justifications for the biggest American foreign policy blunder of all time, with the bewilderment we reserve for incoherent, delusional people. And we can keep lulling ourselves into a stupor with objective American journalism: "President Bush and VP Cheney say sun rises in the west, others disagree," and unquestioning American patriotism that makes no distinction between the honorable men and women who serve in the military, and the thugs and criminals among them.

But, the longer we wait to investigate how and why our government went to war on false premises, and why our military suspended fundamental American rules of war and violated international laws in the process, the more our national security will be compromised by those who are enraged by our actions and conduct.

The American people may not have the stomach for a lengthy war crimes tribunal to assign guilt and mete out punishment in these precarious times, but we should care enough to at least demand the truth. We ought to support a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the Iraq War that includes Americans and Iraqis. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) has made such a proposal.

The model for truth and reconciliation work and its success is the commission that was established in South Africa to address the horrors of apartheid. According to South Africa's Justice Minister then, "it was a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation."

President Obama promised transparency as the bedrock of his administration. He would do well to consider Captain Picard's words in Star Trek: "With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censored, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably." President Obama's failure to address Bush policies and actions in Iraq makes his administration complicit in the Iraq War, and keeps us from doing repair with each other, with Iraqis, and with the wider world. 

Hold Your Fire: Children and Civilians In Gaza - 1/7/2010

First published in Huffington Post

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag's meditation on images depicting the atrocities of wartime, she cites Virginia Woolf's lacerating indictment of war, written in 1936 as the Spanish Civil War was unfolding. Woolf's polemic was a response to a lawyer who had engaged her on the issue of war.
She opened her argument by declaring that the lawyer as a man and she as a woman could not possibly see war in the same way. Woolf proposed reconciling the disparity by looking at some images of war together. "Let's see whether when we look at the same photographs we feel the same things," she wrote, for she believed, according to Sontag, "that the shock of the images could not fail but unite people of good will".
Many people around the world, looking at the same photographs together--of bloodied, broken, mangled bodies of civilians and children killed by Israeli forces in Gaza since December 27th--have felt the same things. And they have united in compassion for the Palestinian people.
No matter which side of the Israeli-Palestinian issue we stand on, we ought to feel empathy, and pain, and sorrow for the people killed in Gaza--not because we're pacifists, or weak, or pro-Palestine, or anti-Israel, or pro-terrorist, or anti-Semitic, but because they were unarmed civilians in a blockaded war zone, who had nowhere to run and no place to hide.
"One body can hold all the suffering the world can feel," wrote Graham Greene in The Quiet American, another polemic about war. Upon seeing the photographs from Gaza-- of babies with war wounds and third degree burns, children with missing body parts, screaming toddlers with blood pouring from their sides, tiny corpses turned blue in death, silent and still as no child ever ought to be--should the proper response from our government and leaders be the morally feeble talking point: "Hamas is to blame"?
According to the latest reports, more than 149 children have died in Gaza since Israel began its attacks on December 27th.
In Zeitoun, one of the poorest sections of Gaza, Masouda al-Samouni, 20, was preparing food for her baby when Israeli warplanes launched missiles in her neighborhood; one of them struck her house killing her baby, her husband, and her mother-in-law. "He died hungry," she said of her infant.
In Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza, a missile killed three Palestinian children, aged 8-12, as they played on a street. One boy was decapitated; another had both his legs blown off. Madth Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor working in a Gaza hospital said, "These injuries are not survivable injuries."
Protection for civilians in wartime is a fundamental principle of international humanitarian law set in the Geneva Conventions of 1949--ironically, established as a response to the Holocaust--and in the treaty's Additional Protocols of 1977. Unarmed civilians not engaged in war must be spared and protected, and may not be attacked. In situations not covered by the specific laws of the Geneva Convention, civilians are protected by the fundamental principles of humanitarian law and human rights law.
In the face of international outrage over the killing of unarmed civilians, Israel defends itself by saying that Hamas is using children and civilians as human shields and hiding among civilians. If this is true, Israel and its military need do only one thing to inoculate itself from charges of wanton disregard for human life and war crimes: hold their fire until civilians have been cleared from the area.
There are lies we tell ourselves, delusions we adopt, just to get through each day with our political convictions intact. But our leaders unleash something close to immoral into the geopolitical incubator, when they and our allies embrace norms that they deem barbaric or monstrous--in other circumstances and when practiced by others.
If the killing of unarmed civilians by terrorist groups is wrong, Israel's killing of unarmed Palestinian civilians and our defense of Israel's conduct cannot be right. Hamas may be guilty but Israel is not innocent, and neither are we when our leaders defend the slaughter of innocents. The situational ethics our government chooses to practice in this matter can only come back to haunt us.
"Sooner or later one must choose a side if one is to remain human," Greene wrote in The Quiet American. Since December 27th, people of good will everywhere have stood in solidarity with the Palestinian people because they believe intuitively, emotionally, and intellectually in the preeminent rights of unarmed civilians and children in wartime. The Geneva Convention treaties, humanitarian law, and human rights laws are in place to remind governments of the same.

Wars Made Real: Photography at Dover Air Force Base - 3/10/2010


The Obama administration's decision to reverse the 18-year Pentagon ban on photography of soldiers' caskets returning to Dover Air Force Base is an important one for the public. Leaving the decision to military families to accept, or reject, public recognition of the service of their deceased is a respectful, Solomon-esque decision by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Anyone who was not on Mars during Captain Sully's recent heroic aqua landing on the Hudson knows how exemplary acts of courage, altruism, and heroism touch us all. In 2005, I wrote an article for Intervention Magazine comparing the way Italy honored its returning war dead from Iraq to the way America treated its own fallen military.
I cited the case of Nicola Calipari -- the Italian intelligence officer who rescued a kidnapped journalist from Iraqi captors, only to be gunned down by jittery American soldiers at a checkpoint in Baghdad.
I wrote then: "Calipari's return to Rome was a national event that united all Italians, merging their raw sorrow with the singular grief of his widow and children. It was the second time Italy pulled out all the stops for its Iraq War dead. In November of 2003, it staged an elaborate state funeral for nineteen of its citizens, killed in a suicide truck bombing in Nasiriyah.
In both instances, Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, his ministers, President Carlo Ciampi, and an honor guard in full-dress uniform stood with grieving families on the tarmac of Rome's Ciampino military airport to receive their dead. There were national days of mourning and public visitation hours to the reposed, and at night, the Coliseum's lights were dimmed in a mark of respect.
All Italy watched, on television, as officers from Italy's civil services carried the flag-draped coffins past honor guards representing every branch of the military. The Carabinieri (paramilitary corps), in their regal uniforms and blue-and-red plume hats, stood guard while lone buglers played the Last Post and other laments. Stricken Italians lined the routes of the funeral cortege to pay their respects, before the bodies were entombed in Rome's war memorial.
I suggested that the participation in these last rites, "symbolized a shared sacrifice between those who prosecute wars, those who must fight them, and those who grieve and honor them-not just the dead and their families, but the entire nation. The pageantry on display was no more excessive than the heroism of the fallen, for surely there can be no greater excess than surrendering one's life for one's country."
At the time I wrote those words, it had been one year since ABC's Ted Koppel had presented, The Fallen, his Nightline tribute to the soldiers who had died in Iraq. Mr. Koppel read the names off camera while the photographs of the dead men and women were projected on the screen. It was an elegy, remarkable for its quiet, sobering grace. Supporters of the war and George Bush naturally cried foul; any story that didn't fall into the Jessica Lynch mold of heroism (later learned to be void of key features of heroism, such as oh, heroism) was viewed as unpatriotic by the Pentagon's media machinery. Several broadcasting companies, including those owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, accused Mr. Koppel, a distinguished newsman who was/is no one's tool, for disseminating political propaganda.
There were 70,000 hits to my story on Intervention Magazine. Most readers agreed that we ought to honor our fallen soldiers, if not with the full pageantry, as seen in Italy, at least through media coverage, so that all American citizens would understand the cost of war. "The trouble is, I support the war as long as it doesn't cause me grief," wrote one poster.
The rest of my readers, Iraq War supporters all, spewing Mr. Bush's straight-jacket, postlogical logic -- we're fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here; so there were no WMD, so?; since Iraq didn't have anything to do with 9/11, we must bring them freedom and democracy so they don't perpetrate another 9/11 -- let me know that the Italians were excessive. They were adamant that we didn't need to show our war dead, and that the ban on photography at Dover Air Force Base did not need to be lifted.
They offer the same argument today, as they criticize Secretary Gates decision. Perhaps they're right. Instead of giving military families the choice to accept or reject public awareness of the return of their loved ones, similar to protocols for funerals already in place at Arlington National Cemetary, let's keep things the way they are. Yes, let's all pat ourselves on the back for being American patriots: let's fire up the grill, get plastered on booze, eat ourselves into a stupor, watch television, go shopping and call it Memorial Day.
Posted by Gail Vida Hamburg at 18:20

