Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Russian Democracy

A couple days ago on Morning Edition, Gregory Feifer reported on the upcoming election in Russia and how Putin is doing his best retain power. As R has reported in his blog several times, Putin has already served the maximum number of consecutive terms that he can under Russian law (depending on how you count, he might have actually served an extra partial term already) and there are lots of theories as to how he'll retain power. While I find all the potential political machinations fascinating, what I find scary is how little Russians seem to care. In fact, Putin is so popular in Russia that most people would welcome him staying in power indefinitely. This is scary on two fronts:
  1. Putin's government is, for all intents and purposes, an authoritarian regime. He's using the same sort of fear propaganda that Bush uses against the Axis of Evil, referring to the enemies who "toppled the Soviet Union and sowed chaos in the 1990s" and saying a vote for his party as the only way to save Russia. Russia is cracking down left and right on freedoms and liberties, everything from disqualifying a political party because they aired an ad that said Putin is leading the country backwards to (according to a recent Business Week article) pulling a Pepsi ad showing teenagers playing music and just raising the volume when the neighbors complain because it was deemed that it incited anti-social behavior. But Russians don't care; they love Putin.
  2. Russian Democracy is being dismantled after only a few years, and it seems like most Russians actually support it! They don't care if Putin changes the Constitution or changes laws, as long as he stays in control.

One of the quotes in the piece summed it up - a Russian woman said, "The thing is, people really feel a sense of stability and order right now. I'd be perfectly happy if Putin stayed for a third term and violated the constitution". It makes me wonder, how long does a country have to have Democracy before people become a true advocates of the system? We always talk about "bringing Democracy" to the Arab world, and it's clear there are countries which are not yet ready for it - where you need to start slowly and build up the economy and make people feel secure before you have complete Democracies so people don't immediately vote for the strongest candidate out of fear. But Russia has been a Democracy for a while now and it was, more or less, working out, so why don't people care that it's slipping away?

I try to compare it to the US - I think most Americans are extremely proud of being a Democracy and of every citizen having the right to vote*. If someone tried to break the constitution here there would be huge outcry (as there was with warrant-less surveillance). While I think I would have been tempted to set aside constitutional limits on how long a President could serve if it would have allowed Bill Clinton to stay in the White House instead of our current excuse for a leader, ultimately I would never have been in favor of it since laws like that keep also limit the amount of time a horrible leader can be in power. So how long does it take? Do you need to be a Democracy for 30 years? 50? more? before your citizens, who might not agree with each other on most things, at least feel like being a Democracy is more important than their differences?

I guess we'll all have to wait and see how far Putin's "cult of personality" takes him.

* Even though I heard another NPR story last week about how 43% of Americans would trade their right to vote for a $50 Olive Garden gift certificate.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

AWAD Surprise

I am a total language geek. I admit it. When I heard about the A.Word.A.Day (AWAD) email list, I signed up right away, and I've been enjoying it for years. AWAD includes a weekly theme of words and their etymologies, and what could be better than that for fun facts to pull out at the dinner table (when you're out of NPR references, of course!) There's also a daily quotation – some of my favorites:

  • You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do. -Anne Lamott, writer (1954- )
  • It's hard to be religious when certain people are never incinerated by bolts of lightning. -Bill Watterson, comic strip artist (1958- ), in his comic strip Calvin & Hobbes
  • It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. -Thomas Jefferson, third US president, architect and author(1743-1826)

Notice a theme? I love that AWAD is as skeptical about religion as I am!

