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21-28 February 2003

28 FebMore on Quiet Americans
28 FebI Need to Know
28 FebTo Google or not to Google
27 FebPioneer 10 falls silent
24 FebThe Philippines & Today's Quiet Americans?
24 FebThe Quiet American
24 FebGlobal Protests
24 FebGoogle & Blogs
24 FebThe Language of Diplomacy
23 FebDr. Mahathir
23 FebBernard Shaw and Spelling Reforms
22 FebKaleidoscope: Water, Memories, Duct Tape

More on Quiet Americans

28 February 2003 1:25 AM SGT (link)

The Wily American

Slate has a commentary (The Wily American) on The Quiet American, which I reviewed here. I won't go too much into it because it has quite a few spoilers, for the benefit of those who have not watched the movie yet. Basically its thesis is that the new movie, and its interpretation of Alden Pyle, the quiet American, is considerably darker in tone than Greene's book. (I heartily agree.) And the writer attributes it to the growing tide of virulent anti-Americanism, primarily from the Europeans. (I thought it was to accentuate the flaws of Alden Pyle.)

Digression: A film's parentage is a tricky matter, in view of globalisation and multinational cooperation, but since the production companies are European, and at least one of the screenwriters is European, I'll grant that point. The director, Philip Noyce, is Australian. Caine is British, Fraser is American-Canadian, and the movie was mostly filmed in Vietnam. Still, it's not good to assume all Europeans think alike about Americans.

The writer raises very good points, among these: in the book, Fowler says that he resented Pyle, even America and what it stood for, because of Pyle's political inclinations and that he was trying to take Phuong away from him, but still somehow he also liked Pyle, perhaps for his innocence or his lack of cynicism that had condemned Fowler to the status of passive observer. In the movie Pyle is seen in a far more sinister view, a "ruthless CIA mastermind", and frankly I was a bit disappointed that the movie had chosen to take it to that extreme. One would understand if one read the book - Pyle the character is that much more intriguing and complex because of his innocent self-righteousness. This article is excellent in giving us yet another perspective of the interaction between the book, the movie, current events and the whole notion of my recent idée fixe, "the quiet American".

The perspective on Iraq, from East Timor

José Ramos-Horta, one of the freedom fighters for East Timor when it was part of Indonesia, and now Minister for foreign affairs and cooperation of the burgeoning nation, penned an opinion piece to the New York Times regarding the Iraq issue: War for Peace? It Worked in My Country (free reg. req.). Besides his thoughts on Iraq and what should be done by the U.S. and other parties - well-considered, in my opinion - I don't really understand how the fact that an international peacekeeping force was assembled after the atrocities in 1999 means that "war for peace" is a proven concept - it's a non sequitur! Maybe the person who wrote the title was trying to push something.

...Many families were entirely wiped out during the decades of occupation by Indonesia and the war of resistance against it. The United States and other Western nations contributed to this tragedy. Some bear a direct responsibility because they helped Indonesia by providing military aid. Others were accomplices through indifference and silence. But all redeemed themselves. In 1999, a global peacekeeping force helped East Timor secure its independence and protect its people. It is now a free nation.

But I still acutely remember the suffering and misery brought about by war. It would certainly be a better world if war were not necessary. Yet I also remember the desperation and anger I felt when the rest of the world chose to ignore the tragedy that was drowning my people. We begged a foreign power to free us from oppression, by force if necessary.

- José Ramos-Horta in the New York Times, War for Peace? It Worked in My Country

It breaks his thesis, but as this site (a profile of the man) and other places clearly say, the events beginning from the referendum on the independence of East Timor approved by President Suharto's successor Habibie, and the resulting carnage by Indonesian militias, resulting in the entry of the Australian-led Interfet force, and now the formation of Timor Leste, did not involve any war of liberation! In fact the world took quite long to apply pressure on Indonesia to cease the looting and killing - more than a thousand dead, hundreds of thousands of refugees, and by the time the peacekeeping force arrived most of the damage had already been done. It was more like international pressure than outright war.

But Ramos-Horta is right about Iraq, I feel: the threat of force, and the U.S. military buildup around Iraq, has been the only thing compelling Saddam Hussein's cooperation with the weapons inspectors now, and simply to rule military action out would be playing into his game. Those who unquestioningly protest the war on Iraq should also take a look at Saddam Hussein and what he has done to his people and his neighbours for more than a decade. Who will stand up for victims of his dictatorship, his wars?

