Monthly Archives: September 2006

Book Review: Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac

In the 19th century two distinct empires almost collided around the Eurasian landmass bordering the Russian and British Empires. For almost 150 years their agents fought a shadow war of influence and power, a war that was called The Great Game. A game that was described by one of it’s last living participants Harry Hodson:

The Game was really a game, with scores but no substantive prizes.

The geopolitical reality that motivated the game was that the Russian Empire through it’s eastern expansion threatened the British Raj. The British Raj maintained by the passive acquiesence of the locals and a tiny garrison, could not hope to withstand a determined assault by the Russian Empire. So the British struggled to ensure that Afghanistan and Tibet continued to be neutralized as pathways into India.

So much for history. The book itself is a cross between real history and a fantasy novel. In real history we are presented with a coherent thesis that is buttressed by facts and rationale argument. This book is a collection of tales about the various adventurers with no rhyme or reason to the story. So for example, we learn in Chapter titled: High Mischief as much about Dolan’s, an American explorer of Tibet, sexual piccadillos as we do about what he did in Tibet. The authors are torn between the colourful tales of the persons and the colourful tale itself.

I wish there was more exploration about the motivations for the Great Game. Why the Great Game was fought with so much passion. How the politics of the Great Game evolved and less vignettes into the personal lives of the protagonists. This reminds me of NBC’s Olympic Games Coverage where we learn of every athletes tragic childhood.
Nevertheless, the book is a fun read. It’s not good history, but the again Afghanistan and power politics between the Russian and British Empires are probably not sexy areas of modern historical research so this will have to do.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the book was the description of the “Forward Theory”. The British government was torn between two conflicting approaches to dealing with the Russian threat. On the one was the forward school that said that continuous expansion and creation of buffer zones was essential to the defense of the Empire. This theory said that unless the British occupied Afghanistan or at the very least neutralized Afghanistan, the Russians would swoop through her and destroy the British Raj. To this theory, Sir John Lawerence said:

In that case let them undergo the long and tiresome marches which lie between the Oxus and the Indus; let them wend their way through poor and difficult countries, among a fanatic and courageous population, where in many places every mile can be converted into a defensible position; then they will come to the conflict on which the fate of India will depend, toil-worn with an exhausted infantry, a broken down cavalry, and a defective artillery.

Sir John Lawerence, was pointing out that occupying territory was less valuable than occupying defensible territory. Sadly his position did not allow for conquest only defence and the adventurers in India would have none of that. So of course he was described as defeatists. One could observe reading this passage a lesson to all would-be conquerors and occupiers of Afghanistan.

Another interesting tale in this book is the obsession the West had with Tibet. Tibet in my mind is a country that was ruled by a parasitical monastic order that was absorbed into the China. I could never fathom why so many people for so long were fascinated with the country. It turns out that mystery and absurd race theories explain all. Tibet was the original forbidden country. For centuries no one was allowed in. This created a theory of what would be found inside. Including a belief that it was in Tibet that the Aryan race was born, and that the original pure Aryan’s lived there.

I wonder what Hitler would have said if he could have seen Tibetans…

This is a fun book. And once you take it for what it is: a history channel special it’s quite informative.

When Vision Died

Dead fish

When I came back from my 3 week vacation, I discovered that Vision had disappeared. He was no where to be found. All that was left was Roadmap and Strategy. I asked what happened. My co-workers explained that Vision just disappeared one day. The consultant explained that Roadmap and Strategy consumed Vision. That this was a common phenomenon. That I should not be distressed.

My management team said I should be happy that Roadmap and Strategy were still in place.

My wife said we could always get a new Vision.

Oh well. I suppose I’ll have to go to the fish store to get a replacement for the Skirt Tetra that died…

Book Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Go is a classic gothic horror story. In a good gothic horror story, everything seems perfectly normal. The world is a picture of beauty except for one minor detail that reveals a horror, a terror that is so disturbing that it causes your skin to crawl.

