Monday, January 31, 2011

The Islamist Menace

Prayer, Egypt, 2011. By Kerttu Kelomaa-Sulonen, used with permission.

When following the chatter about the Egyptian revolution, every now and again someone goes "but what about the Muslim Brotherhood?" This is hardly surprising, as the specter of Islamic radicalism was the main justification the American—and, to perhaps a slightly lesser degree, European—governments presented for supporting such a nasty character as Hosni Mubarak. What's more, Egypt was the cradle of modern political Islam, and the biggest such organization—the Muslim Brotherhood—is rather big in Egypt. It is probably the biggest single organized opposition party there at this time, in fact. Political Islam is a reality, and should there be genuine political pluralism in Egypt, it will be very much a player there.

That doesn't mean that men will have to grow beards, women will be forced to wear "burkhas"1, and everybody will grab a rifle and start a jihad against Jews, Christians, and Americans.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Off the Wagon

Tourism in Sydney
The Sydney Opera House is a world wonder in Civilization V.

I gave up on computer games a year and a bit ago, after having finally admitted to myself that I play them compulsively rather than for mere enjoyment.

I fell off the wagon last week. I bought Civilization V and have been playing it, and I can feel the hooks of the compulsion sinking in again. So I'm stopping again now, before I find myself losing entire nights to a fundamentally pointless optimization exercise that doesn't even simulate ecological destruction although it would be really easy. (Just assign a pollution number to all buildings and improvements, have that radiate around like Culture, and have that degrade Work, Culture, and Gold. Throw in a random chance of an oil rig blowing up, and you're done. As it is, the perfect empire has every inch of land under cultivation, mining, or habitation, which is just depressing as well as being wrong. Very Industrial Age, that.)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Today I am Egyptian

Welcome to Titanic
Welcome to Titanic, Egypt, 2011.By Kerttu Kelomaa-Sulonen,
reproduced with permission.

The splatter from Tunisia reached Egypt, and it's up in flames. It's clearly now a revolutionary situation. It can still fail, but even if it does, the world will not be the same. If it doesn't, the world will be a very different place indeed, at least if by 'world' you mean the world of international politics.

Egypt is the largest Arab country, with about 80 million inhabitants. It has a sizable Christian minority with their own church and own language, related to the language of the Pharaohs; there are about 10 million Copts there. The rest of the country is Sunni Muslim. The Al-Azhar mosque and Islamic university is the unofficial center of Sunni Muslim scholarship; if Mecca is the heart of Islam, Al-Azhar is the head. While Egypt never had the kind of dominance over the Arab countries that the USSR had over the Soviet bloc, it's nevertheless the gorilla on that street. What happens in Egypt will profoundly affect the rest of the Arab world. If Mubarak goes in a social revolution, Qaddafi and the Good Doctor of Damascus will need their sleeping pills.

Monday, January 17, 2011

What is this Zen you speak of?

Shadows on the wall
Shadows on the wall, Apt, France, 2005

I was interviewed for a health and fitness print magazine the other day. Another first for me. They had gotten in touch with the Helsinki Zen Center and wanted to talk to someone who does the Zen thing, but hasn't been doing it for too long, and one of the guys in charge asked if I wanted to do it, so I said OK.

During the interview, I realized exactly how exotic this stuff looks for most people. I know that many of you, dear readers, are looking for stuff about photography or cameras and therefore probably are pretty puzzled about the Zen stuff, and may be curious about it. This piece is for you. It's in question and answer format, inspired by that experience of being interviewed about it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Right. Tunisia.

tunisia day & night
tunisia day & nightBy david pham. Used under a Creative Commons license.

While the media circus in our neck of the woods was focused on the fundamentally pretty insignificant drama in the US, we missed the real news. Tunisia. As Juan Cole put it, it's the first social revolution in the Islamic world since 1979, and this time it's Sunni and Arab, which means it has the kind of potential for contagion that the good Ayatollah's project never did.