I Need to Know

28 February 2003 12:30 AM SGT (link)

Suppose a giant asteroid is heading toward Earth right now. Impact is certain. The consequences are expected to be globally devastating, with the human race among the casualties. The chances of doing anything about it are zero, the government decides.

Would you want to know?

Or would you prefer the Feds keep the information secret and spare you and your neighbors a bunch of pointless worrying?

In essence, the question concerns whether you'd prefer to die in ignorant bliss, or if you'd like some options...

- Space.com, Asteroids and Secrecy: If End is Nigh, Do You Want to Know?

Apparently discussion of this dilemma at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently led to national reports that the U.S. government has been recommended to "withhold information of a catastrophic impact", causing some consternation. The question is, assuming there are no solutions to the impending asteroid impact, whether the government should announce it and face mass hysteria and possible collapse of the economy and political structure, or it should conceal the facts since nothing can be done about it.

If you read on, and the article is fascinating, really - it discusses what the person who ostensibly proposed secrecy defending what he actually said, and how probable an asteroid collision with Earth is and what the circumstances would be if it were discovered - would secrecy be possible? Plans to ensure some kind of survival of the human race? etc. So it moves beyond the hysteria or head-in-the-sand cruel dichotomy we are supposedly faced with.

Deep Impact

When I read the article I really could not help but think of Deep Impact (IMDB), released in the year of 1998 together with another asteroid collision movie Armageddon, which I didn't watch. It might seem frivolous to associate this with a movie, but Deep Impact had a serious, mature treatment of the scenario posed by an incoming asteroid and the subsequent ELE (extinction-level event), from the perspectives of an MSNBC newscaster (Téa Leoni), the President (played, interestingly, by Morgan Freeman), the young amateur astronomer who discovers the asteroid first (Elijah Wood), and his girlfriend (Leelee Sobieski), and last but not least the crew of the spacecraft Messiah sent to intercept the asteroid. Every character faces big issues in confronting this threat to their survival, heck, the survival of the entire human species. The U.S. has a plan to evacuate only some to underground caverns, so a lottery has to be done. A spacecraft is sent to intercept the asteroid and possibly divert it, but can they accomplish their mission? Then there are also the human-interest stories.

The point is, the issue about whether the governments should maintain secrecy is rendered moot by the fact that it couldn't be kept a secret, whether from amateur astronomers or nosy reporters, and governments and people will have to deal with the issue. That's not the highlight of the movie - at times, the requirements of the "disaster movie" genre almost ruin it - but it's worth noting.

To Google or not to Google

28 February 2003 12:10 AM SGT (link)

(GOO.gul) v. To search for information on the Web, particularly by using the Google search engine; to search the Web for information related to a new or potential girlfriend or boyfriend.
(Note that GoogleTM is a trademark identifying the search technology and services of Google Technologies Inc.)

- Word Spy, google

Bring on the lawyers, as this Slashdot thread says: Verbing Weirds Google. Google has fired off letters to Paul McFedries, creator of the famous Word Spy site that I've referenced a few times, including the somewhat popular, I'm told, exit memo, or ORD email. The dispute arose because McFedries named google (the verb) as a neologism, but Google's afraid this will dilute their trademark (GoogleTM). Presumably McFedries added the disclaimer after the definition on Google's prompt. There is some discussion about the complications about genericity and things like Xerox, Kleenex and Band-Aids, all of which have come to be used in general terms; as a non-lawyer I don't see how it will really harm the companies in question. Does one really need law school to understand what's going on in the world these days?

Pioneer 10 falls silent

27 February 2003 12:32 AM SGT (link)

Pioneer 10 did not respond to NASA's most recent attempt to contact it on Feb. 7; among other reports, CNN's Pioneer 10 falls silent after nearly 31 years. I wrote about Pioneer 10 and its important role in the exploration of our solar system here: The Moons & the Stars.

The Philippines & Today's Quiet Americans?

24 February 2003 2:12 AM SGT (link)

Recently it was reported that about 1,700 US troops, including ground troops, special operations forces and Marines, will be conducting or supporting combat patrols with the Philippine army in southern Philippines in pursuit of the estimated 500 Abu Sayyaf rebels. This comes after last year's mission involving 1,300 US troops, but in advisory, non-combat roles. See CNN (U.S. troops may fight in Philippines), the New York Times (U.S. Combat Force of 1,700 Is Headed to the Philippines) or the Washington Post (U.S. Bolsters Philippine Force) for details. In question is the Philippine constitutional statute banning foreign troops from conducting "unilateral combat missions" (New York Times), which has led to objection from some Filipinos to the U.S. participation.

