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February 2012
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Mali Journal

My elder daughter, M. is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali.

I sent this email to her friends:

Most of you have probably heard by now that the democratically elected government of Mali has been overthrown in a coup d'états by a group of army officers. I have spoken twice with the Peace Corps emergency desk. Both times I was told that every volunteer in Mali was safe and accounted for, although they could not be specific about M. On Thursday, the Peace Corps issued a "standfast" order, which meant no one was supposed to leave their village. Peace Corps volunteers in Marlow's area were "consolidated" on Friday. This means they have left their villages and are in a regional capital. When I spoke to the Peace Corps, they asked me to minimize the information I put out, for the safety of the volunteers. So, I'll just let you know she's safe. No decision has been made whether to move to the next stage, evacuation.

On Saturday, March 24, we got this:

I've holed up in the back bedroom where I'm staying. It isn't the first best or even the second best room, but there are many people closer to [here], and some people even got caught here and haven't had a chance to go back to site. I'm really happy that I at least got this news while I was at site so I could pack up my belongings. It is weird because I don't know for sure that I'm not going back to site, but I had to assume that was the case when I was packing.

The house isn't as crowded as I thought it would be because some people got stuck in Bamako or Bougani when we got the holdfast announcement. There's maybe 15 people. We're still kind of on top of each other though since no one has any reason to be here besides sitting around and waiting and speculating.

I didn't get any of the Peace Corps texts or the embassy texts, but yesterday I was going to visit Y's mother's village Jomana, which is 7 km behind T's village of Djambugu. So we stopped by her village on the way in and on the way out. The bike ride was about 20 km one way. Jomana was nice enough. The people were friendly. They overfed me. We had a dance party. I just posted a bunch of the pictures on Facebook. The men in the family that was hosting us for the day do wood carving of Malian basic cooking utensils, so I watched them do that while we sat under a couple of mango trees. As we were leaving they gave me a chicken and a pretty hefty sized bag of rice. When we stopped by Djambugu with less than two hours to go before sunset, Tabitha told me we had gotten the order to consolidate tomorrow, i.e. today. We decided to meet at the main road a bit before 9 am to try and catch the first buses in. I had more questions so we talked for awhile. Y was getting impatient, and sure enough, we did have 14 km left to bike, but I couldn't help but squeeze all the news possible out of T who not only got the texts but had called some other volunteers already in cities and gotten updates. We did end up biking into village after dark, which isn't my favorite thing.

It was kind of awkward, because after doing all the elaborate greetings and saying what a great time I'd had all day in Jomana I had to tell my homologue and host family that I'd be leaving in the morning and might never come back, which in America would obviously be the story you would lead with. I took my bucket bath and came back for a quick dinner with them, but then I had to go to pack. My house was kind of a mess, so I cleaned while I packed. If I don't come back, and they go into my house, I want them to think I always lived neatly, although it doesn't really matter here. I packed two big bags full of Malian clothes and presents and souvenirs from Mopti and Dogon and my bag full of electronics and toiletries and said mental goodbye to everything else I might never see again. Most everything I left I wouldn't need in America anyway.

This morning was awkward because I didn't know if it was our last goodbye. I'd only gotten about three hours of sleep, waking up with the first call to prayer and unable to go back to sleep. I only ate half my bowl of oatmeal because my stomach was tied up in knots. The Malians aren't very demonstrative, but M did call everyone over to actually say goodbye to me rather than to yell at me from across the compound. And then B shook my hand with his left or "dirty" hand, which is an insult, such that I would have to come back at a later time so he could apologize. Basically it means you have to come back. Then everyone else followed his lead and offered me their left hands. Even the little two year old twins unwittingly played along. They just like greeting me in general with either hand. They gave blessings that the war in the North would end and that I wouldn't go to America just yet and for my safe return to village.

I left up all the decorations, and left all my food sealed up, in case I really am just gone for a couple of days...

Wikipedia, Biking in Boston, The Nature of Being

Wikipedia, Biking in Boston, The Nature of Being
Like most teachers, I have very mixed feelings about Wikipedia. To keep my students away from it when researching Civil War battles, I have created my own Google Custom Search Engine. But I am very interested in the thoughts of any of my readers about this infographic. I am highly dubious about the error rate per article figure.

