Book Report: Killing Neighbors

I used to work for a lady named Lee Ann Fujii. She was pretty cool, so when I heard that she wrote a book, I figured I'd read it to see what she's been up to. She's now a foreign policy wonk specializing in Rwanda... so this was an intense read.

Before I ever heard from LAFujii about this stuff, I knew what "everybody knows": the Rwandan genocide was the result of ancient tribal conflicts between the Hutu and Tutsi once again boiling over. Except, it turns out, that's not quite right.

Back when Belgium had a big colonial empire, they spread that story of the Hutu, the Tutsi, and the Twa. But those weren't ancient tribes. They were recent creations--but it was convenient for the Belgians to say that they just wanted to deal with the Tutsi. So they kept re-telling the Hutu/Tutsi/Twa thing until it seemed natural.

But that's stuff that I'd heard years ago. There's more in this book. In this intense book.

This book has interviews with folks who were there during the killings. This book has interviews with witnesses. This book has interviews with killers.

The book has a thesis. These killings--they weren't really a genocide. This was mass murder, but not necessarily directed at a tribe. If a local gang leader wanted someone killed, they could probably have that person killed, no matter what tribe that person was in. It was easier if that person was Tutsi, but... But people switched tribes. If you were a Tutsi, you could follow the survival strategy of saying your were Hutu and, you know, go find some Tutsis to kill. Or you could just bribe gang leaders to overlook you. The official story was racial conflict--but when you looked deeper, it seemed more like killers used racial conflict as an excuse to kill enemies, to boost prestige, to pillage. There was even a, uhm, community-building aspect--one way to build community is to share experience--like, say, killing your neighbors.

So... that was bleak and cynical.

But it gets more intense than that.


Because when you look at the details, it seems like something that could happen here. It seems like something that could happen anywhere. If you say "ancient ethnic hatred", that sounds unlike where I live. But when you break it down into cases, and you see how killers can talk themselves into killing.

On 9/11 2001, Islamic fundie terrorists killed many Americans. Some Americans responded by attacking Sikhs. That was tragic, ignorant, and awful. It stopped. What if it had kept going. What if local leaders had seen a way to consolidate their power by demonizing "towelheads"? What if our government had spread rumors that secret cells of turbaned terrorists were plotting to aid an immanent invasion?

That didn't happen. But when you see how it went down in Rwanda, you think "Yeah, I can see how people would react that way. Yeah, and I can see how that could lead to that." All the way up to killings.

Read it on a day when you'll be out with friends later so that they can cheer you back up again.

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Link: Auto-translation of foreign web pages getting more convenient

I sometimes visit web pages that are in languages other than American. To understand those pages, I need translation. For a while, the Google Toolbar has had a useful button: you can press this button to go to a page with an automatic translation of the page you were viewing. But but there was a limitation: the Google server had had to be able to fetch the page, or else it couldn't see the page to translate it.

But toolbar got a new translation feature recently. You can ask it to send the text from your browser to the translation service and get it back. It's all Web2.0. You can get translations of pages that the Google server can't fetch over the internet. It's pretty nice. This feature is in the Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer (that's the browser with the big blue "E") and is coming soon to the Google Toolbar for Firefox. Dare I hope it will come to Chrome soon? I can hope.

(This is probably one of those times I should mention that my opinions are mine, and aren't necessarily those of my employer.)

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Book Report: The Kin of Ata are Waiting for You

I read this book because it's by Dorothy Bryant who wrote the excellent The Confessions of Madame Psyche. I read it even though my mom read it and didn't care for it much. I didn't care for it much. In the book, the protagonist dies and goes to another world. Unlike John Carter of Mars, when he dies he doesn't go to a world of action and adventure. Instead he goes to a world where people live communally and simply and achieve enlightenment by paying attention to their dreams and....

This book is copyright 1971. It was a time when some people were trying to strip away the bullshit of materialistic consumer-ish lives. That's a good thing. But finding a compelling narrative underneath all that... it ain't easy. I'm not saying that I could do it better than Dorothy Bryant did. I'm just sayin' it ain't easy, and I don't think it happened here.

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Book Report: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

I guess I made through ~100 pages of palace intrigue before I realized I don't especially want to read through that much palace intrigue. Yeah, that's right, I'm yet another person who made it partway through Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and then wimped out.

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Book Report: I Claudius

Someone asked for the origin of the name of the Canary Islands, with the caveat that it was a trick question. So everyone present wracked their brains. I asked, "Were they named after dogs?" and they were. Four years of high school Latin... occasionally it pays off. The legacy of Rome lives on in placenames and miniseriesses. Uhm, miniseriess? Miniseries'. Uhm, anyhow.

Before there was Rome, the bloody miniseries set in the time of the Roman Empire was I Claudius. I haven't seen either miniseries, but now I've read I Claudius. It was a guilty pleasure, a soap opera in a time of tyranny. Paranoid emperors, poisoning, betrayal, popular uprisings, gladiatorial games, stolen standards, government for by the horses by the horses, troop movements, perversions, unequal taxation... this book had a lot of fun stuff going on.

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Book Report: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

Shinteki Decathlon 3 was awesome. Since then, I have had approximate 0.0 hours of unstructured awake time. Thus, not so much blogging.

But I will paraphrase a conversation I was in a while back:

She: I was reading your blog post about the ass gasket.

Me: Oh yeah?

She: And I was wondering about that Hoover Method, it sounds very uncomfortable...

He: "Hover Method"

Me: Yeah, I guess you have to have really strong legs, it seems like an awkward angle.

She: So are you supposed to somehow form some kind of vacuum seal? Because that seems like it would be, uhm, less--

He: Not "Hoover". "Hover".

He: Uh yeah. Not the vacuum. It's like-- you're hovering over the, uhm.

She: Oh. That makes more sense then.

In other news, I guess I could tell you about a comic book I read about a month ago: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

What would it take to convince me to read about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser again? I read some of the stories back when I was in college, when swords and sorcery seemed fun and exciting. But I lost interest. Until recently, when I saw this collection of comics of the F+GM stories, illustrated by Mike Mignola. So I read them. They were fun nostalgia. They didn't suck.

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Link: Steven Pitsenbarger at Alternative Photography

Apparently, "anthotype" is a photographic development system which uses dyes from plants. I never would have heard about it if it wasn't for this guy:

"Pitsenbarger has had a lifelong fascination with plants. ... The anthotype process allows him to ditch the camera and make images of plants using their own juices."

Alternative Photography (emphasis mine)

Remind me to never allow Steven Pitsenbarger to take a photo of me.

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Book Report: Beyond the Hundredth Meridian

On the one side: snake-oil salesmen selling land, politicians seeking more consituents, consultants boosting their chances at government grants with Pollyannish lies of a land of plenty in need of settlement.

On the other side: responsible surveyors saying "We shouldn't move so many people into this area; it's a desert."

It's a true tale of the old West by Wallace Stegner, talking about the life of John Wesley Powell, an explorer, surveyor, and breaker of bad news ("It's a desert.").

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Book Report: Earth Abides

George R. Stewart wrote Earth Abides, a story in which about 9999 out of every 10000 humans is wiped out by a big plague. What will happen afterwards? Will our hero preserve civilization's triumphs in the face of barbaric apathy? This book was a lot of fun.


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