Apr 27, 2007

If you love Amman...

You must MUST read "Story of a City" (Seerat Madinah) by legendary writer Abdel Rahman Munif (author of Cities of Salt). It turned out that although he is Saudi, he was raised in Amman.

A very beautiful book - soon inshallah I will share parts of it here.


Nice read

The 4th most sited economist Gregory Mankiw shares some of his 'work habits':

My Rules of Thumb

it makes a very nice read.

Apr 20, 2007

Book: Kite Runner by Hosseini

The Kite Runner is the first novel by Khaled Hosseini. It's supposed to be the first novel published in English by an Afghan... and that was 2003. The novel has also won several awards, and was a favorite for several book clubs, and was a top 10 best seller in 2005 (check the novel's wikipedia site).

Why all this? I don't know!

About 60% of the novel was truly interesting. The Afghani author was writing about his childhood in Afghanistan - way back, at the time of the King, before the communist coupe. That was very amusing, because it was real. The description of his father, the Kites competition, his Hazara friends/servants/relatives - all this was just very sincere and nice. The description of Afghan community in Fremont, CA was very interesting. I actually took a drive there and ate at a restaurant while reading the novel to "live in the same atmosphere". It was very similar. The part in the novel about "Nang and Namos", one's pride and dignity, was also very interesting insight into the Afghani mentality.

However, the other 40% of the novel was terrible. It read like a very bad action hindi movie. The action sequence was oversimplified and obviously made up. His whole story about walking in Afghanistan during the Taliban was so "cliche", it made the novel very weak. Reading about the author later on, it seems it left Afghanistan in the 1970s - thus he never lived through the communist government nor Taliban. His images must have come mainly from CNN and, and possibly some Afghan sources.

The Novel also had many weak spots for tying events together. It was obvious that the author went through the novel once, and then went back and added "connections" later on. The problem is that these connections were too obvious, too direct, and generally didn't fit in the context.

For example, at the end of the conversation with the INS officer, the officer says - out of nowhere - "did you promise that boy you'll take him to America", "Yes", "That is dangerous business, making promises to kids."

Why would anybody say that?
well, because in 2 scenes afterwards, the main cahracter breaks the promise the little kid attempts suicide!

By shear coincidence, the wife's uncle is an "INS Officer" who has been working there for many years. Later in the novel, the guy needs a hard-to-get humanitarian visa... and surprise surprise, the Uncle uses his connections to get it.

Even the "research" that was done for the novel, (e.g. the visa laws for adoption), are used in bulk - thrown at the reader, and did not help at all with the plot. They seemed to "solve themselves" quickly and with only one move.

There are many such instances that only show a certain immaturity in the author's style. No surprise, this was his first novel.

Thus, after all this, again, I'm not sure why this novel has become so popular. From an American point of view, the novel is very "politically correct", it denounces the Taliban and shows them as pure evil, it rails about "double standards with women", "women should be able to sleep with strangers before marriage just as easily as boys", ... I think to a point this played a role why this was a book club favorite.

Supposedly the author is coming up with a second novel soon. It'll be interesting to see if it does as good.

now... I'm looking for my next book. Any suggestions?

Apr 11, 2007

1984, the movie

As I said in a previous post, I read Orwell's novel "1984" recently. Yesterday I got to see the movie.

I had a hard time finding it. Blockbuster and Netflix both do not carry it. When I used to live in Seattle, Scarecrow Video, the biggest movie store west of the Mississippi, was my ultimate destination for all these rare movies. However, we don't have such nice places in the bay area (yet).

Fortunately, the Peninsula Library System had a copy of this movie. One have to respect public library systems in this country.

The movie is interesting: it was filmed between April and June in 1984 - the same period in which the novel takes place.

If you didn't read the novel, the movie is disappointing and vague. The movie excels at reproducing the atmosphere of the novel: the Big Brother police state, the people, the cars, the military everywhere, the "ministry of truth" offices and the "ministry of love" policemen, etc.

However, the movie does a very bad job at developing the story. Orwell's treatment and development of events and dialogs in the novel is just brilliant. And it makes the novel, in my opinion, a very fine piece of literature. This is in addition to its compelling political and philosophical message. The events in the movie seem to happen sequentially without much explanation or proper build up.

I am not very surprised that very few places carry the movie.

If you have read the novel and want to "visualize" the world of 1984, then definitely see the movie. Otherwise, don't ruin the story for yourself - pick up the novel and read it.

Apr 10, 2007

1984 and Brave New World

I have just finished reading 2 of the 3 "dystopia" classical novels of all time. I read Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World. I left our Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. (Well, there are several other famous dystonpian novels, like Animal Farm and Anthem... so 3 is not really an accurate number).

Quickly, 1984 explores what would life be like if a totalitarian communist regime is able to take over the world in the 1950s. The novel follows Wilson as he lives in 1984, with the 'Big Brother' government taking care (and micro-control) the life of every citizen (party member) very closely (supposedly to prevent social injustice).