Paris on the Brain: Books for Spring Vacationers and Armchair Travelers - 5/10/2010


After a dark, cold, and rainy winter, warm weather has finally come to Paris, brightening its days and turning even the most crabby Parisian's mood sunny. Daffodils are in bloom and the cafés, parks, and banks of the Seine fill with people, animating the city. But whatever the weather, the City of Lights has always inspired writers, and there is a wealth of literature on the subject. With the euro at a recent low, travel to France is now more affordable than it has been in recent months. But whether you're planning a visit or you're an enthusiastic virtual traveler, here's a list of some excellent Paris-related books, from food-related novels to cookbooks to psychological analysis of the cultural differences between Americans and the French. Of course, this is a highly idiosyncratic list, by no means exhaustive--and, fair warning to the wise, though the most obvious ones (A Moveable Feast et al.) have been omitted, all are written by people who know Paris.

Current Fiction Set in Paris:
Foreign Tongue, by Vanina Marsot. Unlike most books by Americans about Paris, this impressive first novel is written by a bilingual French-American author who knows the city and its inhabitants intimately. While both a romance and a mystery, ultimately this story is a subtle, humorous, and insightful look at the cultural and linguistic differences between two languages and peoples, and one woman's search to find her place among them.
Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes, by Elizabeth Bard, is a novel about an American woman who falls in love with her Breton husband over food--at the 19th century restaurant, Chartrier, in Paris--but with a twist: she includes recipes for classic French dishes, including baby cream puff shells, known as chouquettes. Perfect stuff for the long plane trip.

Understanding the French:
Adam Gopnik's essays about Paris that originally appeared in the New Yorker and were then compiled in Paris to the Moon, explain essential points like, "What's the difference between Café Le Flore and Les Deux Magots?" Full of sharp insights, this collection covers everything from politics to restaurants to an encounter between French children and Barney, the purple dinosaur.
French and Americans: The Other Shore, by Pascal Baudry, translated by Jean-Louis Morhange. The author, a French-born and naturalized American, writes extensively on the cultural and psychological differences between the French and Americans. Serious, at times dense, material by a profound thinker who has clearly given years of thought to the subject.Seven Ages of Paris, by Alistair Horne. The author, an eminent historian, discusses seven key periods in French history, sprinkling politics with portraits of major figures and interesting discussion of the foods and fashions of the day.

Understanding the French, part deux:
Heather Stimmler-Hall's Naughty Paris: A Lady's Guide to the Sexy City may be just what a certain kind of traveler needs: witty, straightforward information ranging from the slightly naughty (romantic restaurants, recommended spas, clothing boutiques), to the somewhat naughty (erotic bookstores, sex toy shops), to the decidedly naughty (libertine or sex clubs, fetish groups). Stimmler-Hall, the author of the popular "Secrets of Paris" newsletter, is an intrepid and tasteful guide.

Vintage Paris:
Edmund White's Le Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris was published in 2001, which shouldn't make it vintage except that White, who lived in Paris for several years, includes so many fascinating stories about some of the city's earlier residents that it feels part history, part memoir, and part travel guide. A shaggy read, beautifully suited to the geographical wanderings and social observations of its informed author.
For those whose preference runs more to genre literature, there's the great, prolific Georges Simenon, a Belgian who moved to Paris and wrote nearly 200 novels, 75 of them featuring the crime-solving Inspector Maigret. Less well-known in the US is Léo Malet, whose detective Nestor Burma features in several books, as well as five comic book adaptations by Jacques Tardi.
Paris is possibly the world's most photographed city. Take a look at the work of Eugène Atget, who documented the city during the first three decades of the 20th century, as well as Hungarian photographer Brassaï, who took pictures mostly in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Taschen publishes some very affordable books of their work.
French Lit in Translation:
Hunting and Gathering, by Anna Gavalda. An enormous bestseller in France when it came out, this novel was subsequently turned into a film starring everyone's favorite gamine, Audrey Tautou. In this satisfying tome, a bunch of young, troubled, and eccentric characters share a huge apartment in Paris as they find love and themselves. If thick doorstopper novels aren't your thing, take a look at her collection of bittersweet short stories, I Wish Someone Were Waiting for me Somewhere.
Another huge bestseller when it came out, 9.99 A Novel, by Frédéric Beigbeder, is the story of a slick ad man's downward spiral and redemption. Though it was made into a film, read the book by media icon Beigbeder, who currently hosts a TV show about current film releases.
The Mystery Guest, by Grégoire Bouillier, is about a bewildered man's attempt to deal with a dinner party invitation from a long-lost, but never forgotten-- or gotten over, for that matter, ex-girlfriend. Bouillier's observations are both stunningly neurotic and totally relatable.

All About Food:
Chocolate and Zucchini: Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen, by Clotilde Dusoulier. The author, a bilingual Frenchwoman, writes a wonderful eponymous blog about her various culinary endeavors. Reading her blog taught me how to make the most delicious veal shank, nestled on a bed of shallots and coriander seeds. Her book is both a fun read and an excellent cookbook.
David Lebowitz's The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City is a delightful tome all about sweets. Worth looking at just for what he does with caramel, particularly the salted caramel ice cream.
The Patisseries of Paris: Chocolatiers, Tea Salons, Ice Cream Parlors and More, by Jamie Cahill and Allison Harris, is a thorough compendium to the best places to indulge your sweet tooth. Aside from the usual suspects (Angelina, Berthillon, Ladurée, Pierre Hermé), the authors include Sacha Finkelsztajn in the Marais (amazing cheesecake), and the café at the Jacquemart-André Museum, the only place in Paris where you can have raspberry tart under a ceiling painted by Tiepolo.
As for food guides to eating in Paris, despite the popularity of Zagat, Michelin, and their ilk, it seems advisable to take a look at what Parisians consult before picking a restaurant. If you read passable French, take a look at the Guide Lebey, a pared-down guide to Parisian restaurants, listing only a few venues per arrondissement, with detailed descriptions that include ratings of the coffee and bread. Also useful is the annual guidebook published by Le Fooding, hipster foodies and their website: www.lefooding.com.

