Sunday, October 27, 2013

... it's a long way from being over...

The Guardian has been slowly releasing information provided by Edward Snowden on the illegal  NSA warrant-less wiretapping and spying.

The New Yorker magazine recently published an interesting article about the Guardian.  I learned that the Guardian was advised to publish information at a much slower pace than the Wikileaks information dump that was made several years ago.  With the Wikileaks dump, there was too much information in the the State Department memos to be properly understood and digested all at once.  The reason for the slower release of the NSA spying information is, in part, to allow time for the press to absorb, discuss, and for people to understand what is being presented. 

However one looks at it, this puts to rest any claim by defenders of the US and it's three letter agency activities that "we've seen this all before", or that "this has been going on for hundreds of years."  As "pitchpipe" over on Slashdot said recently in the comments section of an article about the wiretapping -

 "First, you say that warrantless wiretaps have been going on for a very long time. Maybe they have, but they were certainly never standard operating procedure. Good hell they're warrantlessly wiretapping EVERYBODY these days. And back then they never came out and said,"Hey, we're doing warrantless wiretaps, and if you don't like it you can fuck right off" like they do now.

Second, saying it's been going on like this for hundreds of years makes it sound like it'll always be this way, so you might as well do nothing. It also lends it an air false legitimacy: "If the founding fathers were doing it it must be okay.""

With this as background, and with the Guardian's promise of further revelations (metered at a dose level we can absorb and understand), I believe the best is yet to come.

Remember Angelica Merkel's outrage just two days ago over the NSA having her phone number in their "Rolodex?"  Remember how she personally called Mr. Obama in a livid outrage?  Well, it just got better.

The Guardian reports today that the American three letter agencies have been spying on her for over ten years.

Spin and defend this new information however you like, the situation between "friends" in Europe and North America just got worse.

Jude asked many times if we knew when it was time to "get out."

When did the Romans know, in their heart of hearts, that their Empire was well and truly lost?  Was it when the Goths crossed the Danube river?

When did the East Germans throw up their hands and accept that everyone was spying on everyone else, that the STASI ran the place, and that every aspect of their lives were under constant surveillance, if not outright threat?

When would a frog know the water was about to boil in a pot of slowly heating water?  Some frogs are known to have had the good sense to jump out of the pot before they were boiled.
Monitoring the US media for any sign of understanding of the gravity of the situation, I feel the need to return to a prior observation.  Americans remain completely and utterly distracted by sports, celebrity sex-lives, "reality" TV, fundamentalist religious beliefs, and seem to revel in "not having to know everything" about the world around them.

From the looks of things, we got out of the US just in time.

Friday, October 25, 2013

It is hard to believe the level of arrogance...

While Fox New watching Tea Party lovers in America enjoy bashing President Obama over the governments new medical insurance website, rather more serious things are afoot on the broader World Stage.

While the US government will eventually build the healthcare insurance website and have it running properly, relations between America and other first world nations is being rather seriously strained.  The relation strain has me concerned.

At first, the Germans seemed happy with the latest trade deal that was being negotiated between the EU and the Americans.  The trade deal was more important at the time than the eavesdropping revelations.  It was the French who said the EU should reconsider the trade talks after the Edward Snowden leaks.  What started with a little hand waving by the Germans over the NSA scandal has turned into open concern for their relationship with the US. 

As of today, except for England, the EU is firmly standing against the US-based eavesdropping activities.  As for the trade talks, it seems to me that the Germans are ready to join the French in tabling discussions.  The EU's attention now seem firmly set on US spying activities, not it's trade relations.

The Guardian reports that "The French and German governments have demanded talks with the US by the end of the year as the row over the spying activities of the US National Security Agency intensifies."
I understand the French anger at American spying.  After all, it was just a 30 day period where "the NSA collected over 70 million French communications, which were then categorized either as “Drtbox” or “Whitebox.”"  To me, that seems like an enormously excessive amount of spying over such a short period of time.  A vast net was cast, but for what?

In response to the US spying on France news, as well as information that Angelica Merkel's phone conversations were recorded and analyzed, European leaders are clearly stating their positions.

Angelica Merkel said "It's become clear that for the future, something must change - and significantly. We will put all efforts into forging a joint understanding by the end of the year for the co-operation of the [intelligence] agencies between Germany and the US and France and the US, to create a framework for the co-operation … It's not just about me but about every German citizen. We need to have trust in our allies and partners, and this trust must now be established once again. I repeat that spying among friends is not at all acceptable against anyone, and that goes for every citizen in Germany."

Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister said today that "I will support [Angelica Merkel] completely in her complaint and say that this is not acceptable."
The Italian prime minister, Enrico Letta,said "We want the truth. It is not in the least bit conceivable that activity of this type could be acceptable."

Since my wife and I have chosen to life in France, Francois Hollande's comments really grabbed my attention.  He said "What is at stake is preserving our relations with the United States. They should not be changed because of what has happened. But trust has to be restored and reinforced."

To me, it's one thing to clearly and arrogantly break the US Constitution's 4th Amendment by spying on all American communications (email, telephone, etc), and it's quite another to jeopardize a countries relationship with other First World nations.  Allies historically create a strong block of influence.  There is weakness in standing alone in the world, no matter how big your economy nor how large your trans-national businesses. Yet, it seems that with the NSA's Total Information Awareness program this is exactly what the US is gambling.  Allied shared influence versus going it alone.

I have heard far too many people in America say "What can we do?  This kind of thing has been going on forever." I have read too many comments that "there is nothing new here, why the outrage?" Are Americans this recklessly naive?  Can they really believe the entire world is ready to do the US' bidding?  I shake my head and wonder what is wrong with some Americans.

Jude pointed out something obvious.  There have been burgleries, robbery, rape, and corruption "that has being going on forever".  Yet societies take steps to limit such things.  They take steps to right clear wrongs.  Forcing American spy agencies to follow US law must be no different.

If the spying problem "goes sideways" and if the US and Europe escalate the into a wide ranging political confrontation, my concern is for what France might do to US citizens living here in retaliation for US Government actions.  While the concern is certainly not shared by anyone living in the US, I can see immediate consequences for American arrogance and the $10BILLION eavesdropping programs for those of us who have chosen to live abroad.

We are a very long ways from this, but I hope it never comes to having to ask for political asylum.  We couldn't stand the thought of returning to a nation that is day by day further out of control than we ever thought possible.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Just the highlights...

Having spent three weeks with my brother and Our Father (see prior post), we were bound to have a few interesting experiences.  Particularly since this was Our Father's very first trip abroad. 

Here are a few of the things that stuck in my own aging brain.

I was reminded that my Great Grandfather, Juan Ramos, went to Hawaii with his daughters.  He was 90 years old when he made that trip.

We took Our Father to noon mass at Notre Dame de Paris.  Shortly afterward, he lit a candle near the altar and left a photo of my mother behind it.  It was an emotional few hours.

After having had a "so so" steak frites at an otherwise good cafe in Versailles, we were hoping Our Father could have the kind of steak we know France can provide.  The opportunity came when we visited le cafe du Commerce following a strenuous morning of shopping a the porte de Vanves marche aux puche.  Our Father's steak frites was so good, he's still talking about the experience.

Wandering the jardins des plantes, my brother spied a statue of a naked lady.   He said "Hey! Chris!!  Get a photo of this, OK?"  Who am I not to comply?  My father quickly followed suit.  We all laughed.

One fine, warm evening, the four of us (my brother, Our Father, Jude, and I) took the bus to see la tour Eiffel.  We timed it so that we arrived just before the hour.  La tour "twizzled" for 5 minutes as everyone "oohed" and "aahed."  A slow leisurely stroll led us under the beautifully lit tower and out the other side.  As we visited the Trocadero, the Tango group filled the plaza with great music and dance.  The entire evening roundly rocked Our Father's world.

In Barcelona, we were out for a walk I heard a large bore four cylinder motorcycle running through heavy traffic at nearly full chat.  The Man Was Moving!  I used to ride and the sensation of speed in close quarters can be exhilarating.  It was amazing to what degree the Spanish live life to it's fullest.

On the AVE between Barcelona and Madrid, my brother and Our Father sacked out in their seats.  We couldn't believe it.  They were both so mellow and the ride so smooth that they slept like babies.  It was then that we noticed that one of my brother's shirt buttons was undone.  Both Jude and I had to take a few photos.

In Madrid, my brother had an incredible Ox tail dish for dinner one night.  I couldn't help but tease him by making my hand "swish" like the food he was eating used to do.