1984 has truly shocked me. Orwell is a master writer - he immerses the reader in the events and the thoughts of his characters to the deepest level. Every word, every move, every feeling, I was able to feel throughout. The novel is also very smart - it does not patronize the reader or insult the reader's intelligence.

This is usually a very good feature about a novel, except that, in the third part, Wilson is taken to the "Ministry of Love" (internal intelligence) for torture and interrogation. And in this third part, I was extremely exhausted and disturbed. The description of torture was not gory, but it got to you. The Big Brother's ministry of love did not want to just kill its enemies. It wanted to brainwash them into admitting they were wrong in the first place - not just say that, but truly mean it. Thus, most of the torture was extremely mental and ... oh, how disturbing.

The novel, just like Orwell's Animal Farm, is usually thought of as anti-communist/anti-socialist. But it's actually not. Orwell himself was a socialist. However, and as he said, the novel is against any tyrannical system of whatever ideology. In 1984, the 'Big Brother' is described to look a lot like Stalin.

However, some of what the Big Brother government said reminds one A LOT of what is happening today.
One sentence was "War is peace" - "we wage war to achieve peace"... hm..., where did I hear that before?

The second novel, Huxley's Brave New World, was OK. I think it is of much less quality than Orwell's. Huxley seems to have had few ideas, and then he created a novel around them. Orwell was closer to a philosopher. His characters were much deeper and much more believable. Huxley's novel seem patronizing at times by "pushing" the reader into hating or liking certain characters. One wouldn't love or hate them for their ideas, but rather, as done in hollywood, but other attributes like the way they talk or how nice they behave.

Brave New World is about a futuristic "utopian" world where the government also tries to make every person very happy all the time by "encouraging free sex, drugs, and conformist ideas" for all the citizens. The novel then compares this world with the "savages world" (which is supposed to be today's world). The comparison and the bulk of the philosophical discussions take place when "John", a "savage person", is brought to live in the utopian world.

Both were made movies. It'll be nice to fetch them out. I know both Blockbuster and Netflix do not carry either of them. I guess they are too academic for their tastes.

It would be very nice to find an Arabic "dystopia" novel. I don't know of any.

Apr 6, 2007

H1-B visas reach quota in 1 day!

By late Monday afternoon, USCIS had already been flooded with 150,000 H-1B petitions. It can only accept 65,000. Many of those workers will go to tech companies, such as Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp., and Intel Corp.

Those lucky enough to get in before the door closed will have to cross their fingers and hope that they survive the next round. To be fair, USCIS said it will randomly select the winners of H-1Bs from among the entire pool.

Apr 4, 2007


Watch HDTV with a usb device!

(testing email blog submissions)

Book reflections: Common Sense by Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine published his famous book/pamphlet titled 'Common Sense' during the US Revolutionary War (1776) as an articulation of why US wanted to secede from England. (I read the audiobook)

The book can be viewed in two ways:
1- A historical one: understanding why George Washington & friends thought that US should be independent.
2- An interesting argument in Political Science & the "optimum form of government".

I've always wondered, what made the US what it is now? from an isolated colony to a super power?
I've also wondered on how revolutions take place. For example, the French Monarchy was supposedly strong, and yet, somehow a group of many uneducated hungry and poor people were able to carry on a revolution that changed the way people think of governments since then.

Same goes for the US. The American revolutionaries viewed seceding from England as a coupe against the idea of monarchy.

But how can normal people, who go about their daily errands and pursuit of bread and food, how can those people elevate to such abstract thinking and cause a revolution? This was the most interesting aspect of the book for me.

There is no straight answer to these questions. The spirit one feels by reading the book is the only answer.

I think the book is another proof that Democracy cannot be brought or imposed - it really has to develop and evolve and change within the people themselves until they want it. And there shouldn't be any preconceived ideas on how to implement it. We really should start with a white slate.

For example, in Hamilton first proposal to the parliament, he suggested that they elect a president for life! An idea that many of today's politician find the opposite of democracy. However, the fact that he was free tos uggest it and get everybody to discuss it - and discuss all the basics of what they want, all of this has resulted in a system that was custom made for the USA and tailored to their needs and aspirations.

Social structures can never be imported - and when they are, they cause many harmful side effects, and usually do not even achieve their goals. The example I like to use is usually the Jordan Educational System (and the system in the arab world - and many other 3rd world countries)

I've deviated away from the book. So, in conclusion - a nice book to get a feeling of the political thought at the time.

(drafted 6/3/06)

Book thoughts: Slaves in the Family

I've recently finished reading Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball. Following are some of my thoughts on that book.

1- The book is about the history of the slave-owning Ball family and the lives of their slaves, from the creation of the Charleston British colony in South Carolina all the way to the 20th century.

