Who Likes Puzzles? Questioning the Middle East

It puzzles me that the war on ISIS in the Middle East is falling flat on its proverbial. Given the amount of advanced technology that the West holds, and is shared with the West’s allies, how is it that a rabble of fanatics, unschooled in warfare, is able to gain so much traction in Syria and Iraq?

Cowardice, without being blatantly being called as such, is perhaps one such reason; although I will point out, one does not hear that accusation leveled against Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Is it that the West (and co.) are bound by formal rules of warfare to which ISIS does not have to adhere? ISIS obviously does not care if civilian casualties are sustained and, in fact, seems to enthusiastically embrace the killing of civilians as a way of keeping their conquered populations in check.

Is it because the populations in the conquered territories are predominantly Sunni and support ISIS? Given the number of refugees fleeing newly-acquired ISIS areas, the truth is likely a mix of those who support and those who detest the fanatical presence.

Another question I have is: what are ISIS’ motives? Of course, establishing a caliphate in the Middle East is at the crux of their ‘vision and mission,’ but where does that end? Are they making a gambit of taking over all the unstable Middle Eastern regions? Such a hypothesis would explain Syria and Iraq. Are Yemen and Lebanon on the menu? Yemen certainly is rife with the kind of instability that attracts scavengers, and Lebanon, although we forget about that country, is incredibly unstable with all sorts of groups vying for power.

Should we really be reexamining the Middle Eastern crisis through a Sunni versus Shiite lens, and try to weigh which is the lesser of two extremists? With my admittedly shallow knowledge of both, I would argue that Shiites are slightly more moderate, which I base on the fact that women are marginally more respected in Shiite-dominated countries, than in Sunni ones.

The only certainty right now is that ISIS is expanding at an alarming rate; that our Western air attacks on ISIS positions are hardly impacting the advance of that organization’s cancerous spread through the Middle East; that Western artillery and ammunition are being abandoned by allies and seized by ISIS; that the league of somewhat stable Middle Eastern countries are soon going to have a nest of motivated vipers in their literal midst; that we might have to swallow pride and distrust, and have to work with the modern Middle Eastern equivalent of Stalinist Russia to help overcome a common enemy before it is too late.Map of ISIS territory in the Middle Eas

Reflections on Auschwitz

I recently shared the experience of my visit to Auschwitz on December 31, 2005, with a friend of mine. It was snowing, and a fresh blanket of snow covered the landscape with a sereneness that only happens in the heart of a muffled and frigid winter. The weather made for a particularly poignant visit to an already poignant place, as I hope the photographs below will show. It was so quiet there, not very many people in attendance, and those who were, speaking in whispers so as not to disturb the past. I recall thinking that the atmosphere at Auschwitz was very peaceful.

I reflected today that my description of Auschwitz as ‘peaceful’ might have seemed a bit odd, but I said that because I think all those lost souls there have a sense of peace in seeing that there are so many people who come visit that place in order to learn, to try to understand, and to leave with a sense of hope for a better future.

Europe’s Jewry, et al.,  were betrayed by their fellow men on such a profound level, and one is reminded of the denial that was consistently waved as a false white flag for the early part of the war, because people could not believe that humans could be so cruel and so treacherous. People ostrich all too easily, when faced with uncomfortable truths, as is the wont of human nature, but they do come around eventually.

And examples such as the attempted genocide of the Jews in the Second World War is why war is a necessity at times, in order to fight the evils of the world and keep the whims and delusions of madmen at bay.

Taking the ‘-stan’ out of ‘Albertastan’

“It was like a morgue,” MacKay said of the atmosphere at caucus. “Someone said it was like, ‘It’s Albertastan now.”

Above is the quote that Canada’s Justice Minister, Peter MacKay, said, earlier this week. He was commenting on the success of the NDP (New Democratic Party) in Alberta’s provincial election.

