Tuesday, April 25, 2006

When Journalism Feels like Science Fiction

The Chicago Tribune ran a series back in October that reminds me of a lot of science fiction I've read. Donald Westlake's Anarchaos, for instance. The plot centers around a man who goes to an anarchist world to find out what happened to his brother, and is himself ambushed by "corporation" thugs and sold into slavery (which is, ironically, inevitable on an anarchist world). Then there's the classic Merchants of Space, which is about an advertising executive who is likewise ambushed, has his identity papers stolen, and finds himself working a brutal agricultural job in order pay off ever increasing "debts" to a corporation he once promoted -- I think it starts with his kidnappers charging him for transportation.

I'm pretty sure I could think of a lot more if I tried hard enough. World building, suspence, and social commentary all in one neat package. And there's one other bonus: you get your readers on your main character's side right away. It's automatic; you can't help but identify with the victim in these stories.

Which is why the Tribune's series is so weird to read. 1) It's not science fiction. This is the world we see on the news. 2) The victims are young men from the incredibly foreign (to Americans) country of Nepal; the bad guys are American military contractors -- and you can't help but identify with the victims. It makes me a little dizzy to switch perspectives like that.

Here's the basic outline:

It had been only seven weeks since she sent her 18-year-old son off to earn a paycheck that would bring their family a better life. But that paycheck was supposed to come from the safety of a five-star hotel in Jordan, not the combat zone of Iraq.

Whether Bishnu Hari and most of the other 11 Nepalis even knew before leaving home that they were headed to Iraq remains a mystery.

At least three did, but they were deceived about key details. Most of the rest, including Bishnu Hari, appear to have been lured with fraudulent paperwork promising jobs at the luxury hotel in Amman.

They learned Iraq was their real destination only after their families went deeply into debt to pay huge sums demanded by the brokers who sent these sons and brothers to the Middle East.


For a fee, often 10 times more than Nepal's per capita income of $270 a year, those agencies send men to labor in the Persian Gulf region, Malaysia and beyond. While onerous, the fee is a gamble that any job in the Middle East might yield a salary of $200 a month, an unimaginable sum in Nepal.


Just one month's salary would be enough to cover rent for Bishnu Hari's family for more than half the year. Enough for him to send his little brother to college.


In late June, Bishnu Hari spoke by phone with his mother. It was time to pay the fee for the job, he told her, so please arrange to get the money.

She borrowed more than $2,100, about $400 of which came from the local development bank, a sort of savings and loan. The rest came from lenders in the village who charged 36 percent interest a month, she said.

(from part one

Unlike the science fiction stories I mentioned above, though, this one doesn't end with any kind of poetic justice. The unprotected convoy which is taking the Nepalese workers from Jordan to Iraq gets stopped by insurgents. The mother gets to see the ending on TV.

The carnage was captured in a grainy video. Judging by the blurred image of a young man in bluejeans and long-sleeved shirt, it appears Bishnu Hari was the fifth man shot.

(from part two)

I'm not quoting the graphic parts, or the the last words of the men, captured on tape. But it was all on shown on TV. Apparently there were some riots in Nepal afterward. I feel guilty about not knowing about this sooner. Maybe you people who read this already did. But in case anybody didn't, I feel like I should maybe try to publicize it. Not that I think I'm really helping any, but it's such a powerful story you know, classic plot, I'm really not going to be able to come up with anything better to write about. So I might as well put a few more links about this on the internet, for whatever it's worth... Maybe try to get the Tribune some more readers, so they can keep paying reporters to do this stuff. Maybe they can put a little more pressure on the military...

Because the whole point, of course, is that the guy in this story wasn't alone.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq has ordered sweeping changes for privatized military support operations after confirming violations of human-trafficking laws and other abuses by contractors involving possibly thousands of foreign workers on American bases, according to records obtained by the Tribune.


The Tribune also found evidence that subcontractors and brokers routinely seized workers' passports, deceived them about their safety or contract terms and, in at least one case, allegedly tried to force terrified men into Iraq under the threat of cutting off their food and water.

So basically: it's there may be more Americans holding hostages in Iraq than being held hostage, Nepalese kids, not enemy combatants.

But that might be changing. The last story that I quoted above was from Sunday's paper, and the headline was Iraq war contractors ordered to end abuses. Ordered by the "top U.S. commander in Iraq" -- so the US doesn't come off as a complete villain. (Although the Tribune says officials had been informed before, and that this order might not go far enough. Still, at least the officials admit something is wrong.)

Here is the home page for the whole series:Pipeline to Peril.

Be warned: you will have to register in order to read it. There's ways around that, but I sort of hope people to register this time. As a sort of reward for the paper, for good reporting, so they can keep doing it. Also, if you follow these links, you should know a lot of the descriptions are bloodier than the parts I've quoted. And with the photos, there's a couple that are really sickening. The others are mostly of daily life in the place these guys come from, which I think are really valuable, but this isn't a pretty story. The problem with the pictures, I guess, is that they make it feel so real.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Everybody Loves the Chicago Cubs

Well, the Cubs are off to a hot 7 and 4 start, but don't worry, according to the Onion, Dusty Baker is sure they can pull out a losing record before the playoffs.

And if you like that, you should take a look at the Cubs very own satirical newspaper, The Heckler. Passed out for free outside Wrigley Field before games, it has stories like Cubs on Prior injury: Bleacher renovation on schedule, and Tribune circulation jumps 100,000 after Lee signs new deal:
Fine print reveals $65 million contract to be paid in Tribune subscriptions

Speaking of Derek Lee, he is now the most highly paid baseball player in the city of Chicago, having passed the most expensive guy on the World Series Champion White Sox, Paul Konerko. This is fine by Cubs fans. The White Sox are no longer as desperate as we are. And Derek Lee is everybody's hero.