The Philippines is an area where the Americans are having a bigger hand at combating terrorism, next to still-unstable Afghanistan. How will this "open-ended mission" fare? Will the Americans make even bigger commitments to exterminating the Abu Sayyaf, or other terrorist organisations in the region?

The Quiet American

24 February 2003 1:41 AM SGT (link)

[The Quiet American] - Michael Caine Saigon, south Vietnam, 1952. British reporter Thomas Fowler is behind on his coverage of the civil war between the French colonialists and the Viet Minh nationalists and communists in the north, but this city is serene save a few stray grenades, and he is in paradise with Phuong, a beautiful Vietnamese woman who lives with him and, among other things, helps him with his opium pipe, seducing him effortlessly just as Vietnam has: "They say you understand a lot about Vietnam in your first few minutes of arriving, but you need the rest of your life to know the rest" (paraphrased, I can't find the passage in the book).

His comfortable existence, filing reports about distant wars, is gradually unravelled starting with him meeting Alden Pyle, a young American aid worker with the Economic Mission who carries books with titles like "The Defense of Democracy" and speaks of the author's teachings about the potential of a Third Force in Vietnam, whom he advocates Americans to support as opposed to the old imperialists and the communists. Of course, Pyle is more than what he seems, & in fact the movie, as the book, begins with Fowler being summoned for questioning when Pyle is discovered dead in the River Dakow. He describes Pyle as "a quiet American" - this, like the quote above about Vietnam, are sly references to the political and personal plots underfoot.

I find The Quiet American, by Graham Greene, and adapted into a movie by director Philip Noyce (IMDB), extraordinary - in a short 200 pages or less he manages to conjure up an enchanting story of a love triangle and the anguish of an old man who realises that losing his love and his comfortable lifestyle would be as good as death, and an enormous conspiracy in the political realm that poses disquieting questions - but I will deal more with the political aspect of the book. The book was written in 1955, and Greene was incredibly prescient about the heavy role America would come to play in Vietnam right up to the mid-1970s, with heavy losses and an entire generation scarred by far-off wars that result in quagmires.

Simply put, Alden Pyle is evocative of an entire outlook towards the world some Americans, and others, have that is dangerous simply because of its self-righteousness; he is a symbol like Winston Smith of Orwell's 1984 was for the oppressed ordinary man seeking a way out. I have to credit members of the American media that have made the connection between Alden Pyle and modern events, like Christopher Dickey writing in Newsweek:

"He was absorbed already in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined - I learned that very soon - to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world." President George W. Bush could relate to a guy like that. Yet Alden Pyle, the hero in Graham Greene's 1955 novel "The Quiet American," represents all that Europeans fear about the United States when it sets out, as it appears intent on doing just now, to change the world. "He was," Greene wrote, "as incapable of imagining pain or danger to himself as he was incapable of conceiving the pain he might cause others."

- Newsweek, February 3, 2003 issue: "Perils of Victory"

Pyle is unquestionably an idealist, as Fowler admits: he ponders on the above-mentioned "responsibilities of the West" and thinks that the United States with some ally can bring about the Third Force that can rise above the cruel oppression of the old-world colonialists and the communists (bear in mind: the Cold War was a big deal then). When he sees Phuong, almost immediately he sees, as we do, the metaphor of the unspoilt, beautiful Vietnam that has become beholden to imperialists, represented by the very British Fowler, and he, the American, untainted by a history of colonialism and exploitation, and advocate of freedom and democracy worldwide, can do something about it. In his quiet way he challenges Fowler for Phuong, and whilst engaging him with the problems of Vietnam or the future of Phuong, Fowler cannot but help being fascinated by this man's fervour, his passion for what he believes in. But things take a nasty turn (I won't go into details: read the book or watch the movie) and Fowler has to make a very difficult decision: he can no longer stand back and remain aloof as a reporter. He has to take a side, and afterwards he says, "How I wish there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry."