Too bad I don't really know squat about Tunisia. Great beaches, great food, sunshine, a laid-back attitude about religion, and a corrupt semi-authoritarian pseudo-democracy muddling along in general second-world style. I'm trying to educate myself, though. Here's what I've figured out so far.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Too Much Human Interest

Antiquarian, Beirut, 2003

Media turns problems into human interest stories. An attempted assassination turns into a tragic story of the child struck down before her time; the grandmother heroically tackling the shooter; the surgeons fighting for the targeted politician's life. And, of course, a meticulous examination of everything that went wrong in the would-be assassin's life. A bidonville in a third-world city turns into an examination of a suitably doe-eyed slum child's daily struggle for existence. A threatened whale population turns into a story of a whale caught in a hole in the ice and the enormous effort of attempting to rescue it. The problems of an impoverished neighborhood become a story of one inhabitant's struggle to better himself through education and honest work, as another takes to crime, dealing drugs and hustling for position in a gang.

Human interest stories aren't all bad, of course. At their best, they can turn an abstract, hard to understand, and complex problem into something you can relate to. Human-interest stories can put a face on poverty, war, deprivation, drug abuse, corruption, or political instability. They can educate and agitate and help us make sense of the incredibly complex web of life we live in.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Death Spiral of a Polity

American Veterans of Foreign Wars
American Veterans of Foreign Wars, Missoula, Montana, USA, 2004

A politician got shot in Arizona. The rightwing blogosphere is predictably screaming that "only the one who pulled the trigger is to blame." As always, it's a matter of personal responsibility, as long as it's someone else who's personally responsible.

Political violence is a pretty common feature in many countries. Get too uppity in Russia, and you might have an unfortunate encounter in your podyezd. Assassinations are an occupational hazard in Lebanon. Disappearances are a common feature in many South American republics. Now it's a feature of the American political landscape as well. A looney shooting a Congresswoman is one part of that landscape; the odd assassinations and apparent suicides of lower-level political operatives—John P. Wheeler III, for example—are another.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Too many experts

Crow Taking Flight With Frozen Treetops

One of the first things that impressed me about Buddhist teaching was the way the sutras start with "Thus I have heard." No professions of ultimate, immutable truth or certainty there, just something valuable being passed along to those willing to listen.

That kind of humility is in very short supply on the Internet. Everybody has an opinion of what Buddhism is, or isn't, or how it should be practiced, or shouldn't.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Advertiser: A Sestina

The eyes have it

I grew up and left my mother's home
when my gnawing pangs of hunger 
grew too strong for me to bear. The light
that burned inside was too hot to warm.
It seared. To move, to edify was my desire.
Of wet newsprint and foam peanuts I built that house.

Glassy-eyed you stare at your wide screen in your house.
Your name is on your door, but it is not your home.
The embers in your belly I blow into a desire
for a bigger screen, a larger house, a hunger
for a more fashionable me. I wink. To warm
your sudden chill, you draw closer to my cathode light.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Cat and Dog Story

The Dog's Bed
The Dog's Bed

On Sunday, I and my wife Joanna were both out, somewhat unusually. She was visiting Estonia with her parents (it's a short ferry trip across), and I was attending that zazenkai. That means that our cat and dog were home alone.

The dog is a border terrier named Jekku, which is Finnish for Prank. He's terribly good-natured but perhaps a bit excitable. Sometimes there are little dog-events waiting if he's been housesitting. Nothing drastic; perhaps a sock left lying around that's met an early end, a waste paper basket excavated, or some mail shredded. Consequently, he's had some practice with his "It's not my fault! I didn't do it! It was an accident! It fell by itself!" look.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Another year, another zazenkai

Winter's Teeth
Winter's Teeth, Porvoo, 2010

Today was my first zazenkai since the retreat at the end of October. I missed the November one because of our trip to Hong Kong and Australia, and there wasn't one in December because of some heathen celebration or other.