Paris for Children:
This is Paris, by Miroslav Sasek. This is one of the best picture books to buy for young friends. Originally published in 1959, this delightful book is a perfect gift for the very young, especially for a first trip to the city. For older kids, Eloise wreaks her particular brand of havoc on the city in Eloise in Paris, by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight.
Posted by Gail Vida Hamburg at 18:25

Language and Being American in the World


The latest news that a US Government contractor in Afghanistan placed our soldiers at risk by passing off non-Afghan speakers from the US as Pashto translators, reiterates the importance of being versatile in a language other than our own in this interconnected world.
I work as an English communicator for a German organization that must operate in English in the world outside its borders. I understand rudimentary German, am comfortable in Germany's corporate culture, am at ease with the technical language and jargon, but would like to be proficient. Most Germans speak their native tongue as well as English fluently, and often also speak French or Italian.
As one walks by elementary schools in Germany, one hears kindergartners and first graders singing songs and reciting chants in languages not their own. This early learning must explain their ease in multiple languages. I envy Germans' linguistic versatility and regret my own lack of it, but then remember that any languages that were available to me growing up in the UK were offered in the high school years -- after the capacity to learn new language declines, according to neuroscientists. In Chicago, where I live now, it delights me to hear of schools offering Mandarin in grade school. There's no telling how far a Chinese-speaking American third-grader can go in a world where China is an economic super power and if Shanghai becomes Chicago's sister city.
Genevieve Chase, a Pashto-trained linguist and US Army Sargeant who served in Afghanistan in 2006, told ABC's 20/20 it was not unusual for US interpreters in Afghanistan to be ignorant of the languages they claimed to be fluent in. According to the report, Chase "recalled odd exchanges where Afghan elders would speak at great length and the interpreter would turn to the American soldiers and translate, "He said, 'Okay.'"
Faking understanding of a foreign language is a common vanity. Resumes often cite fluency and proficiency in multiple languages, when they merely mean the rote memorization of stock phrases in a particular language. Fortunately, unlike the translators in Afghanistan and the mercenary company that hires them, the impact of pretending language fluency is usually only comedic.
In the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch, played by the late, great Paul Newman, plots a move to Bolivia to escape a bounty-hunting sheriff's posse. Before long, he has convinced Sundance (Robert Redford haloed in an electric glow of rugged American male sensuality) of his fluency in Spanish. Sundance explains the reasons for the duo's move to Bolivia to his girl, Etta, played by the lovely Katherine Ross: "Butch here speaks some Spanish." Left unsaid, the fact that the linguist's Spanish consisted of two words: nues and nuestro
After learning specialized bankrobbing terminology in Spanish, they attempt holding up a Bolivian bank:
Butch: Manos a ... Manos, um ... [Butch pulls out his cheat sheet) Manos arriba!
Sundance: They got 'em up! Skip on down.
Butch: Arriba
Sundance: Skip on down!
Butch: Todos ustedes arrismense a la pared.
Sundance: They're against the wall already!
Butch: Donde ... Ah, you're so damn smart, you read it.
After watching several people I love succumb to Alzheimer's, I looked to neuroscience to give me answers and found something compelling and true about the brain and language. The research shows neural connections and cognitive function renewed, improved, and even established by the struggle and tentativeness of learning difficult things. Learning a language is one way. It's a more than difficult thing when one undertakes it as an adult. I'm studying German and hope to be comfortable in French one day ... one day.

Castle Owners of the Fourth Estate Flog Usurper, Julien Assange - 30/10/2010


Soon after leaving print reporting and before settling into education and science communications, when people asked me what I did I'd say I was a "recovering" journalist. I'd usually get a laugh out of that line before the enquirer invariably launched into a broadside on biased journalism, sensational reporting, the media's moral bankruptcy, its role as a propagandist and apologist for those in power, and corporate influence on the news.

It is all true of course; reporters and media somewhere in America are guilty of one or the other of these sins sometime. I recall a particularly egregious story from the beginning of the Iraq War. CNN reporter, Kyra Phillips was at a hospital in Kuwait City interviewing doctors who were caring for a 12-year-old boy -- the lone survivor of a US aerial attack on his neighborhood. The boy, Ali Abbas, had lost his father, mother, bothers, sisters, several cousins, uncles and aunts, 15 people in all, in the attack. The boy's arms were so severely burnt, charred down to the bone, that they had to be amputated just below his shoulders. He had life threatening burns over 30 percent of his body. Phillips, full of journalistic concern and training, plied the doctor with questions about the boy and his psychological state. The doctor replied that the boy had thanked people for their attention and that he hoped no other children would suffer as he had. It was at this point that Phillips transformed into the Pentagon's unofficial, unpaid press secretary. "Doctor, does he understand why this war took place? Has he talked about Operation Iraqi Freedom and the meaning? Does he understand it?" But of course. Isn't that what a child who loses everyone he loves and chunks of his own body would talk about? The phrase "Operation Iraqi Freedom" it's worth noting was coined by the Pentagon and a standard slug in its press releases. That it made its way into American newsrooms unexamined, and became the rationale and redemptive theme for the war was a stroke of PR brilliance by the Pentagon's war promoters. "Our modern media are very blurry shadows on the wall, and the philosopher has to be prepared to manipulate these shadows in the service of a greater truth," author, Jonathan Franzen has a war-mongering character say in his novel, Freedom.

Most of the time though, the people I knew in the media wanted to write stories that mattered or made a difference. Two standouts among them: Noreen Ahmed-Ullah of Chicago Tribune, who did insightful early reporting from Kandahar during the invasion of Afghanistan; and Rajiv Chandrasekaran of Washington Post who followed America's tax dollars down the rabbit hole in Iraq. I know I felt I'd caught lighting in a bottle when I was able to do a lengthy expose over eighteen months investigating and reporting child protection services and the unintended harm, both psychological and physical, of separating children from imperfect but not abusive parents. But there were stories I couldn't write. I remember being taken aback by the number of annual deaths due to cosmetic surgery and campaigning for weeks to do an expose. The request didn't even go up the editorial hierarchy before it was rejected. When I pressed, I was reminded gently that we had many cosmetic surgeons among our advertisers. I stopped newspaper work, I'd like to pretend it was for my inviolable principles, but rather, it was to try other forms of mass communications -- online reporting, museum exhibitions, film, theater, books.

Mainstream media's coverage of Julien Assange's document dump on WikiLeaks got me thinking again about the soul of mainstream American journalism. Thumb through your local newspaper and you'll see three and four bylines to a single article. I've seen two bylines for a report on a single park district meeting. Come on now -- two reporters to cover tree planting and summer camp? There are staff reporters paid to write two and three stories a year. Imagine then, the amount of effort, discipline, dedication, and hard work it took for Assange and his corps of volunteers -- dependent entirely on donor goodwill to press the Paypal button to support their work -- to review more than 400,000 official documents spanning seven years. Think of the labor, care, and attention it must have taken to redact sensitive information (as best they could), categorize each incident by date, type, area, perpetrator, victim, provocation, region, unit, affiliation, classification, category; scan the material, organize the material, create an archive, add links and hyperlinks for references and cross references, and publicize the results.

For his trouble, Assange was rewarded with blistering attacks on his character. Assange delivered a treasure trove of government documents that should have kept curious reporters busy for months, but instead, they circled the wagons to question his credibility. Why? Because Assange is a renegade who did their jobs for them and highlighted their inadequate reporting of the war. Authentic documents - in this case Pentagon documents -- do not need the imprimatur of a commanding authority or the credibility of a messenger. Reporters, like the police, accept tips from everyone and authenticate information on their own. It doesn't matter if Tariq Aziz or Bin Ladin or Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann delivered the documents. In this case, the documents were already verified because of their origins. If Larry King could press Assange to answer questions about his character before he could discuss the documents, why not take that logic to its outer limit and require King to take a character test, let's say on the matter of marital fidelity? And anyone who plans to talk on deep background to Atika Schubert now knows that she'll disclose your identity in a nano-second. All one has to do is pull an Austin Powers and simply ask, "Who told you?"

Where I would question Assange would be for his stated reason for delivering the documents--that he wanted to stop the Iraq War. Giving the material its due should have been enough. My favorite quote about the reason to inform is from Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji: Again and again, something in one's own life or around one will seem so important that one cannot bear for it to pass into oblivion.

The best archivist and memory keeper is the internet, the only place where the news lives without censure. Assange should keep in mind that MSM is irrelevant in 21st century news reporting, and that in future he should consider bypassing it altogether to publicize his leaks to this and other online news forums.

Incidentally, the mainstream media who, prior to the war, asked no questions, took dictation, connected no dots, and drew all the wrong conclusions from the dots they didn't connect, ended up in my novel about war, The Edge of the World. Free pdf download here.