The book is ostensibly about growing up and learning to accept the responsibilities and roles the world has created for you. The story is said in the first person by a 30 something thinking back to the set of events that have lead her to where she is right now. We go back to her childhood, to her teenage years, to her first love to her first explorations of the outside world.


Except that she is a clone, whose sole purpose in life is to be harvested for organs so that the rest of the normals out there can live. And that’s what’s creepy. This is the story of how clones grow up to be harvested and killed so that the rest of us can live. And how they learn to accept their lot in life.

What makes the book creepy is that the fact they are clones and what exactly they are created for is never actually revealed to the reader until about 2/3 of the way through. The narrator assumes you know what she’s talking about when she talks about being a carer or when she talks about friends who completed and the fact that she attends operations. What she’s really talking about is that her lot in life is to console clones and ensure that the clones whose organs are being harvested do so without too much fuss. And she seems to be curiously fine with that job.

What makes the book even creepier is that everyone acts as if this is perfectly normal. As the reader your taken aback by the heartlessness of the society that would destroy these living beings so that the rest of us can stay alive. And that in some sense is the point of the book. That in our pursuit of eternal life we are willing to create a meaner world.

In the debates around cloning, stem-cell research etc, Kazuo asks us: if we had to choose between our children and a clone who would we choose? And Kazuo also asks what would the clones do? Could we make them believe that they were serving a higher purpose by being harvested?

At points in the book the clones will scream about the horror of dying, the fear of dying the pain of dying and the injustice of it all, but no point do they protest or run.

The only real limitation of the book is that no one explains why the clones don’t just run. Our narrator has a car, why she doesn’t take her lover, another clone, and just run away.

And that’s the most horrifying part of it all. What if we could teach the clones to want to be harvested so that we could live?

I liked this book. But it does force me to think about choices we make.

Movie Review: Munich

In 1972 Palestinians massacred Israeli athletes during the Olympics. As a consequence of that action, Golda Meir decided to authorize the assassination of the Palestinians who were involved.

This film is about the men who performed the act of vengence that Golda demanded.

Watching the movie, I was struck by the difference in the kind of terrorist we faced in the 1970’s versus the kind of terrorist we face now. In the 1970’s the terrorist was a poet who translated Arabian Nights into English who lived in Italy and had book readings. Or a sophisticated literate man who had a house in Paris, a daughter that went to a French school, and a wife that was very westernized. These were men who, you must believe, we could have negotiated with. They were, in their unreasonableness, reasonable.

And who do we have today? We have butchers who revel in their oppression of women, their beheadings of journalists, in their slavish devotion to a perverted form of Islam, and their messianic faith in final ultimate victory. These new men are not men we can negotiate with.

Yet, like Golda said, we can not let the butchers think that they can butcher us wherever and whenever they please. Avner, the leader of the assassin’s asks his mother whether she would like to know what he had to do for Israel. Avner’s mother says no. Avner’s actions protect her home and are therefore holy in her eyes. And that is the essence of our conundrum. To protect our homes we must do horrible things.

I wonder sometimes. In the 1970’s and 1980’s the British imprisoned the IRA gunmen. When they came out of prison much older men, their desire for blood had been quenched. Perhaps there is a parable there? Perhaps if we imprisoned these men, and then brought them out of prison 20, 30, 40 years later, perhaps they too would speak of peace and not of vengence?

I don’t know. I just know, like Avner, that we killed one set of killers to replace them with a new set of killers.

The film itself is an extremely well done period piece. Like anything Spielberg does the direction, the filmography itself is masterful. Unlike many things Spielberg does, the story was not heavy handed, the morality not rammed down our throats. Instead, Spielberg is able to restrain himself until the very end of the film when he drags out the end for 30 minutes.

Spielberg makes no claims about historical accuracy, this is a film, not a documentary, and so commenting on the facts of the film seems silly.

There were one fun moment. The Israeli assassins are relying on a French syndicate that trades information to find their Arabs. The French syndicate sends them to Athens, Greece and tells them of a safe house in Athens. It turns out that a completely different set of assassins are in Paris with information also supplied by the French syndicate that is staying in the SAME hotel room. I could not help but wonder at the absurdity of the event.