Biking in Boston
I found myself thinking about biking in Boston. When I arrived in 1970 as a freshman, I had the bike I got for Christmas four years earlier. Since I lived in the Back Bay, I frequently rode it over the Harvard Bridge to MIT when the weather was decent (September, October, March, April and May). The bike was stolen. I came back my sophomore year with the identical bike my brother had gotten, but didn't want. That summer, I worked five miles away, at WBZ on Soldiers' Field Road. For six months, five days a week, I rode it to work (I had no other way to get there), rain or shine. The next school year, it was stolen too. My junior year, I bought a junker. It was stolen. My senior year I rode a one-speed, complete wreck. I no longer bothered to lock it, because who would steal junk? It was stolen. I didn't ride for six years after I graduated, until I moved to California the second time in 1979 and started riding with Vicki. I have never had a bike stolen in California. I am not at all sure what this all means...

The Nature of Being
In his Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda wrote  that it takes "a million years of incarnating masquerades to know final emancipation." A friend of mine has been telling me this for years.  I told her great minds think alike, and she responded, "Ha!  not only do they think  alike, they ARE One Mind, to my understanding.  We are all just bits of that One Mind, albeit some of us are asleep, or half asleep, and forget/forgot what we are." Food for thought.

Political Briefs

The Kid with a Bike

4 stars out of 5
My wife and I are suckers for a film with good reviews, especially one that won the Jury Prize at Cannes. So we went to see this film. The plot summary from IMDB is succinct and accurate: "Abandoned by his father, a young boy is left in a state-run youth farm. In a random act of kindness, the town hairdresser agrees to foster him on weekends." Unlike most French films, there is some character development. Lessons are learned, and some people change and mature. On the other hand, the ending is the least satisfying (in an American sense) film ending of the year so far. Still, art is art so go see it. It wasn't totally French.

Totally French? As Paul Rudnick put it in a recent humorous article in The New Yorker:
"French culture remains unmatched. Our films include rollicking farces, searing documentaries, and quietly explosive investigations of family life. In these films, to avoid vulgarity, nothing happens, and none of the actors’ faces ever move. French filmmaking has recently reached a peak with the almost entirely silent Oscar-winning movie The Artist. True cinéastes say that the ultimate Fench film will be a still photograph of a dead mime."

Nillson's Leaf, Peterman's funny definition, Dan Grobstein File

My friend Bob Nillson recently bought a Nissan Leaf electric car. Since I drive less than 20 miles a day most days, I am thinking of a Leaf as well. He's going to keep me posted on the ownership experience. In the meantime, his car reads my column to him.

Kent Peterman shared a definition: "synonym (noun): A word used in place of the one  you can't spell."  I don't know about you, but I do that all the time.

Dan Grobstein File

  • Family planning
    There seems to be some mistaken notion out there that the the efforts to limit access to family planning by Republicans are purely abstract and hypothetical and “political” and unlikely to have any real effect on real women, if Democrats win the “message war” on the HHS contraception rule. That isn’t true.
  • It is still amazing to me that the wingnuts don't realize that when the Republicans control all three branches of government they don't make abortion illegal because they need it to stir up the base.
    Meghan McCain in Playboy and Why It Matters 
  • Greek Yogurt, Meet American Politics,  By Matthew Yglesias
    I had a Greek neighbor when I was in jr high. Her yogurt was more sour but I've always liked the thicker stuff and an glad that Greek style is popular. The absolute best is noosa from Colorado which says it's an Australian style yogurt. Much more like pudding. It was available here for a few months in the Shoprite chain but recently disappeared. I don't know if you can get it in California but is highly recommended and delicious. 
  • Quote from British PM David Cameron's speech: "There is now an urgent need to repair the decades-long degradation of our national infrastructure and to build for the future with as much confidence and ambition as the Victorians once did."

    Anyway, I wonder how much Thatcher's privatization is the cause of the "decades-long degradation of our national infrastructure". So much money was sucked out of what had been public infrastructure. Government services should not have to make a profit. The profit is the improvement in the quality of life for the population which allows so many other aspects of society to improve.
  • Mr. Zimmerman, a criminal justice major, often patrolled the neighborhood. He had placed 46 calls to 911 in 14 months, for reports including open windows and suspicious persons. unquote. he's a cop wannabe with a completely wrong idea of what it means to be a cop.
    U.S.   | March 21, 2012
    A Florida Law Gets Scrutiny After a Teenager's Killing
    Seven years after Florida adopted the "Stand Your Ground" law, the shooting of Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed, has put that law at the center of an increasingly angry debate. 
  • It's not as easy as it once was before the internet, but it is still much easier to do things in the states that would not be done with national publicity. The Republicans hide their true agenda (look at all the no-power moderates speaking at their conventions). Of course when in power federal wins.
    OPINION   | March 20, 2012
    Editorial:  The States Get a Poor Report Card
    State governments have long been accused of backroom dealing and cozy relationships with moneyed lobbyists. A new study suggests those accusations barely scratch the surface.