Money Catches up With Meaning in Social Enterprise - 17/11/2010


I recently attended social enterprise and impact investing summits on both coasts, where social entrepreneurs, impact investors, changemakers and change-agents gathered to discuss new developments in the field.
In addition to conventional development initiatives addressing a range of social problems including the building of civil society, there were smart solutions impressive for their specificity. In parts of rural India, where people must frequently wait at home all day for trucks to bring clean water, a social enterprise created by students at Stanford and UC Berkeley, NextDrop.org sends SMS water alerts to neighborhood residents in advance of the trucks, based on computational models and predictions. Other interesting initiatives included the provision of portable housing for slum dwellers in Kenya, the recycling of jeepneys into classrooms in the Philippines, and the use of pets as healers to traumatized populations.
Many of the field practitioners and entrepreneurs were at the meetings to test the six degrees of separation theory -- to find the connections, matches, networks, collaborations, partners, angels, investors and funding they needed to grow their enterprises.
Impact investors I met fell into three distinct groups: advanced level investors -- pioneers who built the field of contemporary social enterprise in front of them, who recognize multiple and narrow approaches to solving problems and intuit and embrace disruptors; intermediate investors who validate new ways of delivering solutions, embrace a diversity of programs large and small, and measure impact in qualitative and quantitative terms; and beginner investors focused on technology and determined to back the next Kiva, the next Vittana, the next Huffington Post.
It needs to be said that there are good and excellent solutions to daunting social issues that lie outside technology's ability to deliver them. The changemakers in Kenya need to increase their portable rental housing inventory. The jeepney recycler needs materials. My social endeavor, Rainworks Omnimedia which produces traveling exhibitions for science and natural history museums, to benefit girls literacy and clean water programs, is as low as low-tech can be.
One of our specific interests is on a topic rarely spoken above a whisper -- feminine sanitary protection. Young girls in poor communities around the world are often forced to miss school when they are menstruating, because their parents cannot afford to provide them with sanitary pads that cost more than sacks of cornmeal and rice. The girls are forced to use rags, mattress stuffing, tree bark, banana peel, and dry cow dung to manage their periods. Many fall prey to infections; they also become vulnerable to sexual advances by male students and teachers, when their sanitary protection fails and they spot their clothes. One of our benchmark goals is to purchase mini sanitary pad-manufacturing machines from India and distribute them to women's groups in under-served communities in Asia and Africa. The machines, which have already been tested successfully in Tamil Nadu, India produce low-cost, biodegradable pads from wood pulp. The manufacture of this basic necessity at an affordable price enables girls in poor communities to remain in school, while generating stable livelihoods and incomes for women and women's groups in impoverished communities.
Nevertheless, it is technology that will allow social entrepreneurs increased access to capital. The most exciting advance in social enterprise is Mission Markets recent introduction of an online investment exchange that facilitates relationships between socially and environmentally responsible enterprises and impact investors. This elegant platform will enable the flourishing of a vibrant marketplace where entrepreneurs and investors can make deals to co-create mission driven companies. It is a vehicle for impact writ large.

America The Literal: Spectacle and Higher Education - 3/6/2011

The death of literacy and the victory of spectacle occurred a few feet from my house, last week, while I was still reeling from Chris Hedges' Empire of Illusion - The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. It happened at Northwestern University -- a not for profit, privately held institution that occupies the most valuable lakefront and prime real estate in the City of Evanston, IL, charges more than $40,000 a year in tuition, has a $5.9 billion endowment, and pays no property taxes.

The spectacle in question was a live sex demonstration by two exhibitionists who, "disappointed" by a video presentation of female orgasm which they deemed "unrealistic," decided to show the room of a hundred SAT and ACT score-busting collegians what female orgasm is really like. Enter a willing female, a male partner with a Home Depot fetish, and a "reciprocating" saw attached to a sex toy. Also in the room was a popular professor of human sexuality, so witless it seems, he'd sign his own death certificate if you put it in front of him. "My decision to say 'yes' reflected my inability to come up with a legitimate reason why students should not be able to watch such a demonstration," said the professor.

If we set a really low bar for ourselves, say 2 inches from the ground, I suppose we would be able to see in this educational exercise, American ingenuity at its finest, brought to bear on a grave problem--the lack of realism in a video about female orgasm. But if we have greater expectations, we can see in it the infantilizing of higher education--the rejection of the development of abstract and critical thinking skills, higher order thinking skills, the most complex cognitive thinking skills, in favor of grade school level "show and tell."

The 18 and 19 year-olds I know are full of curiosity and energy, and are well prepared to take advantage of academic rigor. They don't know what their future holds, but they feel brave because they have put their faith in higher education. Yet, if you ask them what they think of college, many will tell you it's a racket--a system designed to teach them close to nothing about what they need to make their way in the world, and to keep them as indentured laborers through student loans.

In Five Minds for the Future, Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University, suggests that the new era of hyper globalization, massive information, dominance of science and technology, and the clash of civilizations will demand cognitive abilities and capacities that up to now have been mere options. Gardner says that without these "minds," individuals will be at the mercy of forces they can't understand. He cites the disciplinary mind which masters major thought including science, mathematics and history; the synthesizing mind which integrates ideas from various discrete disciplines and spheres to create a coherent new whole that can be communicated to others; the respectful mind which is aware of and appreciates the differences among human beings; and the ethical and creating minds.

Educating our young people well, so that they have the potential to become virtuosos in the cognitive orchestration of knowledge, serves all our interests. Valorizing cheap thinking, spectacle, and moral nihilism may be oh so hip and cool, but it creates cheap-thinking, morally nihilistic, literal minded Americans. 

As Iraq War Memory Fades, The Art Endures - 3/6/2011

First published in Huffington Post

The Guardian ran a story two weeks ago, in which Iraqi chemical engineering dilettante, Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi -- codenamed "Curveball" by somebody in espionage with an obvious sense of humor -- admitted that everything he told German interrogators about WMD in Iraq was a fabrication, a whopper, a stinking lie.

The confabulist from Baghdad, a modern-day Scheherazade, delivered his technicolor version of One Thousand and One Nights to agents of the BND in Germany. Convinced that the unemployed chemical engineer was their own "Deep Throat," the spooks from Berlin plied him with money, asylum and eventual citizenship, and the epitome of fine German engineering -- a late model Mercedez Benz.

In his bedtime stories to the BND, Curveball included accounts of a fleet of bioweapons labs on wheels that could release biotoxins into the air. That was all it took apparently for Secretary of State Colin Powell, to stand before the UN and perform his ceremonial waving of a perfume bottle to illustrate biotoxin production in Iraq and Saddam Hussein's evil nature, and to rationalize the American invasion of Iraq. Nobody at any of our intelligence agencies interviewed Curveball directly; their German counterparts wouldn't offer him up for questions.

The story got a few plugs in media outlets this side of the pond, and then died a quick death. It was never a contender for the high-octane media coverage given to stories of boys flying away in balloons or kings overcoming stutters. Daniel R. Cobb writing in Digital Times may have nailed the reason the story didn't fill the 24-hour news hole: "This story is almost too disheartening, too disturbing to examine," he wrote.

There we have it. It is too disheartening and disturbing for the media to examine the reasons why our government violated international law and invaded a sovereign nation on a lie. It is not the first time that troubling events that mark and identify a nation, that form its history, become vulnerable to a collective memory lapse, a spontaneous national amnesia.

Fortunately, art endures as art always does, and many writers, musicians, and filmmakers have documented the Iraq War -- the hubris, the lust, the lies, the tragedy, the suffering, the crimes, the folly -- for posterity.

The following is a pick of what I consider the best literary and creative work about the Iraq War. If all media deleted their archives of news about the Iraq War, and only these works survived, we would still be able to remember the things we believed about ourselves during the march to war, our nationalistic impulses, our need for blood after 9/11, our willingness to be persuaded by those in power, our eagerness to suspend belief, and our easy embrace of war before peace.