Alberta is Canada’s Texas: oil and steers, and throw in a good measure of wheat to boot. Alberta is hot in the summer, and frigid in the winter. The provincial breed are a hardy bunch, as such, and very friendly and hospitable. The only bull crap that Albertan take is the kind used to grow vegetables. And, for the past forty-four years, the province has been decidedly conservative.

The Progressive Conservatives have, however, stepped in a deep pile of manure, and the NDP’s success is a measure of just how deep that pile of PC dung was. Between misspending, arrogance, and the proverbial flipping of the bird to Albertans, the very people who loyally voted in the Conservatives, year after year, the Conservatives were served a healthy slab of humble pie and sent packing with their tails between their legs: they aren’t even the official opposition.

This defeat is akin to that of the federal Liberals in 2011, and equally surprising.

My brother called this morning, ranting about the indignity of MacKay’s comment, in which MacKay insulted Alberta by calling the province “Albertastan.” My brother was virtually livid that the federal Justice Minister had the nerve to insult the people of Alberta in this way, that the comment was an affront to the democratic process, and how could MacKay have called the people of Alberta, ‘terrorists’.

Albertastan, Peter MacKay

Being an occasional fact-checker, I looked up the quote to see the extent of MacKay’s insult.

Firstly,  just as it is my brother’s democratic right to feel insulted (albeit incorrectly) about MacKay’s comment, it still is MacKay’s democratic right to make the comment. You might not agree with someone’s perspective and, unless they are actively propagating hate, that person has the right to free speech (see my two bits on free speech here).

Secondly, MacKay did not call Alberta, “Albertastan.” As the quote at the top notes, MacKay had said that someone in the federal Conservative caucus had referred to Alberta as “Albertastan.” Certainly making a comment of this nature to a journalist is on the ignorant side, as such comments should be kept in the privacy of the caucus and amongst friends (unless you are former Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, in which case, even your friends will tape your conversations, apparently). This comment, made by some anonymous member of the caucus, was second-sourced by MacKay.

The reason why should not make these kinds of comments in public is for the very reason that these kinds of comments are so easily misconstrued and taken out of context. The social media crowd latched on to this comments, whipped it up through the Twitter feeds, and came out with the conclusion that MacKay was calling all Albertans ‘terrorists.” This misconception is where context comes in.

Stans at a glanceAdding ‘-stan’ to a proper noun, typically means that the proper noun (place, typically) is a poor, Communist backwater. This context obviously stems from the Cold War, during which many of the countries ending in ‘-stan’ were (pseudo-) countries under Soviet rule and were (and still are) incredibly poor: think Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan (have most people even heard of these places?) etc…And, of course, amongst others, Afghanistan.

How is Afghanistan currently perceived? Most people today associate Afghanistan with terrorism. Many people even conflate the conflict in Afghanistan, the Taliban, and ISIS/ISIL in Syria/Iraq. It’s all kind of the same place and angry people, after all.

As such, the context of what a ‘-stan’ is, has changed. For a particular demographic, the socially media-savvy demographic, and I am referring to the under-40’s, the Generation X and younger, a ‘-stan’ has a terrorism context, because of Afghanistan, not a Cold War context any longer. Many people wise in the ways of social media weren’t even born to know what the Cold War was, except perhaps as a war between GE and LG for a corner of the refrigerator market, or Bud versus Coors spat for which brew was better on a hot summer’s day (for an interesting slice of demographics, scroll down to the Twitter stats on the Pew Research Center’s website).

MacKay’s context, I would hazard a guess, was of the Cold War variety, not of the terrorist variety.

The NDP are a left-leaning, socialist political party, which many (older) people equate to communism, perhaps as a leftover from the McCarthy era in the 1950’s when all things socialist were viewed with deep suspicion. I will also reiterate here that MacKay did not call Alberta ‘Albertastan’ but was echoing something that someone else had said.