The story - the movie was as effective as the book, if less subtle - was disquieting for me because in the Vietnam War, and even now, there are plenty of "quiet Americans" around, as one would evince by National Security Advisor Condolezza Rice's statement that the US hopes for a democratic, prosperous Iraq, and the grand plan, if it exists, to convert the rest of the Middle East to something more than a hotbed of dissatisfaction and now breeding ground for Islamic terrorists. But Fowler's stance, the stance of someone who has spent a long time in Vietnam, enough to understand when he should step back, is this: one cannot really understand the country and its people with utopian ideals and grand theories. "You would give liberty to the Vietnamese - but what is liberty to them? You give them democracy and they'll elect Ho Chi Minh!" (I paraphrase from the movie; Ho Chi Minh was the leader of the Viet Minh). More dangerously, Pyle is certainly not in Vietnam on a mere aid mission: he is taking active steps, drastic steps, to see through the fruition of his "Third Force", the implications of which are staggering to Fowler, and which jolt him out of his non-commitment. The downfall of Pyle is symbolic of the rut the US was to find itself in years afterwards as they struggled to defeat the Viet Cong and support a non-communist South Vietnam.

Sure, Pyle is a dangerous man, but in the same breadth one can speak of him as a "hero" - as the quote from the book goes above - because he believes with all his conviction that he can make a difference to people's lives, something that Fowler, enjoying his quiet life in Saigon with his non-involved cynicism of the world, certainly didn't. Is Fowler the anti-hero then? Like the Hero I wrote about here, reality is never so clear-cut.

I was enthralled by Pyle, and saddened notwithstanding what he did, because I could identify with him - in another time & place my thoughts and feelings might not have been too different from his, fictional character, embodiment of national ideal or not. But Fowler, Vietnam and the book/movie ask tough questions about the idealism of Pyle - not merely how doable it is (the practical question) but how righteous is it? (the moral one). To what extent do we interfere in the affairs of other nations and other peoples, even remake them, to suit our conceptions of what's good for them? Is this not another version of the Crusades or the white man's burden wrapped in the cloaks of fredom and democracy? But then again, are we to sit back & cross our arms at poverty, oppression, genocide and all the almost-unquestioned evils of the world?

The movie: It's largely faithful to the plot and the spirit of the book, something like 98% if you could quantify it, except that it converts most of the French dialogue to English for easier understanding, and characters like Pyle are less subtle than they were - but this makes the story even better than not. Michael Caine is Thomas Fowler, and he's been nominated for Best Actor in the Oscar Awards for 2003. I thought Brendan Fraser did a good job as Alden Pyle - he's alternately awkward and passionate very effectively. Here's Salon's review of the movie, and some Vietnam history to better understand the war and its players. This is an excellent movie: I'm surprised it wasn't named as Best Picture nominee, but I guess that might mean the 5 are even better :-)

One last thing: the movie ends with newspaper cuttings of reports on the Vietnam War and the gradual involvement of the US military, and finally ends in a photo of a wounded US soldier - this part is perhaps trying to say that Fowler took his job more seriously after the events of the story, but I think is primarily aimed at the American audience and would-be Pyles.

The Arab world

In general the economic and humanitarian condition of the Middle East region is striking compared to its enormous potental. The UNDP Arab Human Development Report - United Nations Development Programme - accesses the development of this region that is rich from oil revenue yet mostly with repressive regimes and moribund economies. The BBC has a report: UN report criticises Arab states. Although Bush and his administration would not say this in so many words, because they want people to be absolutely unsympathetic towards terrorists and their ilk, this environment is the crucible for hatred against the West, most notably the United States. With the prospects of war on Iraq and a "regime change" from Saddam Hussein, the US is drawing up elaborate plans on post-war reconstruction and the empowerment of Iraqis in a new state rid of weapons of mass destruction and, we are promised, a bright future ahead. I'll post more links and commentary on these in subsequent posts, but I'll say this for now: are the Americans going to overstep like Alden Pyle did?

Global Protests

24 February 2003 12:59 AM SGT (link)

It's probably been mentioned elsewhere before, but the New York Times has an article on how the mobilisation of protestors worldwide was accomplished much faster & more effectively than ever before - How Protesters Mobilized So Many and So Nimbly (f.r.r.). This kind of bottom-up groundswells of sentiment were evident from the days of anti-WTO protests at Seattle to the recent one against war on Iraq, brought about by the Internet and SMS.

Sideline: The incident of the half-dozen protestors outside the U.S. embassy in Singapore is stated by the NYT as an example where "technology also spreads word of rallies to countries where free expression is limited", hence in a stroke linking Singapore to places like China that are truly seeking to repress people's opinions online. Well not precisely, but then again, by the standards of the U.S. probably we are really repressive.