Great Songs, Films and Books About the Iraq War

Chicago band, Clara May's song, "The Chosen" encapsulates the whole chicanery of the war and highlights the Orwellian lexicon sprouted by the administration to get us primed, juiced and ready for war.

Baghdad Burning, a book of blogs by Riverbend -- The Girl Blogger from Iraq. The Anne Frank's Diary of the Iraq War as chronicled by a 25 year old woman from Baghdad who went from Yuppie tech worker to refugee in Syria. Riverbend's fate is unknown as of Oct 22, 2007 when she posted her last blog from Syria.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City is an insightful book that will have American taxpayers reaching for the antacid as he follows suitcases filled with US dollar bills down the rabbit hole in Iraq. Very entertaining accounts about L. Paul Bremer, our first "Viceroy" in Iraq--head of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

The War Tapes, film by Deborah Scranton. The Iraq War as seen through the eyes, literally, of members of the New Hampshire National Guard who were in Iraq from 2004 to 2006. 17 soldiers were given digital cameras which they used to shoot 800 hours of tape. The final award winning film documents the lives of 3 soldiers as filmed by each of them. Gives embedded reporting new meaning.

Iraq in Fragments. The consequences of war as experienced by Sunnis, Shites and Kurds and documented by American director, James Longley who spent two years filming in Iraq.

Here, Bullet -- a book of poems by soldier Brian Turner who served in Iraq. While some of us can imagine war well enough to write about it, this 7 year veteran lived on the frontlines of war.

Redacted, a chilling film written and directed by Brian De Palma, based on the premeditated gang rape of a 14 year old Iraqi girl, Abeer Hamza and the subsequent murder of the girl, her parents and her 6 year old sister by four American soldiers.

American Idiot the single by punk band, Green Day which articulated the climate of paranoia and use of propaganda to manufacture consent for the war.

Rendition starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon and Meryl Streep is about the rendition of an innocent man in a case of mistaken identity, loosely based on the actual wrongful rendition of Khalid El Masri, a German citizen who was kidnapped in Macedonia in 2003, flown to Afghanistan, and interrogated and tortured by the CIA as part of the War on Terror.

War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning -- a stunning book by Chris Hedges, a veteran war reporter, about the appeal of war and how it makes us feel so good, so warm, so fuzzy.
Posted by Gail Vida Hamburg at 11:08

Sunday, Understanding Debt Ceiling Politicians Through "12 Angry Men" - 7/17/2011

First published in Huffington Post

Director Sidney Lumet's 1957 classic, 12 Angry Men, a mainstay in law and business school curriculum, that shows the influence of preconceived notions, assumptions and prejudice, and deconstructs coalition building, the art of persuasion, reciprocity, and dealmaking, is a useful film for understanding politicians involved in the debt ceiling talks.

Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb and a host of familiar faces from grainy black and white television shows, the film is both an examination of the American judicial system (the 12 angry men are jurors who must weigh in on a murder case) and touches on some of the issues and "isms" that America was grappling with in the late 50s -- communism, fascism, racism, McCarthyism.

In the current talks, politicians on both sides of the aisle hold on to their positions with white-knuckled ferocity and refuse to deal with the hot mess that is the debt ceiling, while the rest of us have been rendered mute by the complexity of it all, or struck a Gandhian pose of civil disobedience by posting snark about politicians on this and other sites, or have given up and curled into a psychological fetal position.

The consequences to micro-economics (our ability to sustain ourselves financially without sinking into a deep debt hole or relying on the kindness of those who love or tolerate us) and macro-economics (China's ability to claim us as household pets [Stephen Colbert, 2010]) are as dire as the taglines in the film advertising for 12 Angry Men: "LIFE IS IN THEIR HANDS -- DEATH IS ON THEIR MINDS! It EXPLODES Like 12 Sticks of Dynamite."

"We cannot default but we cannot afford to retreat right now either. Now is not the time to retreat, it's the time to reload. And we reload with reality..." Sarah Palin weighed in on the debt ceiling recently. When horse manure like this flies in your direction faster than you can dodge it, there's nothing left to do but watch Jon Stewart to render American life as we live it now into comedy, or play a new parlor game -- match the juror from 12 Angry Men to a politician opining on the debt talks.

FOREMAN: A small, petty man who is impressed with the authority he has and handles himself quite formally. Not overly bright, but dogged.
JUROR NO. 3: A very strong, very forceful, extremely opinionated man within whom can be detected a streak of sadism. He is a humorless man who is intolerant of opinions other than his own and accustomed to forcing his wishes and views upon others.
JUROR NO. 4: Seems to be a man of wealth and position. He is a practiced speaker who presents himself well at all times. He seems to feel a little bit above the rest of the jurors. His only concern is with the facts in this case, and he is appalled at the behavior of the others.
JUROR NO. 6: An honest but dull-witted man who comes upon his decisions slowly and carefully. A man who finds it difficult to create positive opinions, but who must listen to and digest and accept those opinions offered by others which appeal to him most.
JUROR NO. 7: A loud, flashy-handed salesman type who has more important things to do than to sit on a jury. He is quick to show temper, quick to form opinions on things about which he knows nothing. Is a bully and, of course, a coward.
JUROR NO. 8: A quiet, thoughtful, gentle man. A man who sees all sides of every question and constantly seeks the truth. A man of strength tempered with compassion. Above all, he is a man who wants justice to be done and will fight to see that it is.
JUROR NO. 10 An angry, bitter man. He is a man who antagonizes almost at sight. A bigot who places no values on any human life save his own, a man who has been nowhere and is going nowhere and knows it deep within him.
Juror NO. 12: A slick, bright advertising man who thinks of human beings in terms of percentages graphs, and polls and has no real understanding of people. He is a superficial snob, but trying to be a good fellow.
Posted by Gail Vida Hamburg at 08:11
Sunday, March 6. 2011
The death of literacy and the victory of spectacle occurred a few feet from my house, last week, while I was still reeling from Chris Hedges' Empire of Illusion - The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. It happened at Northwestern University -- a not for profit, privately held institution that occupies the most valuable lakefront and prime real estate in the City of Evanston, IL, charges more than $40,000 a year in tuition, has a $5.9 billion endowment, and pays no property taxes.

The spectacle in question was a live sex demonstration by two exhibitionists who, "disappointed" by a video presentation of female orgasm which they deemed "unrealistic," decided to show the room of a hundred SAT and ACT score-busting collegians what female orgasm is really like. Enter a willing female, a male partner with a Home Depot fetish, and a "reciprocating" saw attached to a sex toy. Also in the room was a popular professor of human sexuality, so witless it seems, he'd sign his own death certificate if you put it in front of him. "My decision to say 'yes' reflected my inability to come up with a legitimate reason why students should not be able to watch such a demonstration," said the professor.

If we set a really low bar for ourselves, say 2 inches from the ground, I suppose we would be able to see in this educational exercise, American ingenuity at its finest, brought to bear on a grave problem--the lack of realism in a video about female orgasm. But if we have greater expectations, we can see in it the infantilizing of higher education--the rejection of the development of abstract and critical thinking skills, higher order thinking skills, the most complex cognitive thinking skills, in favor of grade school level "show and tell."

The 18 and 19 year-olds I know are full of curiosity and energy, and are well prepared to take advantage of academic rigor. They don't know what their future holds, but they feel brave because they have put their faith in higher education. Yet, if you ask them what they think of college, many will tell you it's a racket--a system designed to teach them close to nothing about what they need to make their way in the world, and to keep them as indentured laborers through student loans.

In Five Minds for the Future, Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University, suggests that the new era of hyper globalization, massive information, dominance of science and technology, and the clash of civilizations will demand cognitive abilities and capacities that up to now have been mere options. Gardner says that without these "minds," individuals will be at the mercy of forces they can't understand. He cites the disciplinary mind which masters major thought including science, mathematics and history; the synthesizing mind which integrates ideas from various discrete disciplines and spheres to create a coherent new whole that can be communicated to others; the respectful mind which is aware of and appreciates the differences among human beings; and the ethical and creating minds.