However, the Twitter crowd has now jumped on the bandwagon of distributing misinformation (in the form of the misquote) and have taken that poorly chosen word, “Albertastan,” out of context, or, rather, shown that ‘-stan’ now has a new context. Also, given that the under-40 demographic has a hate-on for the federal Conservatives, and that the under-40’s are the dominant users of social media, it’s no wonder that this gaffe has people (the under-40’s, like my brother) frothing at the moment, misinformation and all.

Ultimately, the error is MacKay’s in that he should be more careful of what he publicly says, and definitely more social media savvy. I don’t believe for a minute that he was accusing Albertans of being terrorists.

Equating the quote to terrorism smacks of a new variation of Godwin’s Law (the moment someone brings up Hitler and/or the Nazis, then an argument is made moot). I think we’re headed in the same direction with terrorism: the moment someone starts to grotesquely hyperbolize and make unfounded parallels to terrorism, their argument is moot, which is exactly the point at where this social media maelstrom about Albertastan is.

Cameron moonlights as makeup artist

Who knew David Cameron had a penchant for painting faces? This headline certainly leads me to think that the ‘pen’ in the old saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” means something completely different for Mr. Cameron.

This is one of those lovely headlines that you just know the reporter had fun creating.

“Cameron mulls make-up of new cabinet”


"A bit more rouge, perhaps?"

The Joys of Gusanos

No, that title wasn’t a typo for ‘guano.’ I did mean ‘gusano,’ or ‘caterpillar’ in Spanish. My mum has a strong fear of the crawling beasties, and does a lively rendition of the tyburn jig, waving her arms to the skies in supplication, introducing my two-year old niece to some choice sailors’ words, and stomping loudly to exorcise evil spirits, small children, and of course, the cursed worms.

caterpillarI would have never know that my mother had a fear of gusanos and other such crawlies back when I was growing up. In fact, I used to pick up gusanos, pet them, and put them into jars to see if they would cocoon themselves and turn into moths or butterflies in a couple of weeks. My mother always patiently oohed and aahed over the bugs, provide me with the requisite mason jar, and encourage me to put some twigs, leaves, and grasses into the jar so the gusano could crawl around, eat, and do whatever gusanos do best. Did they ever pupate? Sometimes, well, rarely. It was exciting to watch, having no real concept of time back then.

And it wasn’t just gusanos that we’d collect. Oh no. My brother and I would scoop up frogs eggs from large puddles, catch moths and butterflies, jar bumblebees and snails (not together), pick inch worms from their threads, and generally have a grand old time catching bugs.


My mother’s nightmare.

My mother has an intense dislike of almost all of the above: frogs are disgusting, snails revolting, and moths and butterflies the single most petrifying set of creatures she’s ever had the misfortune of coming across in this world (a walk-through butterfly exhibit at a zoo is my mother’s worst nightmare; this phobia is traced to her childhood in Venezuela when my mother’s nurse would tell her that the local moths and butterflies, which were Very Large, were the souls of the dead. This scientific explanation obviously resonated).

My brother absorbed this observation of my mother encouraging us to be junior entomologists and has now passed on the like to his daughter.

The other day, a some sort of large flying creature, possibly a mayfly, was flitting around their house, and the little one was scared of the beastie. My brother, wanting to show her that the insect was harmless, captured the bug in a jar and held it down (the niece is only two years old, so holding the jar up would be difficult for her to see) for her. After quieting her apprehensions that the creature was not going to eat her, she eventually wound up holding the jar, observing the insect, and grew to love it. She started to pet the top of the jar, like she would the dog’s head. She wouldn’t put the jar down, and insisted that the jar and co. be brought to Costco on their shopping trip.

So my brother put some twigs, leaves, and grasses into the jar, so the poor creature inside had something to eat, and my niece had a new pet.

I was thinking about this whole episode today as I was holding the phone away from my ear as my mother had just spotted some sort of gusano traipsing around her kitchen while we were chatting. I’m glad she never showed that fear to us, and I’m glad that she put on a brave face for our sakes, so that we wouldn’t be afraid of insects and frogs and other such things that are often the root of phobias, because now my little niece will have the joy of collecting bugs and petting gusanos.