Mali Journal

My older daughter, M, is a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali. This week she went to Dogon country:

I tried to find a map that shows where we went, this one kind of does it:

The spellings they go with are Bandiagara, Djiguibambo, and Kani Kombole, and Telly doesn't look like it's on the map (look under Bandiagara for the smaller village names).

We timed our trip so that we could come up taking the Peace Corps shuttle. So we caught the shuttle at 8 am on Friday. There were six of us in the car and it was crowded, but still preferable to public transportation. We stopped for 10 minutes in Segou and 5 in San, but otherwise it was pretty much a straight shot. We didn't get into Sevare until around 5. We took showers, cooked some pasta, and I was pretty much done for the day. The others stayed up and watched a movie. So, basically I saw nothing of Sevare, but I hear there's nothing really to see. The next morning we took the shuttle again at 8 am to Bandiagara. Even though that trip was only a little over an hour, so we had the whole day here, we mainly just stayed at the Peace Corps unofficial stage house, with trips out for breakfast and lunch, and dinner we actually had delivered! And it was pizza! One of the host dad's of another volunteer runs a restaurant near the stage house. Not bad at all. I took several long naps. It is amazing how tiring a full day in a car can be. This got us good and rested for today.

Today our guide picked us up at 8 am, and shockingly, he actually showed up at 8 am, with the car, as promised. We found out the night before we were probably overpaying by approximately $10 a person for this tour, but I think the guy earned it. The first village we went to was Djiguibambo. There was menstruation hut, an animist temple, a couple of mosques, a couple of churches, a lot of low-slung meeting huts, and a lot of kids who followed us around. These kids were harmless though. The kids in Bandiagara are ruthless about asking for money, presents, or candy, and they get in your face. Also, in our one day of barely leaving the house in this city, I saw a pretty brazen show of public drunkenness at 9:30 am, which combined with the over-entitled kids makes me happy my service isn't up here doing tourism, which was my initial hope coming into Mali. Anyway, the village was cute, and the people were thrilled to have us. Our guide passed out kola nuts to the appropriate village chiefs and old people along the way so that no one could complain about us. The second village, Kene Komboli, actually has a Peace Corps volunteer, although we didn't see her during our visit. The highlight here was a camel, and we got our first glimpse of the houses built into the cliffs. The guide said the houses on the cliff used to be more practical when there were still wild animals roaming this area, but now that the animals are gone, the people are happy to live on the valley floor, as it is much easier. The third village was Telly, which was the overall highlight. That's the place where we got to go up into the abandoned cliffside village. We saw the place where they used to sacrifice humans, and some animist paintings and sculpture-esque wall design. It wasn't all that hot today, but it was certainly much nicer in the shade of the cliff, and the guide pointed out that when it rained, the cliff used to protect the village. There's also a layer of even older (1000 year old?) dwellings above the Dogon houses.

Oh, wow, New Mexico cliff villages really do look a lot like Dogon cliff villages. Crazy.

So, there were three spots on the cliff that we were told were sacred. One was forbidden for us to go take a close look at, and they still actively worship there, they change the wall paintings at a huge festival every six years at a festival that lasts a year and moves down the escarpment from village to village. Each village dances and paints for a couple weeks then it moves on down. The two spots we could see though were more miraculous feeling than spooky, because they were both places where water was coming out of the cliff. One was a place where women were supposed to bring their newborns to be baptized, and the other was the spot for sacrifices.

We went to Mopti. I bought a bunch of turban cloth. They had a bunch of different colors so I just went crazy. Some I'll wear, some I'll probably give as gifts when I get back. I also bought a little jewelry. I also got some Dogon hats. My friend J lives in Mopti, so he helped show us around. We also went on a boat ride. It was pretty, but an hour was more than enough. People are super aggressive up here. This is the off season and they didn't get that many tourists during the actual tourist season so they jumped at the sight of white people. Everything we did we were the only ones doing it. We were the only ones at the restaurant. We were the only ones doing a pleasure cruise. We were the only ones buying crafts. It is sad, and a little off putting.

Interesting Point Raised by Celebrity Death

Harrison Klein responded to my reflections on a death last week:
I was interested in your comment about Peter Bergman's death, "Is this the world we live in, where news of your departure appears first, not on your own web page...?" I don't know about Peter Bergman, but I think both you and I maintain our own web pages, so I'm quite confident that those pages will never report our own deaths, unless somebody else takes the initiative to find the login credentials and figures out how to modify the content, which might take months in my case.

