Thursday, October 28, 2010

Going in Circles

Do you ever feel like you're just going in circles, like no matter how long you drive, you find yourself back where you started? I've felt that way in these first 850 miles of my epic post-Army cross-country road trip.  And for a good reason: I have been going in circles, one big one, specifically:

I had to come back to Fort Bragg this morning to tie up some a few loose ends, and tomorrow morning I'm taking the GMAT here in Raleigh, my last big hurdle in the business school application process.  After that's done, the road trip proper can commence.  Up 'til now I've been making my way around Virginia and North Carolina, enjoying the natural and historic beauty of this part of the country, as well as good times with some old friends in Charlottesville, Richmond, and Norfolk.  

You'll notice my path on the map above looks for all the world like I took an extended detour into the Atlantic.  They're too narrow to show up on this zoom level, but I assure you North Carolina's Outer Banks are there, and they are absolutely beautiful.  They have easily the nicest beaches I've visited in the US, and I'd put them comfortably in the top three beach regions I've enjoyed worldwide, along with Egypt's Mediterranean coast and Thailand's Andaman coast.  Prices for vacation rentals are also shockingly reasonable, particularly in the off-season, and things just get cheaper the further down the banks you go.  Most of the construction boom in the Outer Banks happened in an era when Americans were much more willing to drive a couple hours of two-lane road to spend a week doing nothing much, rather than just flying off to an all-inclusive resort. Which is to say, if you make the Outer Banks your next vacation destination, you will be being simultaneously counter-cultural and nostalgic.  All right, enough boosterism.

Friday, October 22, 2010


I apologize for the lack of posting these past ten days.  I was a bit overwhelmed with the process of getting out of the Army, and since then I've been trying to focus all my energies on studying for the GMAT, which I'll be taking a week from today.

You read that right, though, I'm out of the Army.  Getting out was a miserable process, but I managed to get all the checks in all the right boxes and all the signatures on all the right forms, and I am now officially a civilian again.  It's a great feeling.  One day I'll get around to reflecting on my Army experience generally, but right now I've got a bit too much on my plate for that.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On Failure

Everyone can celebrate the accomplishment and heroism of a man like Joseph Kittenger, who took the "long, lonely leap", skydiving from the edge of space in 1960 and setting a record that is yet to be broken.  The Art of Manliness blog recently profiled his story for their "A Man's Life" feature.  But what about the "magnificent failure" of the man who tried to break his record, Nick Piantanida, whom Art of Manliness profiled in a sequel to Kettinger's story.  After a life of shoestring exploits, Piantanida died from the effects of a failed attempt to beat Kittenger's record. AoM sums up the question of Piantanida's legacy well:

Was Nick a reckless daredevil? His jumps were never about the thrill; he genuinely wished to aid scientific progress, to push the limits of what was out there, and to accomplish something no other man had done. Did he prepare enough? He did the best an ordinary civilian could have but inevitably lacked the opportunities for rigorous testing and the access to the very best and most experienced minds in the field.

What are we to make of a man like Nick? Was his inability to admit the risk of failure, and the chance he might leave his children fatherless a form of hubris? Or should we cheer his adventurous spirit, DIY effort, and manful demonstration that great daring is not reserved for the loners or the lucky?

I'm reminded of another great failure in history, Robert Falcon Scott's Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole.  Sure, that Norwegian fellow made it there first.  And none of Scott's party made it back alive.  Still, I think there is a place to celebrate heroism even in failure.  Scott himself thought so, as he wrote in his journal these words, recorded on a memorial to the Terra Nova expedition in Queenstown, New Zealand:

For my own sake, I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardship, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks; we knew we took them.  Things have come out against us, and therefore we have cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last. Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Indexed is a charming little webcomic that's almost always good for a quick morning chortle.  It's a lot of fun to see the way she plays with graphs to tell stories, but it does often betray a somewhat blinkered lefty view of the world, though in a way that's not at all off-putting.  Today's comic is a particularly good example.

The commenters spot the problem right away. Do you?