Educating our young people well, so that they have the potential to become virtuosos in the cognitive orchestration of knowledge, serves all our interests. Valorizing cheap thinking, spectacle, and moral nihilism may be oh so hip and cool, but it creates cheap-thinking, morally nihilistic, literal minded Americans.
Posted by Gail Vida Hamburg at 11:14

"Kissing" Books Could Have Saved Borders - 7/24/2011

First published in Huffington Post

In his essay, "Is Nothing Sacred?" novelist Salman Rushdie examines the importance of literature in society, laments the state of fiction (he penned it during the nuclear fallout from his own novel), and recalls his early relationship with books.
"I grew up kissing books and bread," he begins. An enchanting sentence that guaranteed my attention.

"In our house," Mr. Rushdie wrote, "whenever anyone dropped a book or let fall... a 'slice,' which was our word for a triangle of buttered leavened bread, the fallen object was required not only to be picked up but also kissed, by way of apology for the act of clumsy disrespect. I was as careless and butter-fingered as any child and, accordingly, during my childhood years, I kissed a large number of 'slices' and also my fair share of books. Devout households in India often contained, and still contain, persons in the habit of kissing holy books. But we kissed everything. We kissed dictionaries and atlases. We kissed Enid Blyton novels and Superman comics. If I'd ever dropped the telephone directory I'd probably have kissed that, too."

I read the essay while living in London, and felt great sympathy for Mr. Rushdie who was at the time living incognito. I marveled at his stubborn faith in literature that was giving him nothing but grief at that time. And I was consoled that there were other people living in England who grew up kissing books too. Though in my own family, we kissed only the books my father took seriously and that formed our reading list: philosophy, religion, science, and the writings of politicians, inventors, entrepreneurs, scientists, and dissidents around the world. We did not, I recall, kiss novels, which may explain why I felt compelled to write one later in life. My father's reading legacy must have left a mark on me, in any case, since politics, religion, colonialism, war, and imprisonment were narrative threads in my first novel.

Most of the independent American bookstores I frequent now are owned by people who grew up kissing books -- not literally as Mr. Rushdie and I did growing up, but figuratively at least. Like Jungian analysts who ask people they meet, "Did you dream?" I ask everyone I am interested in knowing better, including booksellers, "What are you reading?" With the exception of one owner who said she was diving into something about eating, praying and loving, I always found their reading tastes worth emulating.

In the last few days, as a whole assembly of men wearing suits -- analysts armed with the dullest of forensic tools -- analyze the death of Borders Books, it's become increasingly clear to me that none of them grew up kissing books or understand those who do. They blame book readers, digital books, Amazon, and the recession for the demise of the superstore chain when they should be blaming the executives of Borders.

Some things to bear in mind for companies attempting to fill the Borders-sized hole in the universe in the near future:

Book readers are rarefied, hothouse orchids. Comparing bookstores to Bed, Bath & Beyond, Home Depot, and Linen & Things shows that corporations and business analysts don't know their apostrophes from their elbows.

Book readers are educated and smart. Don't place rubbish and pulp near the door.

Book stores are politics-neutral zones. Placing tomes with screeching titles by partisan hacks and bloviators of every stripe set book buyers blood to boiling and make them want to run out the door.

Book lovers like minimalism. What is a book after all but a whole universe of ideas reduced to its essence? A footprint of a bookstore should be roughly 1/100th the size of an airplane hanger.

Bookstores are where you have conversations with people who are not in the room. Reading is an insular act best done in a tight, cozy environment. Stores as large as football stadiums discourage reading .

Women love fiction, ergo women love bookstores. So why did Borders consign fiction to the bowels or the nether regions of the stores?

If Starbucks can invest in comprehensive training to teach their baristas all about coffee and customer service, why didn't Borders? I once asked a Borders employee for the title Baghdad Burning. She asked me, her eyes glazed with a combination of boredom and stupidity, how Baghdad was spelled. This was during the height of the Iraq War.

Book lovers welcome recommendations for good books they haven't heard of from trusted gatekeepers. While I would give Oprah's picks a second look, I wouldn't care what faceless Borders staff, including the one who didn't know how to spell Baghdad, picked. So why plaster books on the shelves with "Borders Staff Pick" labels? Who are you?

Book lovers want to know what thoughtful public figures are reading. Would it have killed you, Borders, to post a list of President Obama's reading list, or Aleksandar Hemon's, or Fareed Zakaria's, or the summer reading lists of Pulitzer laureates or any smart public figures?

Author readings near the cafe. They have slit their wrists on the page to tell you about their difficult and tormented lives/loves/etc. The psychic damage to writers is multiplied when the soundtrack for their readings is the steaming hiss of the espresso machine and yelled customer orders for non-fat/soy/skinny et al.

The Art of Editing. All shoppers know that the reverence and demand for a displayed item is inversely proportional to the quantity on display. One pair of Christian Louboutins glinting like jewels on a rotating mirrored pedestal provokes desire. Burying the same pair on a rack with dozens of other styles, or in a row with dozens of the same style, creates ennui. Delayed gratification, walking out the door without buying, is easier when you see a dozen copies of a title on the shelf.

Special events and programming. Readers love book events as evidenced by the huge turnouts at book festivals like the Printers Row Book Fair in Chicago or author-specific festivals around the country. Borders' efforts were listless at best.

Supply and Demand. Get publishers to realize that publishing 288,000+ titles a year makes no sense at all, when even the most motivated reader who is employed and can afford to buy books, can only read a book a week.

And what was with the red walls? They made you hungry, but not for books.

When I walk by the shuttered Borders on Michigan Avenue now, Chicago's Gold Coast feels like a desert to me. There are more shops than you can count to meet your every need for clothing the body, but not one to feed your soul in that stretch of Magnificent Mile. Referring to the "privileged arena" of literature in Is Nothing Sacred? Mr. Rushdie wrote, "Wherever in the world the little room of literature has been closed, sooner or later the walls have come tumbling down."
Posted by Gail Vida Hamburg at 08:06

A Time For Stories About Heroes - 7/28/2011

In the wake of the Oslo bombing and the massacre on Utoyo island, we have learned so much, too much, about the protagonist and villain of the whole tragedy. His name, his face, his life, his writings will live on. He can claim something close to victory, because the electronic archivist remembers him deeply--completely--and he is now known to us. But what of those who were at the scene of the explosion in Oslo, unharmed themselves but who helped those who were? They deserve to be remembered, they should be known to us, but by some unfortunate accident, they seem destined for the memory hole.

In George Orwell's 1984, the memory hole is an ugly contraption. It is a wall with several utilitarian slots for the erasure of truths, housed in a cubicle at the Ministry of Truth. "In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices ... For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building."

Our current memory hole seems to be an accidental, collective neglect of human actions and interactions that ought to matter. It seems unfair that evil should be remembered comprehensively and into perpetuity, when good is not. We ought to give quiet acts of uncommon courage their due, as much as we do acts of cowardice and spectacle.

There's a remarkable story in war correspondent, Chris Hedges book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, that I keep hoping Hollywood will consider adapting to film. It is a memorare that, once read, takes root in the soft, liquid, feeling places of one's heart and mind.

Serbs, Drago and Rosa Sorak were living in Gorazde in 1992, when their lives became ensnared in the war between Serbs and Muslims. After Serb forces shelled their city, cutting off basic amenities, the family dug in and cast their lot with the Bosnian Muslim government. The Serbs attacked them daily from the mountains, and branded them as traitors. Both their grown children were killed--one son by the Muslim police, and the other in a car accident while fighting with the Bosnian Serbs. As one of only 200 remaining Serbs in Gorazde, they were a target for Muslim nationalists and bitter about the tragedy wrought on their lives. "How can you expect us to live with those who murdered our son?" Rosa told Mr. Hedges in his searing account.