Today on Weekday, Steve Scher* had Anu Garg, the founder of AWAD, on as his guest, and I had one of those moments where you realize all is not as you expect – like when I looked online and saw that Ira Glass looked nothing like I'd been picturing all these years. I'd always imagined Mr. Garg would have a very regal, clear, Indian-accented voice, but instead he had an accent so thick I could barely understand him. I'd always pictured him living somewhere in central California (not at all sure why) but instead he lives here, in Seattle. I'd always assumed Mr. Garg could reply wittily to any question or comment about etymology, but instead he struggled to find something to say when a caller asked him something that wasn't listed in his book. However, the hour was still full of fun facts about cool words, and there he didn't disappoint at all. I'm only going to leave you with one, because I know you're not all geeky like me:

Teetotaler: Apparently this comes from a speech where someone was advocating that people give up alcohol totally – with a capital "T" – and he said it as T-Total. People heard it as teetotal and started calling folks who didn't drink teetotalers.

Isn't that great? And in perfect time for making conversation with family at Thanksgiving get-togethers. Go Mr. Garg.

* I was horrified today to learn from my friend F, who's "in the know" about our local NPR station, that Steve Scher is apparently a lecherous, unlikeable person. E and F have always complained that he talks too slowly and his intros are all the same, but I've always enjoyed Weekday's guests and now I'll never be able to listen to him without thinking of him trying out lame pickup lines on all the women at KUOW. Yuck!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Presidential Laddie Candidate, The Only

A few weeks ago, right before Hillary Clinton came out to speak, the announcer gave out a teaser by saying that someone even more exciting was coming the next week. At the time, I couldn't imagine who would be more exciting than the top-ranked democrat and first woman with a serious chance at becoming president, until I found out...her husband! Overall, I was definitely impressed with Bill. He is indeed the great speaker that everyone makes him out to be, especially when he starts in on one of his anecdotes - he is a wonderful storyteller and can really weave the story into the message he's trying to get out. His speech to us focused mostly on giving and the environment, and made a few key points:
  1. Giving is growing - there's been explosive growth in NGOS - with 1,070,000 NGOS in the US, half of which were created since 2000.
  2. Giving is getting easier with technology - he told a charming story about what he called his one duty as husband of a senator - going to the NY State Fair. He was there a few months after the Tsunami and a woman came up to him and gave him some cash for his charity. She worked at the state fair and told him that she'd prefer to give online but that she didn't have time to get to a computer, so she was giving him the money directly. He said the fact that even someone without much education and money preferred to give online made it clear that this was the way to go.
  3. Environmental change is only going to happen if you make it economically advantageous - which it already is. All the countries that signed and are sticking to the Kyoto treaty have had their economies improve relative to countries that haven't. (He argued that this was because many new jobs were created by working on environmentally friendly solutions, although I don't know that you can assume that this was really what made the economies better.)
  4. When Jeb Bush was in town (I promise I'm working on my write up - really! I know I have a lot of catching up to do) he spent his whole talk on leadership and never said one thing that was interesting. Bill Clinton was asked what distinguishes a great leader. He responded that great leaders understand where their people are in the sweep of history, can paint a picture of where they want to be and convince people that they should try to get there, and who lived what they believed. He gave only three examples - Rabin, Mandela, and Muhammad Yunus (last year's peace prize winner for micro-loans, who Bill said he campaigned for for years - apparently when Yunus won he told Bill that the head of the peace prize committee told him, "at least that Bill Clinton fellow will stop calling me now)
  5. Someone asked him if he could be appointed Secretary of State. I loved his response - it made me remember that at one point we actually had a president who was smarter than me. Boy I miss those days! Anyway, he immediately explained that a law was passed in the 1960's to prevent a president from appointing a family member to a cabinet post. He explained the history of the law (Congress was responding to JFK's brother being so influential on his cabinet, although he was one of the best Attorney Generals there were according to Bill) and got in a jab at the Republicans (saying the Dems had passed the law because it was the right thing to do even though it wasn't great for them, something the Republicans wouldn't have done). He also said that he shouldn't be appointed because no one should be on the cabinet who the president cannot fire. He actually joked, "I know she could fire me, but the country doesn't".
  6. He ended on a hopeful note talking about African countries which have a large Muslim population still being very pro-American because they see us a preferring diplomacy to unilateral action because of the work we've done to save their kids from AIDS, malaria, etc. He said it won't be rocket science to change our global image once we get a new administration - we just have to prove to these and other countries that America is back.
*As an aside - I found out that Bill was planning to head to UCLA the next day where my little sister would be seeing him, and I considered baking cookies and asking him to be a courier for me, but I thought that might be a bit forward. E wanted me to try to seduce him so that he could show up and get a picture with Bill, but I said no to that one too. Don't want to cause a scandal and hurt Hillary's rankings!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Even more thoughts on voting

