Archive for January, 2007

Translated audio

The last couple mornings I’ve been tuning into Six Degrees Radio, a two-hour weekly webcast that focuses on sounds from all over the world. This week, they’re celebrating their 100th episode with a set of cover songs:

Tracks include versions of Abba in Hindi, “YMCA” in Cantonese, “Rappers Delight” in German, a bluegrass rendition of AC/DC, a disco-fied Led Zep cover, a special set of rare funk and soul covers of classic rock tunes, a first listen to our upcoming Six Degrees covers compilation, Backspin […]

This set is definitely worth a listen – there’s some more chill tunes than the ones above; one of my favorites is the ‘Hey Jude’ cover by the Overton Berry Trio. Music to just set your head back on the couch and stare at the cieling, dreaming of some place warmer.


There are few places left on earth that have not been touched, or that cannot be reached by the digital devices we use for our convenience – the consequence of cellphones and the 24-hour news cycle is that even the most peaceful, hole-in-the wall places are unavoidably affected by the world, and the turmoil that envelops it.

Picture laying in an empty apartment, three stories above ground level, off a side street in Florence. The sky bleeds tinges of purple as dawn arrives, and orange bands of light shine on the wall as sunlight peeks throught the blinds. It’s all silence, just the sound of your own breathing.

Now add a laptop to the room, with an internet connection. Friends from Seattle and Australia are calling you over Skype, and it’s wonderful to hear their voice – but your email box is full of reminders about work, and BBC headlines tell you things are disintegrating in Nepal. Out in the street, you get a call over your cell phone from your mother, which is nice, but part of that easy connection takes away from the experience of being far from home.

When it comes to hearing bad news from far-off lands, we have a responsibility not to stick our head in the sand; sometimes simply being informed is the best thing we can do. But constantly bearing in mind the burdens of today can leave us feeling crushed and cynical. Similarly, constantly being entangled in the communication web leaves us with little time to reflect on ourselves or the places we inhabit – there has to be a break, there has to be a moment of escape.

When the stationary life gets too much for me, I find my escape in pictures – taking in images of Italy from a friend’s blog, scenes from Paris taken by photographer Rion, or ‘Today’s Pictures’ on Slate. Photography takes a moment and saves it – and snapshots from places we’ve never been fuel our imagination to create a space that is fantastic, and more importantly, that is untouchable.

Sunday breakfast

We sit in the cafe
with rosy, wind-stung faces.
The sunlight shining in
lies about the temperature outside.

I take down big bites of
banana chocolate-chip pancakes, smothered in syrup.
She eats more daintily,
the smoked salmon with eggs.
We speak words that fumble over trembling ideas
of places we’d rather be.

She says that pictures of milky coffee
remind her of how she wants to see Paris.

Whose freedom?

After a frigid, early-morning bike ride around Lake Monona, I stopped into my favorite Madison cafe to read the paper and slurp some hot, black coffee. At 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning, there were few students – mostly older, permanent residents of the town, who munched on danishes as they caught up with today’s news or fiddled with their laptops.

In this cozy space, I leaned back into my chair and flipped open The New York Times, liesurely paging through as the world’s drama unfolded in the text. I normally read about half-way through most articles – enough to understand an issue or event on surface level; but it seems almost every day recently, there is at least one piece that will force me to put the paper down and shudder, usually muttering an expletive to myself as the horror of some tragedy sinks in. Today was no different.

The Maher Arar case is one that has been well-publicized – even satirized by the Canadian show This Hour has 22 Minutesand his innocence is now well-known. Though Canada has officially apologized to Arar and awarded him reparations, the lesson of his harrowing experience still seems lost on the Bush administration:

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, have told Canadian officials that Mr. Arar is still on the watch list because of independent information about him obtained independently by law enforcement agencies in the United States.

After reviewing a confidential file concerning Mr. Arar, however, Stockwell Day, Canada’s public safety minister, said that it contained “nothing new” that justified blocking Mr. Arar from entering the United States.

This week, David H. Wilkins, the United States ambassador to Canada, publicly rebuked Mr. Day. “It’s a little presumptuous for him to say who the United States can and cannot allow into our country,” Mr. Wilkins said at a news conference in Edmonton, Alberta. (NYTimes)

The xenophobic cowboys in Washington just don’t seem to understand that they are functioning unjustly, condeming innocents to illegal torture, under the guise of “protection.”

In liberal college towns like Madison, students rail daily – mostly verbally and intellectually, but sometimes in the streets – against the sweeping infringements on our civil liberties, worried about the phone-tapping or mail-opening. This fear is warranted, but perhaps it is not the majority of university students we should be looking out for, but the minority. Arar’s case is merely one example – albeit a terrifying one – of how Arabs have been singled out in our country. Others, such as the recent beating of three Palestinians in N.C., amplify the fear among Arab-American communities that they will be unjustly targeted.

Our vigilance in protecting liberty should be focused on the communities whose rights are at the highest risk; the white, middle-class university student who vocalizes his dissent is unlikely (yet) to feel the heavy hand of a paranoid government – our citizens who pray at the Mosque or choose to cover their hair are more in danger of facing such prejudice.

