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» The Swiss Sun
» The word each
» The Socks-Series
» Does power corrupt?
» Michael Crichton's novels
» Engagement de discrétion
» Alien Abductions and the Internet
» Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction

The Swiss Sun

The sun is coming up, we say. But is it?
As always, it depends.
From my window - I live in Eastern Switzerland - I can see how it starts to lighten the top of a nearby mountain, then the sunlight slowly spreads downwards until the whole mountain and the low lying plain basks in it.
In other words, where I am the sun is not coming up, it is coming down.

The word each

The word each blew towards him and came apart on the wind. Geryon had always
had this trouble: a word like each,
when he stared at it, would disassemble itself into separate letters and go.
A space for its meaning remained there but blank.
The letters themselves could be found hung on branches or furniture in the area.
What does each mean?
Geryon had asked his mother. She never lied to him. Once she said the meaning
it would stay.
She answered, Each means like you and your brother each have your own room.
He clothed himself in this strong word each.
He spelled it at school on the blackboard (perfectly) with a piece of red silk chalk.
He thought softly
of other words he could keep with him like beach and screach. Then they moved
Geryon into his brother's room.
It happened by accident. Geryon's grandmother came to visit and fell of the bus.
The doctors put her together again
with a big silver pin. Then she and her pin had to lie still in Geryon's room
for many months. So began Geryon's nightlife.
Anne Carson: Autobiography of Red

The Socks-Series

On a recent trip to San Francisco, the widely unknown Swiss photographer Trigger Bore didn't know that he would discover what soon was to become the defining project of his photographic life: the socks-series.

Trigger had come to San Francisco to visit his friend, the photo-artist Edna O'Look. One rainy morning in the Richmond, the two friends were heading towards Geary when Edna pointed to something that lay on the pavement on the corner of 25 Ave and Geary and, as it was her habit, exclaimed: Oh look! Trigger Bore did not look for Edna O'Look constantly pointed out totally unremarkable objects wherever they went. Yet this time it wasn't that easy to ignore her for she had come to a complete standstill and thus blocked Trigger's path.

She looked inquiringly at a piece of wet wool that to Trigger looked like an abandoned sock and not really worth his attention, especially since it was raining and he had to urgently pee. Yet Edna was thoroughly oblivious to such mundane occurrences — her latest project had revolved around water and since then everything in liquid form did not bother her anymore. Moreover, she was rather big on awareness: to be aware of whatever seemed to her something positive in itself. To Trigger this appeared an obvious compensation for Edna slept between ten and twelve hours every night so no wonder did she need to make up for lost time by making an extra effort to be extra-awake — or, in her words: aware.

It's a sock, Trigger said. Interesting, innit? Edna responded. It's just a sock! Trigger exclaimed. What is interesting about a wet sock on the street? Well, I noticed it, Edna said. I wouldn't go as far as to attribute special meaning to that but the story behind this sock could actually be quite fascinating. Trigger still needed to pee and so he said: Can't we talk about it over coffee. Sure, Edna said.

When Trigger had finally emptied his bladder, he said: I can't believe that a wet sock on the street should arouse your interest. Don't you look at a sock differently when it is not in its usual place? Edna replied. What do you consider the usual place for a sock then? On a foot or in a closet. I agree, Trigger said, but what about a wet sock? Its proper place would be on a line hung to dry. Right, Trigger replied, but I still don't get it. I mean I simply don't care about a wet sock on the street. Well, Edna said, it allows you to look at the sock and at the place where the sock lies differently. If no sock were there, you probably wouldn't even have paid attention. Well, Trigger said, I hadn't paid attention despite of the sock lying there. That's the difference, Edna retorted, I pay attention and you don't. And because I do, I develop alternate view-points. And that in turn allows me to connect the dots differently. Which is precisely what fascinates me.

This whole paying attention thing did not make much sense to Trigger for he often wished he were less aware of people, places and things than he was. To him this awareness crap seemed completely overrated. What good was it, for instance, to be aware of one's toothache? Or of one's tinnitus? On the other hand Edna's sock awareness also intrigued him. During the next few days he caught himself looking out for wet socks wherever he went. He never saw one. Edna however did. Wet socks? Trigger inquired. Yes, wet socks.

Trigger tried harder. But there were no wet socks where he went. But then, one day, he saw one. A wet red sock. On Fulton and 32nd Avenue. He felt excited, took out his camera and started shooting. From all angles. He beamed with pleasure when he told Edna. Being Californian she shared his pleasure and felt happy for him.

Two days later he detected another one. This time it was a dry black one. On Cabrillo. He could hardly believe his luck. But he was also slightly suspicious for Cabrillo was almost a bit too close to where he and Edna lived on 32nd Avenue. And Fulton of course was also suspiciously close. Could it be that Edna had planted the socks? Possibly, he thought. But come on, he said to himself, now that I've found my calling I'm not willing to give it up for such an unlikely possibility.

I'm missing two of my socks, Edna said two days later. A red and a black one. You seen them?

Does power corrupt?

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
We have heard this so often, and we have repeated it so often – but have we ever thought about it? Well, I hadn’t. Until I read Richard Flanagan’s “The Unknown Terrorist” (Grove Press, New York, 2006) where I came across this:

One night early in their friendship Wilder, given to discovering revelation in cliché, told the Doll that power corrupts people, and then paused, as if this were some profound new insight, before saying.
“I believe that, you know, I really do.”
But at the Chairman’s lounge, where she had been working for a short time by then, the Doll had already seen how people would do most anything for power and money. The Doll saw it was people who made these things, who thought these things mattered, who made these things important. And so she said:
“I dunno. Maybe it’s people who corrupt power.”

I agree. Absolutely. And I wonder: How come I had never thought about it?

Michael Crichton's novels

Among the books I recently read were three novels by Michael Crichton: State of Fear, Rising Sun, and Next.

All three came with a bibliography, and I loved that - I find it an excellent way to make it easy for the reader to become more knowledgeable. The bibliography of Rising Sun (1992, Ballantine Books, New York) is introduced with these words:

“This novel questions the conventional premise that direct foreign investment in American high technology is by definition good, and therefore should be allowed to continue without restraint or limitation. I suggest things are not so simple.
Although this book is fiction, my approach to Japan’s economic behavior, and America’s inadequate response to it, follows a well-established body of expert opinion, much of it listed in the bibliography. Indeed, in preparing this novel, I have drawn heavily from a number of the sources below.
I hope readers will be provoked to read farther from more knowledgeable authors. I have listed the principal texts in rough order of readability and pertinence to the issues raised in the novel.”

I enjoyed the three books immensely for they not only entertained but taught me quite a bit – which is precisely why I read: to be entertained and to be taught. Here are some quotes from Rising Sun, good food for thought, I find:

“In Japan”, Connor said, “if a company is doing poorly, the first thing that happens is the executives cut their own salaries. They feel responsible for the success of the company, and they expect their own fortunes to rise and fall as the company succeeds or fails.”

Connor sighed “It took me a long time to understand,” he said, “that Japanese behaviour is based on the values of a farm village. You hear a lot about samurai and feudalism, but deep down, the Japanese are farmers. And if you lived in a farm village and you displeased the other villagers, you were banished. And that meant you died, because no other village would take in a troublemaker. So. Displease the group and you die. That’s the way they see it.
“It means the Japanese are exquisitely sensitive to the group. More than anything, they are attuned to getting along with the group. It means not standing out, not taking a chance, not being too individualistic. It also means not necessarily insisting on the truth. The Japanese have very little faith in truth. It strikes them as cold and abstract. It’s like a mother who’s son is accused of a crime. She doesn’t care much about the truth. She cares more about her son. The same with the Japanese. To the Japanese, the important thing is relationships between people. That’s the real truth. The factual truth is unimportant.”

This is the twentieth century. Leadership is the quality of telling people what they want to hear.

I found myself thinking of Lauren. When I knew her, she was bright and ambitious, but she really didn’t understand very much. She had grown up privileged, she had gone to Ivy League schools, and had the privileged person’s deep belief that whatever she happened to think was probably true. Certainly good enough to live by. Nothing needed to be checked against reality.

Engagement de discrétion

Despite being a famously secretive organisation, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) regularly makes it into the news, mostly because of its detention activities. What effect (if any) these prison visits have, we do not know. So how come they are being reported at all?

On July 29, 2007, the BBC reported:

“In a highly unusual departure from its normally neutral stance, the ICRC said the actions of Burmese authorities were causing immense suffering to thousands. The group accuses the regime of using detainees as army porters, and abusing people living along the Thai border. It says Burmese officials have refused to discuss the abuse, or take action … It is a sign that the organisation, which prides itself on the results it can achieve in confidential discussions with governments, thinks there is little to hope for from Burma's military rulers, our correspondent adds.”

Before being sent off to foreign lands, delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have to sign an ‚engagement de discrétion’ that obliges them “to observe the utmost discretion concerning matters with which I shall be called upon to deal or which may come to my knowledge and to consider myself bound by professional secrecy in this regard. My undertaking shall remain in effect even after I have left the service of the ICRC.”

The reason? In the words of the Geneva based aid organization: “The objective of the ICRC is to provide protection and assistance for victims of war, civil war or internal disturbances and for other victims on whose behalf the ICRC is called upon to take action. To attain this objective as effectively as possible, the ICRC must at all times enjoy the confidence of governments and of the victims. This confidence is largely based on the neutrality of the ICRC, on the discretion with which it conducts its activities as a matter of principle, and more particularly on its undertaking that its representatives will not divulge what they have observed in the countries in which they work, especially during visits to places of detention.”

I once was, in 1993/94, such a delegate, in Southern Africa, and I’m therefore prohibited, for the rest of my life, I suppose, from divulging what I have observed there. Given the fact that meanwhile the South African “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” presented it's final report (in 1998, 3500 pages) and thus might have made known what can possibly be known, such mystery-mongering seems rather excessive. Or is it just typically Swiss? As Robin McKie, when reviewing Deirdre Bair’s ‚Jung: A Biography’, put it “… the Swiss tend to display a paranoid attachment to privacy that would embarrass Saddam Hussein. To assuage their precious sense of decorum, Bair, no matter how trivial the Jungian story or anecdote she was told, usually had to swear never to reveal her sources.”

Well, if one can benefit.
Swiss banks attract the wealthy with their banking secrecy, while the Swiss Committee (all members of the Committee are Swiss and not elected but co-opted) of the internationally operating Red Cross by offering discretion to governments that resort to violence in order to deal with conflicts thus distinguishes itself formidably from all other aid agencies. Secrecy has been turned into a commodity, and a rather exclusive one.

How does one sell such a commodity? As one sells any other commodity – by constantly reminding everybody that it is on offer. Which is why ICRC-president Kellenberger, when asked by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in June of 2004 whether the ICRC has access to all detainees in Iraq, Guantanamo and Afghanistan who fall under its mandate, said: Let me first point out that we visit, apart from these three places, about 470.000 detainees in over 80 countries, in Chechnya, in Arab, African and Asian states.
Impressive, indeed. Yet that the ICRC has access doesn’t really tell us much, in fact, it tells us only that it has access. So what happens once the ICRC has negotiated its access?

Here’s how the author Michael Ignatieff, who was obviously given permission to accompany a delegate on a prison visit in Afghanistan in 1996 (and was thus implicitly allowed to reveal, at least partly, what he observed), described it in his
'Warriors of War':
„As the delegate took down one prisoner’s details, I folded the yellow registration card of the preceding prisoner, slid it into the plastic folder, and handed it to him. Many received their cards with a little bow or with the Afghan gesture of placing a hand briefly over the heart. Then each slipped his card into the inside pocket of his brown waistcoat. There was something sacramental about this ritual. In jails, lockups, cages, and camps around the world, prisoners like these have been getting cards like these, their guarantee of such protection and moral concern as the Geneva Conventions can offer them. It is proof that they have not been forgotten, that some foreigner will make it his business to demand information if they go missing or show up at his next visit with bruises on their bodies.
But the yellow cards do not seem to be nearly enough. Once everyone was registered and had his card, the prisoners seemed to press forward. One spoke urgently to the delegate for a long time. When they were taken by the Taliban, they were promised amnesty. They wanted the Red Cross delegate to take up their cause.
The delegate gathered his papers. He was peremptory: Amnesty was none of his affair. The I.C.R.C, wasn’t in the business of intervening on the ‘process of justice’. The Geneva Conventions are not about justice but about good treatment. The I.C.R.C. was here to make sure that the men were decently treated and fed and that when they were released they would get some assistance to get back to their villages. Dark looks were exchanged, and there was a lot of clicking of tongues as we bowed and made our way through the cell door.”

No wonder these detainees weren’t impressed; had I been one of them I wouldn’t have been either.

Contrary to what prisoners of war might expect, and contrary to what TV-viewers all over the world might anticipate, the Red Cross cannot guarantee decent treatment, it can only remind the authorities that they have signed the Geneva Conventions and should therefore abide by them. That doesn’t sound like much – and it isn’t. In fact, it is so remarkably little that one wonders that these prison visits receive any reporting at all. But they do get reported, and one of the reasons is that the ICRC does an outstanding job when it comes to PR and marketing by constantly applying the ICRC-formula ‘Don’t talk about what you’ve observed, do talk about what you do’.
Consider this: "A team from the ICRC, including a doctor, visited Saddam Hussein on July 30," ICRC Baghdad spokeswoman Nada Doumani told AFP on August 3, 2004. She refused to comment on the state of Saddam's health, after Iraqi Human Rights Minister Bakhtiar Amin said the former Iraqi leader was suffering from a chronic prostrate infection, a hernia and high blood pressure. "We do not give details on the health of detainees that we visit, but we can confirm that he is under the medical care of the penitentiary authorities". Saddam was reported to have used the visit to write messages to his family. "His family has already received a message from him and we are going to pass on three others today. That will take time because they always have to go through a military censor," Doumani said.

Why it takes the visit of an ICRC-team, including a doctor, to confirm that Saddam is under the medical care of the penitentiary authorities is of course anybody’s guess. But making it into the news for rendering postal services is indeed a remarkable achievement.

Alien Abductions and the Internet

Have you ever had unexplainable missing or lost time of one hour or more? Have you ever awoken in the middle of the night startled? Have you ever seen a hooded figure in or near your home, especially next to your bed?
If you were to answer these questions affirmatively, your chances of becoming a valuable member of the ring of alien abductees are not too bad. However, before jumping to premature conclusions about visitors from outer space, it might be worth asking your drinking buddies what happened the previous night out on the town.

Many millions, it seems, have had encounteres with alien beings. Searching the web for related issues is extremely rewarding. Type in, say, alien abduction, and the search machine Google, for instance, will come up with 13'700 results (that was in 2’000). Here one can learn that most abductees share common indicators of UFO encounters or abductions by alien beings. There are, one site says, 58 such indicators and these include having had sexual or relationship problems (such as an odd „feeling“ that you must not become involved in a relationship because it would interfere with „something“) or having a difficult time trusting people, especially authority figures. Hard to imagine somebody not having had such experiences, one would think. This is however not as UFO-devotees would have it.

There is, for example, the story of the woman who woke up in the middle of the night in mid air falling onto a couch on the other side of her bedroom. Sleepwalking, according to alien abductees, simply cannot explain such a phenomenon. What woman would stand on top of her bed and run to the edge, jump high in the air to land on the couch on the other side of the bedroom? Well, sleepwalking might not sound too bad if the only other explanation is to have been abducted.

Then there are the tales of the ones being passed through windows, walls and ceilings, and then floated up to an awaiting craft where a tall guy, usually perceived to be a doctor, takes over from the „away team“, which consists of very short, whitish, greyish, or bluish beings. Maybe it is true and men are really from Mars and women from Venus, or maybe it is the other way round. It is somewhat unfortunate that abductees frequently seem to have little or no recollection of their experience.

There seem to be virtually no limits to what can be found on the internet in this regard: there is, for example, the man who cannot reveal his identity but claims to have worked at the highest level for Nasa and who now tells us that there is proof of physical contact between humans and extraterrestrials. He also lets us know that the US government is actively communicating with species from other planets (that was before G.W. Bush’s special line to the Almighty), and that new technologies are the direct result of these interactions (Bill Gates would be a good source on that). And there is another man who, in reesponse to these claims, puts forward that such websites are nothing but pathetic excuses for nerdy adolescent males, and suggests youngsters should put their talents and time into something that could benefit us all … like working at the local McDonalds.