Today is Election Day, and for the sake of you, my fine readers, I decided that this election I'd take advantage of the new electronic voting machines and report back. I hope you appreciate the fancy investigative journalism I've done here. According to NPR this morning, 90% of ballots cast in today's election will be done by mail, so most of you probably didn't get a chance to experience this. Some thoughts from my fun time this morning:

  • I'm one of the few and proud who showed up to the polls this morning, along with a gentleman and his four-year-old daughter who said he was teaching her civic responsibility. This is exactly the reason I hate to give up on polling stations, which unfortunately seems quite likely as we move to all vote-by-mail.
  • The polling station ladies were giving out the non-electronic ballots by default this time. When I requested the electronic ballot the woman helping me had to fill out a form, have me read out the precinct information that she'd filled out from a carbon copy, and then have me hand that carbon copy (and read the precinct information out loud again) to the Deibold representative so he could program the card I'd be using. Why is it that the electronic option actually takes more paper than the non-electronic one?
  • The Deibold rep didn't seem to want to help me, either - his instructions consisted of, "you've used this before? no? just put your card in there". I'm glad I didn't actually need help, because I don't think he could have provided it.
  • On the ballot itself, I was very curious as to how they would translate the information that's currently in scantron form on the paper ballots into a web-like UI. I should have realized that they wouldn't - they took no advantage of the opportunities provided by the display and simply presented the exact same interface - three columns, squares instead of bubbles, no links to more information or any improvements to readability.
  • I also only had the choice of either reading the ballot in high-contrast mode or large fonts. Apparently people aren't allowed to want both.
  • Once I got to the end of the ballot, I was allowed to review all my selections and hit "print". You'd think this would print the whole ballot, but for some reason it only printed the first few votes, then asked for more confirmation to print the next few votes, and so on. At any time I could reject the ballot, but it let me know up at the top that I could only reject the ballot twice. I don't know what would have happened if I had tried to reject it three times.
  • Each time I printed, it made this horrible screechy printing noise that I was sure everyone could hear (apparently not; the polling ladies either have bad hearing or the noise is pointed just at the user). When I rejected the ballot just for fun, it called out "ballot rejected". All in all, I felt very exposed.
  • Although I seem to remember that I would be able to see what was being printed out so I could confirm its accuracy, it was actually hidden behind a plastic panel. Maybe I missed something in my non-introduction from the Deibold rep?
  • Finally, when I was done the polling ladies and Deibold man all looked at me curiously so I spoke to them about it for a while and described the experience - it turns out not a single one of them (including the Deibold representative!) had ever seen what the screens look like while voting. I guess they all prefer paper.

There were quite a few important issues on the ballot today, so for all of you living in the area, you've got till 8pm - go out and vote!

What Girls Really Talk About

Warning: Gentlemen - if you're at all squeamish, I suggest you skip this post.

Last weekend my friends C and B and I spent a girl's weekend up at our cabin by the lake. When we got back home, J wanted to know all about what we'd done and what we'd discussed. Unwilling to counter the visions of panties and pillow fights flying through his head, I described our hike and hot tub, the wine we drank, the movies we watched, and outlined a few of the conversations we'd had. What I didn't mention was that we'd had a long and detailed conversation about circumcision. B is the only one of us with children and also the resident expert on Judaism so I was asking her about the rules around it, her personal experience, American norms, and other alternatives (not because I have a child on the way - please don't get any ideas! - but it's always good to be prepared right?). It was an interesting conversation.