Five months after their son's disappearance, his young widow gave birth to a daughter. The city was being shelled constantly, there was little food for anyone, the mother could not nurse her baby, and people were dying in droves. The baby began to fade after five days of being fed tea in place of mother's milk. "She was dying ... it was breaking our hearts," Rosa recalled.

On the edge of the city, Fadil Fejzic, a Bosnian Muslim, was keeping his cow in a field and milking it at night to avoid being hit by Serbian snipers. Roza told Hedges: "On the fifth day, just before dawn, we heard someone at the door. It was Fadil Fejzic in his black rubber boots. He handed up half a liter of milk. He came the next morning, and the morning after that, and after that. Other families on the street began to insult him. They told him to give his milk to Muslims ... He never said a word. He refused our money. He came for 442 days, until my daughter-in-law and granddaughter left Gorazde for Serbia." "It is our duty to always tell this story," Drago Sorak told Hedges. "Salt, in those days, cost $80 a kilo. The milk he had was precious ... he gave us 221 liters."

In viewing the reports in the media of the Oslo explosion, the image below -- captured by a Reuters photographer and accompanied by the caption, Passerby offers assistance to a woman wounded in the Oslo bombing -- moves me. The young man was on his way to work or school, his backpack filled with what he predicted he would need for the day. He could have kept walking. He didn't. It would have been more convenient not to stop. But he did. It is regrettable that he will not be celebrated for comforting a stranger, in the same way the media fell all over the Australian youth who was comforting his girlfriend with a kiss during the riots in Vancouver. But, what does this photograph capture if not a moment of boundless humanity, generosity, compassion, tenderness, and grace?

Engineers Rule - 18/11/2011

First published in Huffington Post

By page 41 of Walter Isaacson's important biography of Steve Jobs, I wanted immediately to score some LSD to replicate Mr. Jobs experience, which he called, a profound experience and one of the most important things in his life. "It reinforced my sense of what was important -- creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could," he said. Between Jobs' LSD and Proust's petite madeleines, one could surely achieve sartori and self-actualization, I felt.

By page 526, after reading Jobs' intention in designing the iPad "I would love to help quality journalism... we need real reporting and editorial insight more than ever," I longed (as a former journalist who left print just before it keeled over and died) for an iPad 3. Who knew the iPad wasn't just a giant iPhone?

Jobs' divine madness; his and chief designer, Jony Ive's Bauhaus-Zen aesthetics, the complex simplicity or simple complexity depending on your gaze; and Apple's striving for elegance through engineering are central themes in the book. You can't help but fall in love with their products after reading about the creativity, the intelligence, the soul, the oblique thinking, the pain, the craziness, the heart, the effort, and the river of tears (Jobs cried like no grown man I know) that went into each iconoclastic collaboration. Victims of Jobs' verbal eviscerations and cruelty abound -- many were sacrificed at Jobs' alter of perfection or flung into the rubbish heap of his ingratitude.

But by the end of the book, I felt that the engineers who helped make Apple, and Jobs' animation company, Pixar, "insanely great" (his favorite superlative), indeed all engineers and the field of engineering, ought to be better known, if we are to get American schoolchildren interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and inspire them to pursue higher science education and careers in these fields.

In a February 2011 'tech titans' meeting with President Obama, Jobs explained why he had employed 700,000 factory workers in China -- because he needed 30,000 engineers on-site to support those workers. "You can't find that many Americans to hire... these factory engineers did not have to be PhDs or geniuses; they simply needed to have basic engineering skills for manufacturing. Tech schools, community colleges, or trade schools could train them," he said. "If you could educate these engineers, we could move more manufacturing plants here," he told the President, who, over the following month, told his aides: "We've got to find ways to train those 30,000 manufacturing engineers that Jobs told us about."

STEM education is not doing anything near what it's supposed to do. Ask kids to name their favorite scientists and they still name Einstein. Ask kids to name their favorite engineers and the answer is silence. In the race to the future and the brave new world of technology, we have not yet learned to surrender the memorabilia of long ago whether it's dinosaurs and mummies in museums, or cultural staples. Jobs recalled his tour of Istanbul led by a Turkish historian: "The professor explained how the coffee was made very different from anywhere else, and I realized, "So f*&%$#@ what? The young people in Istanbul were like kids everywhere else, they were all using cell phones..." There is also a troubling gender gap in the field -- young girls' general lack of interest in STEM explains why few major in science in college, and why women are still rarefied hothouse orchids in these disciplines.

As a producer of STEM exhibitions for science and natural history museums, and the K-12 schoolchildren who visit them, I am focused on deconstructing and interpreting science through immersive museum experiences using high-touch interactives and deep-feel storytelling. I'm now integrating STEM curriculum into Economia: Money Matters, an exhibition on personal finance to open in science and natural history museums in Fall 2012, and completing development of Pure Elegance: The Wonder of Mathematics and Brave New World: The Exhibition Of Technology and Trends, both slated for science museums in 2013.

The challenge for exhibition producers like me is to make STEM exciting and entertaining for museum visitors, especially children on school field trips, and to compete with expensive Hollywood branded tripe. How do we get schoolchildren interested in STEM? One way to teach STEM to young Americans -- avid consumers of technology lifestyle products, all -- is to tell them the interesting, enthralling, and yes, 'action hero' stories of the invisible profession -- the engineers behind the tools, products, machines, technology, social media, and apps that rule and shape so much of their lives.

To read Isaacson's tome is to get a glimpse of luminous engineering minds: from Steve Wozniak at early Apple to Phil Schiller, Jon Rubinstein, and Tony Faddell. The latter three were responsible for the hardware of the anodized brick that delivers a favorite song -- so a teen can go to the dark side of the moon, or the bright side of the sun, or step back from the edge of peril. The iPhone, that allows youth everywhere to protect their secret lives from their helicopter parents, would not have been possible without the engineering solutions of Professors John Elias and Wayne Westerman of the University of Delaware who developed multi-touch sensing capabilities, Corning Glass CEO, Wendell Weeks who created the near indestructible "gorilla glass" for the phone, and Apple's in-house engineering team headed by Schiller, Rubinstein and Fadell. Corning's Weeks told the truculent Jobs upon meeting him for the first time, "Will you shut up and let me teach you some science?"

Mr. Jobs, had he lived, meant to revolutionize education through digital learning, as he'd already revolutionized music, publishing, mobile communications, and film animation. It would have been his magnum opus.

Let's keep an eye on the engineers and tell their stories -- they're working on insanely great stuff.
Posted by Gail Vida Hamburg at 16:48

Americans Still Lead The World In Self Regard, Latest Poll - 11/21/2011

First published in Huffington Post

The Pew Research Center's latest Global Attitudes Project survey brings interesting news. Only half of all Americans believe our culture (which I understand to be an identifier of all the things that resonate with the majority populace) is superior to others.

The earnest reporting to understand the meaning of it all followed, devoid of irony: "Is America exceptional among nations? Are we, as a country and a people and a culture, set apart and better than others? Are we, indeed, the "shining city upon a hill" that Ronald Reagan described? Are we "chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world" as George W. Bush said? This year, for the first time, most Americans did not say yes," wrote one.

Let's deconstruct: Half of all Americans believe our culture (as mysterious a phenomena as that is) is superior to others:

after ignoring the whole world to swagger, strut, and start a war with Iraq over WMD and finding, well, none;

that we're on a mission from God;

*and that we're a shining city on a hill, despite an economy in tatters that has forced many young Americans to decamp for Auckland, Shanghai and Bangalore for jobs.

Pew's findings are a tribute to the resilience of our super-size ego. It shows that most of us are quite pleased with ourselves. Why analyze anything, or learn from our shortcomings, or examine our mistakes, when we can just tell ourselves how superior we are?