His point is well taken. I meant for the important part of that sentence to be the part that followed: "or on a newspaper or radio news site (or for that matter, in a newspaper or on radio)." In other words, it is scary to me that an unmediated, frequently hacked, often inaccurate medium (Wikipedia) becomes the (accurate) first place to deliver news, rather than a traditional, competitive, mediated first source  of news--or the horse's mouth, which would be your own web page In a traditional context, an announcement on your web page is the equivalent of . On the other hand, as I reconsider the post, if my theory is correct and a friend posted the change to Wikipedia, it is highly likely the person had no access to Peter's site, and that people who did have access had bigger things on their mind than updating the site.

But as for the "might take months" part, my situation would be different. First, I have a "blog buddy" whom I trust completely, who has my ID and password. More important is another preparation I have made that I highly recommend to all tech-literate persons. There is a loose-leaf binder in my office, entitled "Stuff Only Dad Knows." My wife and both my daughters know where it is. It contains every ID and password, every account number, every recurring bill, every advisor's name and contact information, how to get my email, the features of the house that are not obvious but might make it more valuable when it is sold, the company that services the hot tub, advice on getting my PC unpackes, and so on. I maintain the book meticulously. Every time I do something that I think a) might have to be done again/regularly or b) would be non-obvious (no one is going to call or write asking it to be done), I write it down. There's a lot of stuff I know that no one else knows. If something happened to me, I'd want my family to be able to assist me (or mourn me, as the case may be), without the distraction of trying to figure out how the hell to keep the place running. I recommend this practice to others, and now, to you.

Political Briefs

Drill Baby Drill
The "drill, baby, drill" crowd, some of whom send me emails, is making me nuts. Oil is a fungible product, traded on world markets, which are controlled by international demand (over which the US has no control) and speculation. "Generally speaking, there's about one-third speculators making deals on oil and two-thirds of end users. Right now, it's the exact opposite. McClatchy News Service found that, currently, Wall Street speculators make up almost two-thirds of all trades." The US could control speculation, but politically chooses not to. It is not oil scarcity driving up prices, and US drilling won't bring it down for very long, or in a very widespread way. Alaskan oil already largely goes to Japan. Anhy new oil will go to Brazil, Russia, India and China at the world price, unless you believe Chevron will have a special "U.S. only price." Dream on. More production will improve out balance of payments, but it sure as heck won't lower our prices.

Klein on the new media, Driver Reaction Time, Movie Poster, Coldstone Rant, Carroll on Steve Jobs

Harrison Klein dropped me a thoughtful note on new media:
As social media replaces mass media I think your scenario [of not getting obituary information from traditional media]  is inevitable. Rather than getting news (or obituaries, or -- and this has the most impact on my daily life -- product reviews) from a small number of authoritative sources, you have to wade through hundreds of blogs, comments, reviews, etc. from a bunch of people you know nothing about. While it's a major pain, I can see two ways it's better. First, you get a far broader view of the situation, since so many more sources are involved. The "wisdom of crowds" does work in many situations. The New York Times is certainly authoritative, but they still have a bias and a western way of looking at things. My option to read blogs or even Al Jazeera gives me a much broader perspective, even if many of those sources are biased and inaccurate. Second, it teaches you not to trust anything you read. My schools taught critical reading but I tended not to be very critical when reading an "authoritative" source. With all the crap on the Internet I am constantly fact-checking. More time consuming but I suspect overall I have a more accurate grasp than before.

A friend sent me an interesting game which tests your drive reaction time. Other gems this week include a fun movie poster and a rant about Coldstone.

Chuck Carroll checks in:
I am halfway through the Steve Jobs biography.  He seems to have been an Enlightened A**hole. One source suggested that Jobs was afflicted with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  Jobs was adopted. As a young adult he was surprised to learn he had a sister, Mona Simpson. Years later, Mona was with him when he died.  The last episode of The Simpsons TV show included the ghost of Homer’s mother. The character is named Mona Simpson.  Ha Ha, just a random occurrence. Actually, no.  Turns out the real Mona Simpson’s husband was a writer for The Simpsons. He named Homer’s mother after his wife.  This means that Steve Jobs is Homer Simpson’s uncle.

So, if I posted daily instead of weekly, I'd be ahead of this instead of just slightly behind. This exec from Goldman Sachs resigned on the op-ed page of the New York Times: Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs. It gave birth to a million spoofs; Andy Borovitz is good (
A Response from Goldman Sachs), but my favorite is The Daily Mash - Why I am leaving the Empire, by Darth Vader.