"When Derrek works out, the machine gets stronger."

"Lee doesn't take steroids, he's a donor."

"Derrek Lee is the reason Waldo is hiding!"

"Derrek Lee once shot down a german fighter plane by pointing his finger and yelling bang!"

"Derrek Lee can divide by zero."

And... "Superman carries a DLee lunchbox!"

From the fans at the Cubs message board.

They sound so exited, and hopeful, don't they? They can't help it. They know they're doomed, but they can't help but hope..."Wait 'til next century. No millennium can hold the Cubs." ... "Chicago Cubs fans are ninety percent scar tissue."

The Cubs don't have to win games to win these loyal fans. They play at Wrigley Field, the most beautiful ballpark in baseball. No, seriously. Look at this shot. Makes you want to move to Chicago just to go to a game, doesn't it? And calling their games are the endlessly entertaining team of Pat Hughes and Ron Santo. Listen to some clips. They don't always make sense, but that's part of the charm. Baseball itself is like that -- have you ever tried to explain it to someone who didn't know the rules? Life is like that.

We bought tickets but had to turn around a sell them, because of scheduling conflicts. But we will be buying more. And taking a friend or two from India with us, to see all that is best about America. It's going to be a great season.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Visit Japan Without Leaving your Computer

So I wanted a haircut, yesterday. Apparently I've only had one since moving to my current location, from a place across the street, and I wasn't totally satisfied. So I did a google maps "salon near" and "hair near" search, and found about a dozen places, and planned my running route to go by them all, so I could see if they were 1) where Google said they were 2) open on a Sunday 3) likely to take walk-ins 4) likely to be cheap and 5) targetted at women, or at least unisex.

Not a single one fulfilling all those criteria. In fact, few that fulfilled more than one. I came back defeated. (I ended up taking a train down to where I used to live, and that was a whole other boring yet frustrating story.)

So anyway, I feel slightly let down by Google maps. But Ken reminded me what it's really for.

We explored the salons of a random city we chose to zoom in on over the Japanese map. Don't know the name. But we can zoom almost as close there as over our own city. See what the streets the salons are on look like. See the golf  courses (if that's what they are) outside of town, and the beach. Click on the names of salons, and get taken to their webcams (the only English words on this page are "Japanese Barbershop Drama"). See them styling practice heads. Lots of slightly surreal English, including my favorite, Beauty Salon Mommy. We think we managed to sign up for a Yahoo Japan account, but I can't find my way back there now. Probably we'll get e-mail from them.

So Ken once again provides blogable links, and Google Maps is redeemed. We had a very nice trip.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Poetry Post

Two for one, March and April. Both by Rudyard Kipling:


In the Neolithic Age savage warfare did I wage
For food and fame and woolly horses' pelt;
I was singer to my clan in that dim, red Dawn of Man,
And I sang of all we fought and feared and felt.

Yea, I sang as now I sing, when the Prehistoric spring
Made the piled Biscayan ice-pack split and shove;
And the troll and gnome and dwerg, and the Gods of Cliff and Berg
Were about me and beneath me and above.

But a rival, of Solutré, told the tribe my style was ~outré~ --
'Neath a tomahawk of diorite he fell.
And I left my views on Art, barbed and tanged, below the heart
Of a mammothistic etcher at Grenelle.

Then I stripped them, scalp from skull, and my hunting dogs fed full,
And their teeth I threaded neatly on a thong;
And I wiped my mouth and said, "It is well that they are dead,
For I know my work is right and theirs was wrong."

But my Totem saw the shame; from his ridgepole shrine he came,
And he told me in a vision of the night: --
"There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right!"

. . . . .

Then the silence closed upon me till They put new clothing on me
Of whiter, weaker flesh and bone more frail;
And I stepped beneath Time's finger, once again a tribal singer
[And a minor poet certified by Tr--ll].

Still they skirmish to and fro, men my messmates on the snow,
When we headed off the aurochs turn for turn;
When the rich Allobrogenses never kept amanuenses,
And our only plots were piled in lakes at Berne.

Still a cultured Christian age sees us scuffle, squeak, and rage,
Still we pinch and slap and jabber, scratch and dirk;
Still we let our business slide -- as we dropped the half-dressed hide --
To show a fellow-savage how to work.

Still the world is wondrous large, -- seven seas from marge to marge, --
And it holds a vast of various kinds of man;
And the wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandhu,
And the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban.

Here's my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
And the reindeer roared where Paris roars to-night: --
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And -- every -- single -- one -- of -- them -- is -- right!

(Sounds sorta anti-war for a guy who loved glory so much, huh? I wonder what the soldiers who are in Afghanistan right now would make of Ford O' Kabul River...)


Love and Death once ceased their strife
At the Tavern of Man's Life.
Called for wine, and threw -- alas! --
Each his quiver on the grass.
When the bout was o'er they found
Mingled arrows strewed the ground.
Hastily they gathered then
Each the loves and lives of men.
Ah, the fateful dawn deceived!
Mingled arrows each one sheaved;
Death's dread armoury was stored
With the shafts he most abhorred;
Love's light quiver groaned beneath
Venom-headed darts of Death.

Thus it was they wrought our woe
At the Tavern long ago.
Tell me, do our masters know,
Loosing blindly as they fly,
Old men love while young men die?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Real Post to Follow

Back Monday from a wedding in Philadelphia. Real blog post as soon as I get done with taxes... In the mean time, via Chicagoist... How to have fun on the El.