The New Life: Final Review

When I posted my partial review of Orhan Pamuk’s The New Life, I gave it a mediocre rating at best – the first 80 pages or so were difficult, dreamlike and vague. Pamuk pulled me through a tempest of his protagonist’s agonizing crisis of identity, entanglements with love, and on endless bus rides through the Turkish country side that were at once self-examining and self-destructive. Up until this point, the main character’s meditations and journeys seemed aimless and overwrought – but then details and meaning began to slowly weave their way into the plot, like paper fibers connecting fiction with reality.

The New Life‘s narrator is a young man of college age (his name a mystery until the very end), whose entire life is changed by simple act of reading a book – the world inside the book consumes the reality that our protagonist once knew, melting away his idenity and the direction of his life, leaving him frustrated and lost. Our man’s troubles are only compounded as he falls hopelessly in love with a girl who has also read the book, but who is already involved with someone else – the last shreds of a familiar world are torn away from Pamuk’s desolate hero when his love disappears, and he sets out into a bleary, strange world to find her.

But Pamuk’s character faces more than just his own existential suffering; as he travels to decaying towns he begins to see the slow invasion of Western goods, and perhaps Western thought. Pamuk shows the dark underside of globalisation, and the dilemma that manifests as its unstoppable force trickles into every last corner of the earth – is there a balance between fundamentalism and losing one’s cultural identity?

Pamuk’s novel, though it begins roughly, is a reckless, dangerous journey of introspection that is beautiful and sad. It paints a complex new perspective of youth in the Middle-East, and poses questions of our own personal meaning. Guaranteed to keep you up past midnight, reading in the dark.

A good book is something that reminds us of the whole world – Perhaps that’s how every book is, or what each and every book ought to be. – “Mehmet,” The New Life

China: Hu and a dead journalist

The shady murder case of Chinese journalist Lan Chengzhang – who was apparently investigating an illegal coal mining operation – has unexpectedly drawn the attention of President Hu Jintao, according to the NY Times:

Mr. Lan was attacked on Jan. 10, along with a colleague, Chang Hanwen, when they went to interview the owner of the mine, located near the northern city of Datong in Shanxi Province. […] Citing government officials, the China News Service said that Mr. Hu and other senior Communist Party figures sent instructions “demanding that the case be rapidly investigated and the results be reported as quickly as possible.”

The case is bizarre for two reasons – the first being that Chengzhang was apparently more of an extortionist than a journalist, according to EastWestSouthNorth, who published the translated police report:

At around 9am on January 10, 2007, China Trade News’ Shanxi bureau worker Lan Chengzhang called his colleague Sheng Hanwen to go to Hunyuan county to collect information about an coal mine that has not gotten all its paperwork done. The two men rented the Santana 2000 car of Cao Xinbin and left together. On the way, Lan told Sheng, “I heard that a certain coal mine in Hunyuan does not have all the paperwork done. Let us go and take a look. If we can meet the boss, we wave our identification and the other party will give us at least 1,000 RMB.”

The other strange thing? Hu is apparently giving a damn about a journalist – as I posted about earlier, the legal treatment of journalists in China doesn’t have a great track record, to say the least. But if Hu is doing this to boost some kind of humanitarian image, his message is lost given the nature of the case – no matter the circumstance, the murder is awful and unjustifiable, but Chengzhang is already dead.

Maybe Hu should work on clearing the name of the many journalists who are unjustly suffering in jail because of China’s crushingly oppressive political system.

Wearing a watch

Lately, I’ve been able to hear myself think – this is strange because I also recently started wearing a watch again. These things tend to be mutually exclusive, the hands of my watch running circles around my head as I try to keep up with a schedule. During the busy weeks, even lunch hour becomes an exercise in premeditated routine, designed for maximum sandwich-chewing efficiency so that I can make my next class or appointment. Time at the cafe? Engineered towards optimal relaxation and newspaper-reading.

The space in between my commitments – when I’m walking, riding my bike, or laying down – has traditionally been tied up in daydreams, reminiscing about a bar in Seoul or imagining a hidden tea house in Nepal. All of that is lovely, but it often leaves me feeling exhausted and frustrated with the state of my own life.

The tricky thing about wanderlust is that it is a chronic condition; even after arriving at a long-anticipated destination, the bug catches you again, and you find yourself already itching to drift along. The itch keeps you from being content with where you are, happy only in the action of traveling – there have been periods in my life when I felt the most presence of mind only when flying or riding the train.

But while this constant longing for motion and transition is a necessary motivator for those with aspirations to see the world, the other edge of the sword is that is cultivates a mindstate that rarely pauses to appreciate the moment – it’s hard to enjoy Prague when your head is still at 30,000 feet.

The watch reminds me that things are moving forward, but being present means feeling and living the space between the seconds, hearing my own thoughts and taking slow breaths – I’m happy being at home here, in this city between two lakes, so that I can be happy when it comes time for me leave it.

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Required Reading


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