Dinner: Fasinjoon

I finally got a chance to try out the recipe for fasinjoon that I got off one of my Iraqi teachers three years ago.

It turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself, so I figured I'd share the recipe again, including my updates of what I changed. It's truly one of the world's great sauces. It would pair just as well with other meats, particularly lamb, but here's how I made it with chicken:

2+ lbs. chicken thighs
1 large onion
1/2 bottle (2 dl) pomegranate molasses (available at Middle Eastern groceries or online)
8 oz. walnut pieces
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp black pepper
2 tsp salt
Parsley and lemon to garnish

Chop the onion and begin sautéing in a deep frying pan with a little vegetable oil. Meanwhile, rinse the chicken thighs and skin. Toss skins into the pan to sauté with the onions so they release their chickeny deliciousness. Once the onions begin to caramelize, add the chicken thighs and enough water just to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes. Remove chicken skins. With a blender or food processor, grind the walnuts finely. Add walnut meal and pomegranate molasses to the pan, stir to combine. Cover and continue simmering for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add cinnamon, pepper and salt when 10 minutes remain, uncover as needed to allow sauce to thicken to desired consistency. Serve over rice (basmati is most appropriate, but any will do). Garnish with parsley and lemon slice (I didn't, and the dish suffers visually, as you can see above).


Saturday, October 9, 2010

Why They Hate Him

I wrote a bit the other day about the ongoing hate speech trial of Dutch politician Geert Wilders.  The Wilders trial, of course, encompasses issues broader than  freedom of speech.  There's an apparently credible allegation (I can't really judge, other than that the Dutch media is covering it in earnest) that his trial has been orchestrated by his political opponents, who hate him perhaps more than his Islamist enemies do.  Despite the fact that his party's platform on every subject but one is mainstream European social-democratic -- which is to say hard Left by American standards -- he and his party are regularly described as "far right" by their opponents and the media.  Why the disconnect? It comes down to that one subject left out: immigration, which in the Netherlands mostly means Muslim immigration.

Wilders is loathed by his political opponents because he dares to argue that European nations should be proud of their cultures and should pursue policies of immigration and assimilation that will maintain and strengthen those cultures for the future.  Why on Earth is this controversial to the point of being labeled hate speech?  Firstly, the practical matter: there is simply no other way for a nation like the Netherlands to remain anything you or I would recognize as Dutch while continuing to welcome immigrants. Secondly, being a culturally-defined nation is one half of being a nation-state, and such cultural definition is positively uncontroversial elsewhere.  The Arab League is made up of 21 countries that proudly declare themselves Arab nations and seek to maintain and strengthen their Arab cultural identity.  The Organization of the Islamic Conference consists of 57 nations that declare themselves officially Muslim and enshrine Islamic jurisprudence in their constitutions.  Is it really so offensive then for a Dutch political party to argue that the Netherlands should be proud of her Dutch culture and Enlightenment political philosophy?  If this is hate speech, Europe is surely doomed.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Justified Jingoism

In his September Diary, John Derbyshire shares a quote from the American music critic James Huneker regarding Chopin's Etude Op. 25 No. 11: "Small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should not attempt it." Derb kindly linked a video of a performance of this piece by young Korean pianist, Yeol Um Son, who made quite an impression on him. Me, too. Here's the video:

I had an interesting thought on watching this. I emailed Derb about it; I'll just share what I wrote him:

Reading your follow-up today I was struck by something you didn't explicitly address: Ms. Yeol is Korean, and yet she's devoted her life to studying and sharing music written by a bunch of dead white Europeans. How many Westerners have taken the time and effort necessary to become virtuosos of another culture's classical music? I would guess the answer is in the dozens. I say this not to tut-tut the West, but rather as a bit of unashamed cultural jingoism. Our culture produced this, and its surpassing worth is so universally evident that millions of students in east Asia -- confident and economically-successful cultures all -- choose to study it rather than the products of their own well-developed cultures. We're happy to share it, of course. Makes me awfully proud of my heritage, and also a bit guilty that I haven't studied it better, at least in this particular realm. I think Ms. Yeol has inspired me to fix that.