Google & Blogs

24 February 2003 12:34 AM SGT (link)

The tech news of recent: Google buys Pyra Labs (Slashdot) (Pyra Labs is the company which operates Blogger.com). Wired News speculates on Why Did Google Want Blogger?. Their idea is quite mind-boggling:

...Cleveland said Google will likely use Blogger to develop sophisticated searches that utilize the rich metadata inherent in the RSS feeds from weblogs: who wrote what and when, what it linked to, what linked to it and its level of popularity with Web surfers.

- Wired News, Why Did Google Want Blogger?

As the speculation goes, this could be accomplished with a variant of their famous PageRank technology for their search engine that ranks sites based on links and popularity with other sites. So in addition to news sites (with Google News), in future, we might be able to quickly garner blogger reactions to events and happenings around the world.

The Language of Diplomacy

24 February 2003 12:07 AM SGT (link)

When French President Jacques Chirac told eastern European countries that are applying to join the EU that they "ont manqué une bonne occasion de se taire" about the looming US war on Iraq, it was translated in most of the English press as "missed a good opportunity to shut up" (for instance, CNN's Chirac lashes out at 'new Europe'). No, Chirac Didn't Say 'Shut Up', the New York Times (free registration required) said yesterday - apparently his words were carefully chosen, "neither elegant nor rude". I expect French speakers will be much fascinated by this diplomatic subtleties described in the article - I was, even though I speak not a word of it.

Dr. Mahathir

23 February 2003 11:46 PM SGT (link)

Susan Long of the ST last looked at Dr. Mahathir's history and found in it some seeds of the dissatisfaction he apparently harbours now against Singapore and the Chinese; this raised some heckles across the Causeway, as could be expected. This week she writes a piece on The Mahathir Dilemma observers face when looking at the man and his career - is he a "wily 78-year-old... desperately clinging on to power", a "loose cannon", or someone who has contributed greatly to Malaysia and against Muslim fundamentalists? She also contrasts his leadership with that of SM Lee - both are elder statesmen with an iron hand who have steered their countries towards greater ends. This is a more balanced portrayal of the politician, if a bit sketchy.

Bernard Shaw and Spelling Reforms

23 February 2003 11:33 PM SGT (link)

This is a coincidence: days after I wrote about Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion and the movie musical adapted from it, My Fair Lady, Sunday columnist Janadas Devan writes about Shaw's attempt at removing apostrophes from contractions like "can't" and "won't":

...The apostrophes were unnecessary, he felt. The above examples could easily be spelt 'dont', 'cant' and 'wouldnt', respectively.

So we read in Pygmalion (the source of My Fair Lady), the character Higgins saying: 'Eliza, youre a fool'. The lack of an apostrophe in 'you're' does not in the least hinder comprehension.

- ST, Those apostrophes arent necessary

To note, his extract where Higgins is telling Eliza to stop complaining about what she would do now that she was a lady comes from Act V, and when I read it (before Devan's article) I totally overlooked the fact that the contractions are absent! So I can testify to Shaw's point, and Devan's, that they are for the most part unnecessary for comprehension. But of course, one can take things too far, if one reads the "Euro-English" humorous email he quotes.

Kaleidoscope: Water, Memories, Duct Tape

22 February 2003 12:23 AM SGT (link)

Water: This is something I definitely agree with:

NEWater was pumped into Singapore reservoirs for the first time on Friday evening.

With this, and desalinated water to boost local supply, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said Singapore could be totally self-sufficient in meeting its water needs come 2061.

...

Mr Goh said: "We are grateful to Malaysia for supplying us water all these years, and in the years to come. However, I see our diminishing reliance on Johor water in a positive light. It will take the sensitive issue of water out of the equation of bilateral relations. Singapore and Malaysia can then focus on mutually beneficial cooperation.

"Together, we can be a formidable force in economic competition against others, and in addressing common challenges."...

- Channel NewsAsia, NEWater pumped into reservoirs; PM Goh says S'pore can be self-sufficient by 2061

Memories: Researchers: It's easy to plant false memories, CNN: False memory experiments, like having their subjects believe in an impossible event like they were hugged by Bugs Bunny at Disneyland (Bugs Bunny is not a Disney character), has intriguing insights into how false memories can arise from confused or credulous people, or how they can be manipulated by others.

More on Duct Tape: A humorous take on the recent obsession with protecting oneself against threats big & small in the U.S., at the San Francisco Chronicle. I talked about the duct tape affair here.

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