Imagine my surprise when, while driving back from lunch today, I heard a story on Day to Day about an Oregon court case regarding circumcision. A divorced couple with a twelve year old son are having a dispute about whether he should get circumcised. His father, who has sole custody (I wonder what the mother did?) converted to Judaism a few years ago and now wants his son to convert as well, and therefore get circumcised. His mother is not Jewish, and objects. She's being supported by an organization called something like "Doctors against Circumcision" who argue that circumcision under any circumstances is bad, although Jews, Muslims, and a large majority of Americans do it. The Rabbi interviewed in the story said that because Judaism is inherited from the mother, the son wouldn't necessarily need to get circumcised if his mother had converted, but because it's his father he would. Other groups are concerned that if the mother wins the case then circumcision might eventually be outlawed entirely, or, as in a case in Chicago, left to the individual to decide when they turn 18.

I've never thought all that much about this topic (until this weekend I suppose) but I don't have a problem with circumcision. However, if there's an appropriateness scale for voluntary surgery on your kids that goes from acceptable ear piercings to horrifying genital mutilations, is it just custom and social norms that puts circumcision closer to ear piercings? I understand the surgery itself, with local anesthesia, is pretty painless for infants, but I don't know how it feels for twelve year olds. And obviously you're not in pain during sex for the rest of your life the way you would be if you were a girl in Africa who'd had genital mutilation. But still, it's a pretty strange thing to do. I don't think this changes a decision I'd make for my own child, but in answer to your question, J, this is what girls really talk about. Along with the pillow fights.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

NPR covers France

Way back before 9/11, I started boycotting French products because I was angry at France's anti-Israel foreign policy and the way they were ignoring or accepting the rise in anti-Semitic attacks within France itself. But it was hard, because while I can live without French wine, it's much more difficult to live without French cheese, and I found out that it's really quite difficult to find any semi-fancy soap that isn't made in France either. It was also hard because I love France. I've probably spent a good six months there between various trips, and I've travelled to all parts of the country (and have I mentioned the eating of the cheese? )

Well, I gave up on the boycott long ago (not too long after America spiraled into the absurdity which was Freedom Fries) but I was still pleasantly surprised when Sarkozy was elected this past May. Part of it was because his name is so much fun to say, but most of it was because he is the first pro-Israel (and pro-US; they often seem to go hand in hand don't they?) leader of France in a long time. And while normally I'd shy away from a conservative politician, France's version of liberalism is too close to socialism for my taste - while I like the idea of working 35 hours a week and spending 6 weeks in the Riviera, I think it's a bit much to consider it a right, especially when your economy is going nowhere.

All this to say, I was interested to hear the news coverage a couple weeks ago about Sarkozy's initial attempts to scrap special retirement privileges for, among other people, miners, train drivers, and opera singers. NPR covered the transit strike several times during the day, and All Things Considered in particular did a good job of interviewing some union workers about how unfair it was and how Sarkozy was trying to ruin what makes France French, but always giving perspective by including folks who disagreed, and mentioning that the vast majority of Frenchmen thought these privileges should be removed. Of course, all news stories took the opportunity to mention that on the same day as the strike, Sarkozy admitted that he and his wife were having issues and in fact their divorce was now final. It made sense to report on this - after all, Sarkozy was having a really bad day and it was interesting, if unfortunate, that these two events would happen simultaneously. But I was sure that NPR was focused on the transit issues and how they would affect France much more than Sarkozy's divorce proceedings, as a serious news station should be. Imagine my surprise when, for the next two weeks, I didn't hear a single word about what was happening in France. What was the outcome of the strike? Will this stop Sarkozy's reforms? What's going he going to try to tackle next? If I want to find this out, apparently I can't do so on NPR.