Definitely worth watching.

Musical Review: The Lion King

The Lion King, the movie, was perhaps the greatest animated film ever made. A deep intricate story involving betrayal, power fused with themes about growth, life and choice, coupled with extraordinary music and visuals, the film represented the Apex of Disney Studio’s creative genius. A film with this much going for it, and with a set of songs already written, demanded to be transferred to the stage. This past week in London, I finally got around to seeing what was a spectacular financial and critical success.

What impressed me the most was not the music (which was great) or the story (which was great) but the set design and choreography. The most impressive piece of set design and choreography is when Simba sees King Mufasa’s face in the water bowl. In the film we see Mufasa’s face shimmer in the stars. In this play we see Mufasa’s face shimmer on stage. And shimmer it did. The over-sized face that was put together like a set of Lego bricks, shimmered and gave the impression of floating in the water that Simba was looking at.

Worth every penny. The Lion King the Musical is great.

Movie Review: Syriana

South Park recently ran an episode satirizing the over-the-top smugness of George Clooney during his Oscar acceptance speach. I had no idea.

There is a film waiting to be written about the complexity of the Oil Crisis. In that film we will learn about the challenge of transforming a medieval culture into a modern one in the span of two generations. In that film we will learn about the importance of oil to the global economy and how our dependence on oil creates artificial political environments. In that film we will learn that there are no easy answers. That the choice of no oil means reverting to an era of misery and pain that none of us is willing to go back.

However, Syriana is not that film.

Syriana’s thesis is that Big Oil owns the US government. The US government and Big Oil conspire to keep us addicted to oil. The US government and Big Oil also work to ensure that the Middle East is ruled by fools who will do our bidding. In Syriana’s world view the Middle East is nothing more than a part of the American Raj where the kingdoms are nothing more than the modern equivalent of the princely states of British India. Rulers who pretend to have power, but really are impotent. In Syriana the solution is simple, find the modernizing Arab ruler and support his quest to transform his country. Of course, it’s that simple! But never fear the dastardly conspiracy between Big Oil and the US government will ensure that the modernizing Arab ruler is murdered using our powerful radar guided missiles.

As for the Arab people? The screenwriter can not bear to hide his contempt for their culture, their traditions and their people. The Arab people never actually make an appearance. They either are portrayed as lunatic religious fanatics pushing illiterate Pakistani villagers to perform acts of suicidal terrorism. Or they are portrayed as slothful lazy bums, such as when Bryan Woodman played by Matt Damon remarks that the Arabs wear only white and never seem to ever work. Or finally when Arash, played by Kayvan Novak, is described as a modernizer it’s because of how he views women that we are to see him as a modernizing influence. They have no say in their future. Their future is determined by the American Government, and the cartels that keep folks in power.


Someday, someone will write a good movie that will try and understand the topic. Expecting that from an over-the-top smug George Clooney convinced of his own self-righteousness would be too much. And it was.

Driving in Greece, a public service announcement.

Driving in Greece can be very dangerous, especially for wussy Californian drivers who are used to the point-and-click driving of the Bay Area.

One of the most important rules of the road, a rule that is not in any guide book or any law book is how to negotiate the inter-city roads. In Greece the breakdown lane is a valid driving lane. So if you are a law-abiding American driving below the speed-limit inside the only lane on the road expect to be spat-upon, insulted and sworn at by every driver behind you. The reason is that the break-down lane is where slow traffic drives and the actual lane is used for passing by faster traffic.

I discovered this in my first drive from Athens to Ioannina several years ago. I carefully and slowly drove in the only lane. Drivers behind me honked at me, drivers honked at me as they passed on the right, drivers showed me an open palm (the moutza) and of course as a self-righteous Northern California driver I was wondering how all of this illegal driving could possibly be safe.

As I learned, faster drivers will pass you (on the right, in the other lane) so it’s actually safer to use the breakdown lane to drive.

Please note, that cars do actually use the breakdown lane for brokendown cars. As I learned this weekend in Crete. So be aware of your surroundings.