2- I've read American history from different points of view before, but I've never seen something like this. This book provides a personal-history of the US, how ordinary people perceived and dealt with state-level events and wars.

3- Apparently, during the American revolution, England promised "freedom" to slaves who joined the English army. Many slaves escaped their plantations and went to Canada or South America. Of those who were not captured back or got killed, a good number ended up going back to Africa and starting a new city, deservedly named "Freetown".

4- Some of the ex-slaves at Freetown sat down and wrote their memoirs, how they were captured from Africa, all the way to how they made it back. I'm sure these books show the amazing power of the human will. I'm looking forward to reading some of them.

5- The book shows the very-long-process of abolishing race-inequality in the US (which is still going on). Many of us, new 'visitors' to the US, think that slavery & race-inequality were old issues that were solved long time ago, and we wonder why some make a big deal of it. We think that race-problems here are just like Jordan's north vs. south or Irbid vs. Sarih or even Palestinian vs. Jordanian thing.This book shocked me that it's actually way way worst!

6- Quick history of the slavery question (very good article about UK here and generally here):
  1. The question of the "legality" of slavery goes back to 1772, when English court ruled that James Somerset, a black slave, should be free.
  2. UK started a gradual abolition movement until 1833, the time of the Emancipation Bill. On the way, they used "freed slaves" as a bargain method against the Americans during the revolutionary wars.
  3. USA, on the other hand took much longer. They started by "prohibiting the slavery trade" in 1792. South Carolina, out of all states, voted to allow it. This went on until the US isseud a Federal Act to stop it completely in 1830. In reality, slaves kept being smuggled into the country, but at much lesser numbers.
  4. In 1850, a freed black slave (look for his name) was taken as a slave again. He went to court to request his freedom. The case went all the way to the Supreme-court, where they decided "The constitution grants rights to 'free white men', and since he's a slave, he does not even have the right to file a lawsuit"!! Thus, he was kept a slave. This cuased a great uproar and mini-slave uprising that killed around 200 white men. The army interfered and killed and tortured many of the involved slaves.
  5. North & South were divided about slavery. civil war took place. North won.
  6. Slavery was abolished, and so did much of southern states economy that depended on them. Freed people migrated to northern cities, where a new age of city-race-discrimination has started.
  7. Race segregation was made into law. (separate and equal slogan).
  8. African Americans got organized in many movements to change the situation: some political, some internal, some on the verge of violence. People usually point to Matrin Luther King Jr as the peaceful and Malcolm X as violent. I think they were both political. There were other more radical movements.
  9. In the 60s & 70s, the civil rights movement took place and removed the segregation laws. Discrimination still exist, but at least it's not explicit in the laws anymore.

Towards the end of the book, the writer flies to west africa, and looks for the city from which many of his family's slaves came. He looked for the sons of the black warlords who sold other blacks into slavery. He convinced them to do a collective apology to the spirits of the many vanished slaves. A hollywood-style ending for the book.

Apparently, in Africa, sending people to slavery was one of the tribal punishments. For example, if you kill somebody, you are sold into slavery.
Some warlords looked at it as protecting their own tribes. Their way of subsisting in poor land was to invade other tribes, sell them to slavery, and try to save and free their own tribesmen from slavery. Apparently, until today, some of the local 'african heroes' are those who were abel to free their kensmen from slavery on the expense of other tribes.

The book also talks about the different 'types' of slaves. Apparently, the best strongest slaves came from east africa. Some of the worst (somewhere on the west coast) were bad because they would commit mass-suicide by jumping off the slavery ships instead of being sold. Pretty much, slave 'hunters' stopped getting those tribes because they were not worth the "investment".


(drafted 6/5/06)

The Kloran, book of the ... KKK!?

I'm reading Freakonomics, which is a great read if you're looking for something light, funny, very useful, and enhances one's way of thinking.

One of the very interesting facts it brought to my attention is that... the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist group, used a "secret language" between members. Many of the names had "KL" added to it.
Surprisingly, the name of the KKK's "bible" (or book of laws) is: Kloran. (The full text is available here).

Also, the "vice president" is called the Klaliff!! (see page 3)

Rituals: going around the "Klabee" (page 5). OK - so, not exactly. The Klabee is to the side and this is just the way to "sit down", not really a prayer ritual. But still, the illustration they have is just soo.. similar!

And keep in mind that in the first page of the "Kloran" it says that the Christian Bible & the US Constitution are the "greatest safeguards of liberty" (page 2).

Why? go figure!
I have the feeling that somebody pulled a prank against them, and then it was taken seriously!
I'll be looking. I'll let you know if I find out. Do you know? please leave a comment :-)

(drafted 7/7/06)

Jordan fertility rate falling in half!

Jordan's fertility rate fell from 7.4 in 1976 to 3.2 in the most recent census, completed in 2004. This is expected to fall even further to 2 children per mother by 2020.
Very interesting article: