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Secret War and Collateral Damage

April 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki

Our “secret” drone war in Yemen is a continuing puzzle, and worse. Last October, I wrote about the drone killing the week before of Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who was born in Denver in 1995. I followed up two months ago with the report of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism on drone killings of civilians in Pakistan and a month ago regarding Attorney General Holder’s defense of drone killings of US citizens, as reported by Charlie Savage in the NYT, “if officials deem them to be operational leaders of Al Qaeda who are planning attacks on the United States and if capturing them alive is not feasible.”

I am returning to the subject in this post in order to draw your attention to Michelle Shephard’s piece in the Toronto Star yesterday (hat tip: emptywheel) on Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. It is essential reading.

At one point, Shephard recalls Leon Panetta’s statement about drones in 2009, when he was the CIA director, that “these operations have been very effective because they have been very precise in terms of the targeting and it involved a minimum of collateral damage.” Shephard’s reporting adds to the evidence that Abdulrahman was not an operational leader of Al Qaeda planning attacks on the US who could not be captured alive. In fact, he was by all evidence just a kid.

His grandfather, Nasser al Awlaki, a Fulbright scholar, former agricultural minister and prominent figure in Yemen, said Abdulrahman had nothing to do with his father since he had gone into hiding in 2009.

Nasser al Awlaki has never apologized for his son’s radical views, but said he had also worked hard to insulate his grandchildren from the controversy. He attempted, he said, to give them a “normal life.”

It later emerged, but was not widely reported, that the strike did not kill its purported target, AQAP’s media chief, Egyptian Ibrahim al Bana.

The U.S. administration has refused comment.

It is unclear whether Abdulrahman was the target or if the U.S. had bad information and was going after Bana, or someone else. Either way, Awlaki said he wants answers.

So do the student demonstrators who forced former president Ali Abdullah Saleh from power, many of whom knew Abdulrahman. They carried posters in Change Square with his picture last year and the words: “The Assassination of Childhood.”

“We just don’t know why they did that,” Awlaki said of the U.S. strike. “Is it because Abdulrahman was there? It’s very possible, but I cannot claim with certainty what happened. Is it a blunder on their side?

“They cannot claim he’s collateral damage.”

Drones and U.S. directed missions have killed hundreds in Yemen in the past four years, some hitting AQAP targets, many more striking civilians.

The Obama administration, of course, continues to refuse comment. National security and all that.

The killing of Abdulrahman, his father and American citizen Samir Khan, the editor of AQAP’s English-language online magazine who was also killed in the September strike, offers an opportunity to challenge the drone program in American courts. The American Civil Liberties Union has led this fight for information, but has had little success.

“When we file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation, the CIA’s response is that the drone program is a state secret, that confirming its existence would jeopardize national security,” said ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer.

“And yet,” noted Jaffer, “The CIA, or administration more generally, routinely discloses information to the public, to the press, that is meant to make people feel comfortable, that the program is closely supervised, effective, necessary.”

The law doesn’t apply when it comes to our never-ending wars, especially our secret wars.

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Categories: Law, Politics

I’m Tethered

April 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Let me take a break from the posts I’ve been writing in which I describe some of the sights we visited when we were in North Carolina last week in order to insert a travel note of a different sort.

In preparing for our trip, I knew we would stay for three nights in a New York hotel where we have been dozens of times. I have learned from painful experience that their wifi internet connection is of variable quality. Sometimes it works seamlessly. Sometimes I can’t get a page to load for minutes. And I pay for this of course.

We would then spend four nights in The Carolina Inn on the University of North Carolina campus. Free wifi was promised. Given the university connection, perhaps it would be just like home. Or better.

Was it time to tether?

Let me explain. Tethering is the process by which you convert your internet-enabled smart phone into a wifi hotspot to which you can “tether” other devices — a laptop, a tablet, whatever. No need for those stand-alone “mifi” devices that various cell phone companies offer with separate monthly plans, but that end up being one more object to travel with, one more item to charge. Just let your phone do it all.

The history of iPhone tethering is a painful one. Long after Apple introduced the capability, long after one could tether in other countries, AT&T didn’t allow it. When they finally did, there was a twist. Those of us who bought iPhones long enough ago and have stuck with AT&T have unlimited data forever for our monthly data charge of $30. Somewhere along the way, AT&T ended unlimited plans, requiring new iPhone buyers to choose between two plans that, I think initially, were 200MB/month at $15 and 2GB/month at $25. Looking at the website now, I see that the deal has changed — 300MB/month for $20 or 3 GB/month for $30. So here I am paying $30/month for unlimited. I wouldn’t want to give that up.

The reason this is an issue is that in order to enable tethering on the iPhone, one has to change one’s data plan, thereby giving up unlimited data forever. In addition to the 200MB and 2GB plans, there’s a 5GB plan, for $50/month. If one wants to tether, one must choose that. You can choose it, travel, come back, and switch to a smaller plan. What you can’t do is switch back to the unlimited plan.

Thus, if I want to tether, I sacrifice unlimited, something I’ve been loath to do.

Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter, for two reasons. One, under no imaginable current circumstance would I ever go over 3GB/month. I don’t download and watch movies on my phone. Two, AT&T has recently imposed a slow-down on big users with unlimited plans. If they go over 2 or 3 GB, download speeds decrease drastically. Thus unlimited isn’t so unlimited.

The upshot: I’m giving up essentially nothing by giving up my unlimited plan. If I’m not traveling/tethering, I can pay the same $30/month for 3GB of data usage and I’ll surely be fine. It’s virtually unlimited, given my usage patterns. And by going to $50/month, I’m paying $20 but saving the daily hotel charges. A bargain, actually.

But is the tethering connection fast? Is this really a bargain? I decided to find out.

I went online, signed in, and clicked the box changing my data plan to $50/month for 5GB. I then got an error message, something about a conflict in what I was trying to do. Tried again, same message. Called AT&T. The person I spoke to had no clue, but after a long hold she explained that it turns out AT&T wouldn’t let me keep my text message plan if I changed my data plan. Bizarre. I could pay per text or pay $15/month for unlimited. You know, I don’t text much. I was paying $5/month for 200 texts. Forget it. I said go ahead and make the change. She put me on hold, came back, said it was done. I now have no text plan, but the big data plan and tethering.

This was two Thursdays ago. I went to the iPhone settings, turned on wifi hotspot, tested it on my MacBook Air, and it worked. I was set.

Ten days later, what do I think? It’s great. At the hotel in New York, I did everything I usually do, except maybe watching videos, and I was using about 100MB/day. (I didn’t explain, but once you tether, all the devices that use the iPhone’s internet connection have their data usage counted against the monthly iPhone limit.)

When we checked into The Carolina Inn, I opened my MacBook Air, connected to the free hotel wifi, and got an amazingly fast connection. I wasn’t going to need tethering. For a moment, I had doubts about my decision. But that night, after dinner, the wifi didn’t work. Same in the morning, after initial success. That was the continuing pattern. When it worked, it was fast. But it was completely unreliable. Back to tethering.

I have to say, I prefer free hotel wifi to the $20/month additional cost of the AT&T tether-enabled plan, but only if the hotel wifi works. If it doesn’t, that $20/month beats free. And just knowing that option was there whenever I needed it was a pleasure.

I only wonder why I didn’t make the move earlier. I was so worried about sacrificing my unlimited plan. Big mistake. Another attraction is that I could bring my iPad (wifi only) and use that too through the hotspot. I didn’t bring it on this trip. Why carry everything? I chose the iPhone, the MacBook Air, and my lightweight Kindle. Next time, though, now that I know how well tethering works, I might bring the iPad rather than the Kindle.

I now need to decide whether to stick with the current data plan or switch down and wait for the next trip to return to the tethering plan. I have no need for tethering at home or work. I suppose I could use it to connect my iPad if I find myself somewhere without free wifi, like driving in the car. But I can just as well use the iPhone itself then. Anyway, I recommend it. It worked smoothly, saved me money, and ensured a good connection at all times.

Categories: Computing

Crook’s Corner

April 15, 2012 Leave a comment

A few days ago, while still in Chapel Hill, I wrote about our dinner with Joel at Lantern. (Boy was it good!) Crook’s Corner Cafe and Bar is another famous Chapel Hill restaurant. After our day in Greensboro — during which we visited the three museums described in the preceding posts but failed to eat lunch — we picked up Joel and arrived at Crook’s Corner for an early dinner.

It’s a pretty low-key place, with a pig on the roof. According to the quotes on the website homepage, “Crook’s continues to live up to its national reputation as a temple of Southern cuisine” (Raleigh News & Observer) and is “sacred ground for Southern foodies” (NYT). I don’t have much of a baseline. This was more a chance to learn what one eats at a temple of southern cuisine than to judge.

From the website again, I find that in 1982,

Bill Neal and Gene Hamer thought this the perfect venue to pursue Southern cuisine. Neal wrote several acclaimed cookbooks, including Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking and Biscuits, Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie and placed Crook’s on the culinary map. Crook’s has the reputation for being “the birthplace of Shrimp and Grits.” The often copied dish became famous after Craig Claiborne wrote about it in The New York Times. It’s still wildly popular and Crook’s has served it in the late chef’s style now for more than 25 years.

You may wish to have a look at the menu, here.

To start, we shared three dishes: the cheddar hushpuppies with cocktail sauce; the gumbo z’herbes: green gumbo made with Caw Caw Creek country ham; and the Crook’s house salad: mixed greens with mustard vinaigrette. The initial idea was that Gail and Joel would share the hushpuppies while I ate the salad, but I couldn’t stop tasting those hushpuppies. Plus, there was plenty of salad to go around. So we all had a little of everything.

For dinner, I couldn’t decide between the Cajun ribeye, served with mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables, and the Cajun red snapper with creole vegetables and baked cheese grits. Neither could Gail. When I chose the ribeye, she chose the snapper. Joel had the famous shrimp and grits: shrimp sautéed with bacon, mushrooms and scallions and served over cheese grits. I intended to taste Gail’s snapper, but it was gone before I knew it. I was happy with mine. I never did get Joel’s verdict on the shrimp and grits.

For dessert, we all shared the Mt. Airy chocolate soufflé cake with fresh whipped cream. Very rich, plenty for three.

My verdict? As I said, I wasn’t there to judge. I’m still learning. I sure liked those hushpuppies though.

Categories: Restaurants

Weatherspoon Art Museum

April 15, 2012 1 comment

I’ve just written about our visit to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, last Wednesday. We got to our car around 2:30 in the afternoon. Before driving back to Chapel Hill for dinner with Joel, I wanted to stop at the Weatherspoon Art Museum on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This took Gail by surprise. She might have been thinking a late lunch would be a welcome idea. I assured her that she wanted to see the museum and we agreed that I’d find her coffee and a snack instead.

On reaching the museum, we learned that they didn’t have a café, but were pointed in the direction of local hangout Coffeeology, just down the street. You can see the table where we sat, the two-top just right of center where the guy in the gray sweater is looking downwards.

On returning to the museum, we went upstairs to see the Trenton Doyle Hancock exhibition, WE DONE ALL WE COULD AND NONE OF IT’S GOOD. “Internationally acclaimed Texas-based artist Trenton Doyle Hancock is best known for his ongoing narrative and theatrical installations that thrust the viewer literally and figuratively into his personal, idiosyncratic, and, at times, heretical weave of words and images. This exhibition features new and selected works executed across a wide variety of media, including drawing, painting, collage, and sculpture.”

We didn’t spend long, moving on to Telling Tales: Narratives from the 1930s, a small but superb exhibit. From the website:

Artists who advocated both representational and abstract styles attempted to capture the spirit of their age—a time marked by the bleak reality of the Great Depression as well as the uplifting optimism linked with the machine age and its promise of progress. While works by Social Realist and Regionalist artists—the art market’s dominant styles at the time—abound, images by other artists whose concerns were more psychologically penetrating are also included.

Factories

We were two days too early for the opening of Matisse and the Decorative Impulse, being prepared in some additional second floor space. Back on the main floor, we looked at Richard Mosse: Falk Visiting Artist. As the title indicates, Mosse is visiting the university now, and in honor of the visit, the museum has a show of his recent work.

Photographer Richard Mosse has spent the last two years shooting a new series of work titled Infra in the eastern Congo. The artist is known for his restrained and highly aestheticized views of sites associated with violence and fear, such as his 2008 depictions of the war in Iraq, and his large-scale photographs of airplane crash sites and emergency drills. For his work in the Congo, Mosse used Kodak Aerochrome, an infrared film designed in connection with the United States military to detect camouflage in the 1940s. The film reveals a spectrum of light beyond what the human eye can perceive, turning the lush landscape of the Congo into a bubblegum pink. This hue contrasts dramatically with the severe environment within which the people of the eastern Congo live and draws our attention to the complex social and political dynamics of the country. Beginning in 1998, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) became the site of the widest interstate war in modern African history, which has claimed millions of lives. Although the conflict was thought to have subsided in 2006, with the first free elections, thousands continue to die as a result of the ongoing conflict, most due to hunger and disease.

Mosse’s technique, as described above, yields amazing results. The landscape colors are altered while other colors remain true, creating surprisingly powerful images. The one at the top is typical. Here’s one more.

On our way out, we took a quick look at the Sculpture Garden.

Who would have imagined that UNC Greensboro has such a good art museum? For that matter, who would have imagined that there are so many wonderful museums in Greensboro? We saw so much in our six hours.

Categories: Art, Museums

International Civil Rights Museum

April 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Historic Woolworth's, site of Greensboro's civil rights museum

[Photo by me]

I just wrote about the first stop of our visit to Greensboro, North Carolina, last Wednesday, the Greensboro Historical Museum. This was a warmup for our day’s principal destination, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. It is on the site of the Woolworth’s where four North Carolina A&T students staged their historic lunch counter sit-in in 1960. As I explained in writing about the museum two months ago, we had seen a portion of the lunch counter two years ago at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., and I was eager to see the rest.

One can visit the civil rights museum by guided tour only. Three weeks ago, I called to reserve a 1:00 PM tour. It emerged that this was unnecessary. We arrived around 12:45 PM, went into the store, and stood in line behind a family of three and a man. They bought tickets for the tour, I announced that we had a reservation, the woman at the counter nodded her head, and sold us two tickets. A few minutes later, the six of us being the lone guests, our tour began.

The guide was a stern taskmaster. She lectured us on the house rules — no photographs, no touching, etc. — then led us down the escalator from the lobby to the basement. Over the next 75 minutes, she would take us into a sequence of spaces, all of which was designed to allow for unescorted study, but we had to glance quickly at any of the written explanations, for she would give us her version of the story and hurry us on. Not that she did a bad job. In fact, she was an excellent guide. The problem with this arrangement was simply that there was so much more to see and read about than we were given the time to do.

Here’s a brief rundown of the tour.

1. At the foot of the escalator is an orientation space. Our guide spoke about slavery and we could see, through the clear wall, a scene with shackles where slaves would be auctioned. On another wall was more orienting information, I can’t remember what. I tried to walk closer to one object, but was told to stand back or I would trigger the opening of the door to the next room.

2. We entered the Hall of Shame. Well, first, our guide told us we would enter it and warned us of graphic images. She looked sharply at the parents of the family of three, seemingly expecting them to offer to skip it, then she asked if they were prepared to enter. They said sure. It has graphic images indeed, from a black man burned in Nebraska some time in the 1800s to Emmitt Till. We stopped at a few, received the guide’s commentary, then moved on.

3. We took seats in the next space to watch a video enactment of the evening before the Woolworth’s sit-in, with the four young men in a dorm room discussing their plan. They go over the reasons for it, the risks they would be taking, then commit to proceeding. Three, we learn, were locals, with the fourth from New York. As the video ends, the wall on which it was projected fades away and we see into a re-creation of their room. The NCA&T dorm that they lived in was demolished, but first some furniture was salvaged and is on display in this exhibit. But before we could walk closer for a look, we were taken to a long hall, our guide explaining that as we walk it, we should imagine the walk the four students took from their dorm to the Woolworth’s.

4. The hall has large photos on the walls, the last ones being Gandhi on one side and Martin Luther King on the other. We stopped at the end as the guide recited the names of the photographed people, all from the US civil rights movement other than Gandhi.

5. From the hall, we took an escalator up, arriving at the Woolworth’s. Or rather, a large space that had been the Woolworth’s, with a long lunch counter running along two perpendicular walls. I don’t recall ever seeing such a huge lunch counter. The two runs of seats were each at least 25 seats long, perhaps 30. Re-created on the walls were prices of items, 5-cent Pepsis and 85-cent turkey club sandwiches. The seats alternated in color between green and orange. We were told that three sets of four seats had been removed, one in the Smithsonian, one in the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, the third I didn’t catch where. But we saw no gaps. Had they been filled with seats from other Woolworth’s? Were these the original seats? It’s all a puzzle.

We watched a video on the wall behind the counter that told the sit-in story, with actors re-enacting the scene. The four students sitting down, being refused service, but staying put. An imaginary African-American waitress urging them to leave so they don’t make trouble for everyone. An imaginary white waitress being nasty. A white woman sitting amongst them who expresses support for what they’re doing. More students joining in subsequent days, bringing their books to study and staying all day, with men shown leaning in with unfriendly faces. The store manager studying his books and deciding this was bad for business. The decision to integrate.

I’ve skipped over some of the background. Everyone could shop in the store. It’s only sitting at the counter that was closed to blacks. They could order food at one location in the counter, receiving it and having to stand around in the store to eat it.

6. This was the highlight of the tour, and I thought the end, but through the next door lay a detailed exhibit on the Jim Crow south. There were sections on travel by bus and train, staying in hotels, schools, medical care, voting, … . Each had photos and signs, buttons to push for narratives. I think one could spend a good two hours going through it all. But once again we were raced around by our guide, who highlighted some of the photos and history from each section. For instance, we got to see the test that potential voters would have to pass to be allowed to vote, a hopeless test. I asked what about whites who failed, and the guide explained that children of voters had the right to vote, so they wouldn’t have to take the test. It’s new voters who had to pass, excluding many blacks and some whites.

7. Lastly, there was a room with photos of civil rights efforts worldwide. I entered it prematurely, setting off the video that plays along one wall. The guide made some closing remarks, then we came out to the lobby.

If only we had the leisure to wander on our own. But still, a great visit.

Categories: History, Museums

Greensboro Historical Museum

April 15, 2012 Leave a comment

I got off to a good start in blogging about our New York-North Carolina trip last week (for instance, writing about the Duke Homestead and Nasher Museum of Art), which we visited in Durham on Tuesday), but then stopped dead. Let me try to get Ron’s View re-started here.

On Wednesday, we drove the not-quite-fifty miles from Chapel Hill west to Greensboro, with the principal goal of visiting the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. We had reserved a 1:00 PM tour and arrived early so we could explore Greensboro ahead of time. As we drove around the downtown area, we passed the stadium of the Greensboro Grasshoppers minor league baseball team, the principal downtown office buildings, and then, rounding a corner, a grouping of log-cabin buildings in a small park.

That last item caught our eye. We parked in the first available spot on the street, walked back, and on reading the sign for a nineteenth-century home, realized that this collection was part of the Greensboro Historical Museum. Indeed, we had driven past the museum moments before spotting the house. It was the large brick building just behind us, and the park contained their collection of historic buildings.

In Mary Lynn Richardson Park, see sculpture and stroll the walkways around the Francis McNairy House, originally located near today’s Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. Inside, discover furnishings and decorative arts from the late 1700s and early 1800s. Built as a log house, it now looks much as it would have in the 1820s, when the family renovated their home and added clapboard siding.

The Hockett Blacksmith and Woodworking Shops were once part of a flourishing family farm south of Greensboro. Open for scheduled tours and during special events, the buildings serve up a helping of historic crafts that were essential to and every community.

Realizing that we had stumbled on the history museum, we left the park and entered. A kindly older gentleman with a local accent gave us a museum map and oriented us a bit. There wasn’t much on the main floor. The lobby. Restrooms and offices. A century-old cadillac. We climbed the stairs, at the top of which was a display of the Metcalf-Cooke Silver Collection and an adjacent display of some clothing of Dolley Madison:

Before suffragettes and feminists revolutionized the American landscape, one local woman influenced the flavor of our nation.

Icon. Fashionista. Heroine. Guilford County native, and the only First Lady born in North Carolina, Dolley Madison is one of the area’s most celebrated native daughters. Wife of our 4th president, James Madison, Dolley led a life filled with love and acclaim, but also with hardship.

Let Dolley’s personal possessions, collected with care through the years, introduce you to the part of her life marked by privilege, parties and high tea. A calling card case and pair of silk slippers will transport you into the social swirl of her time as First Lady.

Then, discover why Dolley spent her final years in near-poverty and how her possessions, first sold at auction, were later donated to the Greensboro Historical Museum.

Beyond these is a large semi-circular space three historical rooms from North Carolina homes re-created on the outer semi-circle. I’m not seeing a link to them at the museum website. Two, a living room and dining room, were from a wealthy person’s home, circa 1850. The third was an all-purpose room from a home, circa 1800. They were well done, and I imagined them to be the museum highlight. Gail had drifted off to look at the pottery in the interior of the semi-circle. It was an exhibition of Jugtown Pottery:

In the Piedmont region of North Carolina, the words “Jugtown” and “pottery” are practically synonymous. Nearly 100 years ago a couple from New York City visited the nearby community of Seagrove, North Carolina, and stepped in to save what was then a dying tradition of handmade pottery. Then, almost 50 years later, local collectors Joanne and Arthur Bluethenthal visited Seagrove’s Jugtown Pottery and, with a discerning eye, began to purchase a range of beautifully handcrafted clay pieces. The decorative and functional designs illustrate the rich artistic heritage that is a source of pride for Greensboro, the entire state and the nation.

Oh, I didn’t mention Otto Zenke’s miniature rooms, wonderful furnished rooms made by the prominent interior designer back around the 1930s. I thought we’d seen everything on the floor after the pottery, so we headed to the stairway for the top floor and the Civil War collection, only to see a doorway leading to what turns out to be the museum’s centerpiece, the exhibition Voices of a City. We spent over an hour going through it, would happily have stayed longer.

“What would a city say if it could speak?” asked the writer O. Henry. Indeed, what would Greensboro’s generations have to say about the place, its people and events? Through Voices of a City: Greensboro North Carolina, you will discover new interpretations from more than 300 years of local history.

What may seem like ordinary objects tell extraordinary stories. An ornate shell necklace traded centuries ago by one tribe to another. An illuminated German Bible essential for worship by non-English speakers. A rifle fired during a 1781 battle for independence. A desk used by a newspaper editor who decried slavery publicly yet owned slaves through marriage. A loom that wove denim for apparel worn around the world. A seat from a civil rights sit-in that changed the nation. A flight attendant’s handbook that survived the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001.

The exhibit does a great job of laying out the human history of the region, from the Native Indian life to today. The wagon route down from Philadelphia through the Piedmont area of North Carolina to Augusta, Georgia, that brought settlers from 1800 onward; the principal settler groups — Quakers, Scots-Irish Presbyterians, Germans, and of course enslaved Africans; Civil War and reconstruction; the growth of the textile industry (denim overalls, Wrangler jeans); Vick’s Vaporub (invented in Greensboro); mills.

See the photos below (and at top) from the gallery photo tour.

There was so much to see, read, and learn. What a superb local history museum!

Categories: History, Museums