Seriously, are there really aliens out there? If there aren’t, then why are so many people imagining that they are having first hand encounters with them? Thirty-one percent of Australians believe aliens have recently (again, that was in 2'000) visited the earth (one cannot but wonder if some decided to stay on and become Austr-aliens). Moreover, there are four, some say five, million people world wide who claim to have been abducted by aliens.
John Mack, a Harvard psychiatrist claims that tales of UFO abductions are real. Under his hypnotic guidance a young man remembered being abducted repeatedly by aliens, and he also recalled past lives. People who come into contact with extraterrestrials, so Mack in his book „Abduction“, show striking similarities within their memories: they are usually taken to a spaceship and have a probe inserted in their anus.

When the writer Donna Bassett heard of Mack’s studies, she decided to test him. She had never seen a UFO herself, but made up a story of otherworldly experiences. After reading extensively on UFO abductions, she participated in three hypnotic-regression sessions. It was clear, she said afterwards, what Mack wanted to hear, and so she told him. When, later on, Dr. Mack was confronted with Bassett’s fake account of her abduction experience, he hinted that he had doubts about her credibility.
Mack, meanwhile ostracised by his colleagues, argues that „we have lost the faculties to know other realities that other cultures still can know, that the world no longer has spirit, has soul, is sacred. We’ve lost that ability to know a world beyond the physical … I’m a bridge between those two worlds.“

Carl Sagan, the great populariser of science, who knew Mack personally, had shortly before his death dismissed what he called „confabulated stories by a sympathetic counselor“ as hallucinations. He also warned that the proliferation of New Age ideas, and the subsequent rejection of conventional science, would eventually bring us back to the Dark Ages. Until then, let’s surf the web, it sure is fun.

PS: I enjoyed most the sites that were easily indentifiable as not being concerned with credibility – they were simply intended to be fun like this testing question for alien abduction: „You have this vague memory of a kinky dream in which you were the kinkee, but can’t remember who the kinkor was.“

Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction

Remember the weapons of mass destruction and all the other lies that were used to justify the invasion of Iraq? I can't think of a better way to expose this tragic absurdity than the one employed by Sue Townsend in her novel "Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction":

Wisteria Walk
Ashby de la Zouch

Private and Confidential
The Right Honourable
Tony Blair, MP, QC Leicestershire
10 Downing Street
London SW1A

September 29th 2002

Dear Mr Blair

You may remember me – we met at a Norwegian Leather Industry reception at the House of Commons in 1999. Pandora Braithwaite, now the Junior Minister for Brownfield Regeneration, introduced us, and we had a brief conversation about the BBC during which I opined that the Corporation’s attitude towards provincial scriptwriters was disgraceful. Unfortunately, you were called away to attend to some urgent matter on the far side of the room.
I am writing to thank you for warning me about the imminent threat to Cyprus posed by Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction.
I had booked a week’s holiday in the Athena Apartments, Paphos, Cyprus, for the first week of November for me and my eldest son at a total cost of £571 plus airport tax. My personal travel advisor, Johnny Bond, of Latesun Ltd, demanded a deposit of £57.10, which I paid to him on September 23rd. Imagine my alarm when I turned on the television the next day and heard you telling the House of Commons that Saddam Hussein could attack Cyprus with his Weapons of Mass Destruction within forty-five minutes!
I immediately rang Johnny Bond and cancelled the holiday. (With only forty-five minutes’ warning, I could not risk being on the beach and out of earshot of a possible Foreign Office announcement.)
My problem is this, Mr. Blair. Latesun Ltd are refusing to refund my deposit unless I furnish them with proof that a) Saddam Hussein has a stockpile of Weapons of Mass Destruction b) that he can deploy them within forty-five minutes, and c) that they can reach Cyprus.
Johnny Bond who was, according to his colleagues, ‘away from his desk’ yesterday (I suspect that he was on the Stop the War march), has dared to question the truth of your statement to the House!
Would it be possible to send a handwritten note confirming the threat to Cyprus so that I can pass it on to Johnny Bond and therefore retrieve my deposit? I can ill afford to lose £57.10.

I remain, sir,
Adrian Mole

PS I wonder if you would ask your wife, Cherie, if she would agree to be the guest speaker at the Leicestershire and Rutland Creative Writing Group’s Literary Dinner on December 23rd this year. Will Self has turned us down – rather curtly, in fact. We don’t pay a fee or expenses but I think she would find us a lively and stimulating group.
Anyway, Mr Blair, keep up the good work.