According to one MSM report:

A Time Magazine/Abt SRBI poll conducted last month found that 71 percent of Americans believed that our position in the world has been on the decline in the past few year. And an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey conducted earlier this month found that most Americans believed that we aren't simply going through tough times as a nation but are at "the start of a longer-term decline where the U.S. is no longer the leading country in the world."

So what if we're no longer the leading country in the world? The post-modern America of the 21st century is a different one from the shining city on a hill first imagined in 1630 by John Winthrop. The Puritans believed they were latter day Israelites re-enacting the Exodus and chosen by God. They needed to believe in their new country's superiority.

The Founders' disdain for monarchy and autocratic rule birthed an elegantly articulated democratic ideal that is, even today, an inspiration to those living under dictatorships around the globe. Call this democracy American if you want, but those protesting abroad against corrupt governments and longing for political freedom, would rather celebrate it as an ingrained universal, humanistic ethos -- stripped of its American lineage and especially its unfortunate link with American military intervention.

That democracy builders around the world routinely study the work of the Founding Fathers, their biographies, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and our current political system, should be satisfaction enough and a soothing massage for our ego. It's time, however, for us to accept that the new arbiter of principled global governance will not be America on its own, but a transglobal, transnational coalition with new players -- China, India, the ASEAN pact, and the European Union. Why not share the great responsibility of having to save the world with others?

Conversely, if half of all Americans no longer consider ourselves superior, it is, to me, a mark of our maturity as a people and as a nation. A superiority complex is often a cover for an inferiority complex, according to Adlerian psychology. "If we feel small, one way to feel big is to make everyone else feel even smaller," Adler wrote. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams in their letters home from service abroad in England and France complained, often bitterly, of being treated like provincials, and with disrespect. What is the Declaration of Independence if not the ultimate revenge against arrogant, established power? The Founding Fathers were badasses! Determined to promote America's egalitarian ideals, they tossed the ceremony and formality of the Old World to the winds. George Washington, after borrowing $500 from a neighbor to get to his inauguration in New York, arrived wearing a simple brown suit instead of his regal military uniform. Jefferson, while, President received an important ambassador wearing his nightrobe. A superiority complex was essential then to the task of nation building.

In my favorite work about American idealism and good intentions, Graham Greene's Vietnam-era book, The Quiet American, Alden Pyle (the "Quiet American" of the novel and the fictional forerunner to President George W. Bush), has very superior views of his own country and very simple opinions about the world. Armed with explosives, he goes to Vietnam to bestow it with the gift of democracy whether the Vietnamese people want it or not. "Pyle was determined to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world. Well, he was in his element now with the whole universe to improve ... I never met a man with better intentions for all the trouble he caused," Greene wrote. 
He poked fun at our lack of awareness about cultures older than ours, and our superiority complex. When Pyle declares America's intention to bring freedom to emerging nations like Vietnam, Greene has another character, Thomas Fowler retort: "Vietnam, an emerging nation? Do you mean compared to Hawaii, New Mexico, and Puerto Rico?"

Several reporters in citing the Pew study link national pessimism to the decline of American Exceptionalism. Why couple our national pessimism with the decline of our feelings of superiority over other countries, at all? Why do we need to feel superior over other countries before we can feel good about ourselves? "We must look out at the world with clear eyes and sober minds and do the difficult work as we've done time and time again. That's how a city shines upon a hill," writes one columnist. I would argue that what we really need to do, before we can focus on the pressing problems facing this country and begin to solve them, is to get over ourselves.
Posted by Gail Vida Hamburg at 16:50

From Chicago, Music In the Key of Life - 4/12/2011

First published in Huffington Post

Gail Vida Hamburg

In 2007, Chicagoan, Nicole Sotelo, a Harvard-trained theologian and author, read a searing account of Congolese rape victims. The women, young girls and grandmothers among them, had suffered extreme sexual violence at the hands of the Inerahanwe and Hutu men responsible for the genocide in neighboring Rwanda, the Congolese army, armed civilians, and occassionally, U.N peacekeepers.

Sotelo remembers weeping when she read the experience of one woman identified only as "Nadine," talking to Eve Ensler, writing for Glamour. "She was fleeing her village after her family had been slaughtered and she had been raped, when she saw an infant girl lying on the ground next to her slain parents," Sotelo said. Ensler had written: "Nadine rescued the girl; now having a child to care for gives her reason to keep going. "I can't go back to my village. It's too dangerous. But if I had a place to live I could go to school. I lost my children but I'm raising this child as my own. This girl is my future."

Sotelo, now of indie folk rock band, Clara May, wrote her song, the haunting Lullaby, with Nadine, and the baby Nadine claimed as her own, very much on her mind. "They were both alone in the world. Nadine could only outlive her own sorrow by loving this child and willing her to life," Sotelo said.

My daughter, You keep me on this earth, My daughter, This ground gave you birth, You put breath in my lungs, Help me to stay strong, I get up for you and pray ... Unlike other lullabies which coax babies to sleep, this one urges the baby to stay awake: Stay awake, Stay with me, For the nightfall is approaching, And you are all that I see, And the rebels' call is encroaching, And I'm dying, To be free...

Lullaby is in a larger sense an aria for the brave women of Congo, Rwanda and elsewhere who have experienced unimaginable sexual violence at the hands of their perpetrators, and who have risen out of the ashes like phoenix.

Clara May is a studio band that rarely performs live, which made their appearance at the Dark Room last week a special treat. The founding members of the group and its singer songwriters are Sotelo and Tom Silva, a Malaysian-born corporate executive, filmmaker and University of Chicago humanities student. Given their diverse professional backgrounds, the quality of their music is remarkable. "One could hardly hope for two more unique and distinct voices than those wielded by the duo. Silva's rich baritone marries Nick Cave's sneer to the mournfulness of a young Scott Walker, while Sotelo's recalls Dar Williams at her most pristine," wrote one reviewer.

For Hush, their debut album (which I heard live last week), they assembled a group of talented session musicians including Chicago producer, Phillip Amerson, who in his other life is lead guitarist and vocalist of the hard rock band, Bitterson, and a service member of the U.S. armed forces about to begin officer training. The band is rounded out by bassist, Michael Sinclair of the grunge band, Tribal Opera; classical guitarist and former philharmonic musician, Barmey Ung; Nate Pusateri on drums and percussion; Marcus Smith, a church organist from the South Side; and Alex Gowland, a 20-year veteran of the Unites States Navy Band on lead guitar. The ensemble is 21st century America up close -- multicultural, transglobal, worldly, idealistic, pragmatic.

Clara May's songs resonate with the soul that tilts and pitches towards terra firma, through a singular fusion of 60s folk and anthem rock laced with world music beats and grunge guitar licks. The songs in Hush address themes I've not heard in mainstream indie music before -- ethnic conflicts, identity, racism, genocide, the Iraq War, and yes, human folly, love and loss.

Location of Culture, an intriguing tone poem named after the seminal postcolonial text by Harvard professor, Homi Bhabha, is a meditation on the presence of an imperial figure in a fractured former colony peopled by solitary, split figures who oscillate between repulsion and attraction to their former overlords. The lyric images evoked are of a stark, fragmentary space -- the kinds of places that Graham Greene and Albert Camus wrote about.

The enchanting Hyderabad, a technically flawless composition written in a Muslim city during the height of the Iraq War, expresses a need to break away from the rhetorical strategies of the Bush Administration, which at that point had taken to justifying the invasion of Iraq on the basis that Iraqis were from the "same part of the world as the 9-11 terrorists". The song is part apology and part canticle for a new kind of ecumenical world view.

This is music that makes you brood, ruminate and remember personal and planetary hurts, monstrous acts in faraway places, and women like Nadine who have lost everything and still found reasons to live. "Sooner or later, one must choose a side if one is to remain human," a Vietnamese character tells the indifferent, uninvolved, Thomas Fowler, Graham Greene's protagonist in my favorite novel, The Quiet American. Nadine did, and so did Nicole. Listen to Hush. Hear the ripples. We are all involved.
Posted by Gail Vida Hamburg at 07:48