And she has. Also to get back to practicing piano.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

On Speech and Freedom Thereof

This is quite the week for the discussion of speech and freedom. The Supreme Court is currently hearing the case of Snyder v. Phelps, which hinges on the determination whether standing outside a fallen Marine's funeral with signs reading "GOD HATES FAGS" and "THANK GOD FOR IEDS" qualifies as protected speech. This, of course, is the penchant of the aforementioned "Reverend" Phelps, who with the few dozen blood relatives who make up his "church" has made an avocation of tormenting the bereaved beloved of this nation's fallen heroes, as well as those of gay victims of AIDS. The premise avowed by Phelps's Westboro Baptist Church is, as far as I can stomach to gather, that God is punishing the U.S. with military defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan for our collective sin of allowing closeted homosexuals to serve in the military under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Presumably God would be appeased if we only cleansed the Armed Forces in some sort of gay-baiting witch hunt, after which our Certified Straight® military would win the War on Terror. I'll admit, I'm not exactly clear on the theology involved.

In any case, the question before the court is whether the "Reverend" Phelps, his minions, and their odious ravings fall under the protection of the First Amendment. I believe they do, and I'll be rather surprised if the court doesn't come to the same conclusion. The protest in question was held at the statutory thousand-foot distance from the funeral, and was thus unable to directly interrupt the proceedings. The remaining argument is that their protest might constitute "hate speech".

Ahh, "hate speech". We are right to be a bit queasy about limiting any speech at all, so if we are going to say that hate speech is unprotected, clearly the definition of what constitutes hate speech becomes a very important matter. Much political advocacy is hateful to its detractors, after all, so it would seem obvious that to define hate speech based on the perceptions of the aggrieved effectively grants censorship authority to the thinnest-skinned in society. Our Supreme Court seems to have recognized this, as I understand they have historically worked from an exceedingly narrow definition of hate speech.

Not so in the Netherlands (you knew I was getting to this, right?). After prosecutors chose not to file hate speech charges against the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, Muslims aggrieved by his short film Fitna took the issue to the Court of Appeals, where they succeeded in forcing his currently-running trial. There is considerable evidence that Wilders's political opponents have been involved in orchestrating his trial. In a way, seeing this trial as just another function of machine politics as usual is comforting, more comforting anyway than seeing it as part of the "legal jihad" to put criticism of Islam off-limits worldwide (as in the UN's ridiculous "Combating Defamation of Religion" resolution). European countries are increasingly embracing a definition of hate speech based on grievance, and the result of the Wilders trial will signal whether Europe continues on the road toward mass censorship by the aggrieved. Speech doesn't become "hate speech" simply because it makes someone cranky. Be thankful that our Supreme Court has upheld that narrower standard.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Blog Bomb for Geert Wilders

Geert Wilders is a Dutch politician who lives under police guard because his life is threatened by radical Islamists.  Dutch Islamists have already murdered the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh and forced Van Gogh's collaborator, the Somali-Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to take asylum in the US.  These three have been targeted for the same deeply ironic reason: they have all alleged that political Islam's penchant for violence makes it incompatible with Dutch society's traditional ethic of tolerance and commitment to Enlightenment values.  Not to be outdone by the Islamists where irony is concerned, Dutch prosecutors have chosen to put Wilders on trial [Correction:] after Dutch prosecutors chose not to pursue charges, the Dutch Court of Appeals has ordered Wilders to be tried in response to public complaints regarding his outrageously hateful comments about how the people who are trying to kill him are, you know, trying to kill him.  The Netherlands, see, despite her aforementioned Enlightenment history, has no freedom of speech protections that approach the weight of America's First Amendment (for what that's worth anymore).

This story needs to be told, so I was glad to hear from John Derbyshire that someone's gone and designated this Thursday to host a little blogoriot on the subject.  Parapundit's got the scoop on how this works, but short of it is this: if you support freedom of speech no matter who feels cranky when they hear it, if you think the Wilders story is something America and the world needs to be paying attention to, then you should blog about it this Thursday.  Tell your friends.