Our Father builds classic guitars as his Keep Me Off The Streets Late At Night hobby.  They are beautiful instruments.  We knew that some of the finest Flamenco guitar makers worked in Madrid.  So, my brother and I took Our Father up around the corner from our hotel to visit Jose Romero.  With my brother translating, there was a pleasant conversation and Our Father learned a few things about how Jose builds his instruments, what the Romero legacy is (it stretches back 5 generations), and was impressed to see that Paco de Lucia himself sometimes uses a Romero.  It was another in a long line of emotional experiences for Our Father.

Satan in a Tiny Glass was served several times during the trip.  It seems to be some kind of Spanish tradition where a short glass of something yummy is served to guests at the end of a meal.  While it's likely to be used to help ease the pain of paying the bill (not really, just kidding), it can be ridiculously tasty stuff.  We looked forward to sampling whatever the waiters would bring us as the bill arrived.

My brother figured out that one place served us an afterdinner snort of Karlova Vodka Carmelo.  Somehow we ended up with two shots of the incredible liqueur.  Truly Satin in a Tiny Glass.  It was about that time that we started laughing at the prospect of having to decide between Karlova and Betty Ford.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

... and another five weeks...

Family came to visit.

Shapes and Light

It started in early September when Jude's son came for two weeks.  We showed him around town as a "warm up" for spending three weeks with one of my brothers and my father.

My wife and I figured the best way to see Paris was... slowly...  Here is what we tried out on Daniel.
  • Day One - Ride the Red Bus.  Arriving guests would be jet-lagged the first several days and have their minds missing on the first.  So sitting down and doing nothing but enjoying le soleil and seeing a few sights seemd the best way to start.
  • Day Two - Notre Dame.  If you need spiritual aid, this is the place to come have the gods hear your prayers.  Besides, I have a great little speech that describes the Alchemist's Way as depicted in stone on the Portal of Judgement.
  • Day Three - Louvre.  If it's hard getting tired enough to sleep  behind the jet-lag, a long day in the most massive museum on Planet Earth should just about finish a person off.
  • Day Four - Coqulet Sunday!  Tiny little pre-roasted birds of paradise for lunch, followed by a nice walk about our favorite park and an afternoon nap in the shade.
  • Day Five - ...

Sagrada Familia ~ Gaudi

... and so it went.  Versailles, l'Orangerie, another Louvre visit, wandering around, eating and many many other things filled Daniel's visit.  We hoped he'd head home happy and tired from the long list of fun things we did together.

Part Deux started just a few days later with the arrival of my father and brother.  Who scheduled this, anyway?  Well, all we could do is run our pre-defined script and hope for the best.

My father is in his late seventies.  My mother died a few years ago and my father has worked to put his life together.  It's a very good thing that my Number Three Brother of mine lives twenty minutes away from Our Father.  He needed a lot of support and help from his sons.

Our Father has never flown, never been off the North American continent, and lives in a quiet little town along the coast.  Visiting Europe with it's vast monuments, big crowds, and noisy cities might hit him from just too many directions.  Which is why we organized Our Father's trip to include flying my Number Two Brother along.

Light in Barcelona

My brother worked as a fire fighter for many years, is recently retired, and was the perfect person to have travel with Our Father.  My brother's para-medic skills in working through complex situations might come in handy.

In the end, the Paris side of the trip went very well.  Everyone had arrived in good shape.  The weather had improved over Jude's son's trip (where it was cold and wet here).  It was so beautiful, in fact, that we were able to sit at outdoor cafe tables all across l'isle de France to take our afternoon repasts.  The birds sang in the surrounding trees and the food was delicious.  We saw a great many things and shared many fabulous experiences.  It was fun to get caught up again and to reconnect with an important part of our family.

After eleven days here, we TGV'd to Spain for another ten days of Fun in the Sun.  Starting with Barcelona for five days, with a quick AVE to Madrid where we capped off our time together.

Light in Barcelona

For me, comparing Spain to France proved to be rather interesting.  Here is what I found.

Bad -
  • Spain is a LOT louder than Paris.  The traffic is loud.  The people speak loudly.  The restaurant kitchens are loud.  The street sweepers are loud.  Paris is MUCH quieter than Barcelona or Madrid.
  • At breakfast one morning in our Barcelona hotel,I asked for an expresso in English and French.  I got what I wanted, but while I waited, the woman behind the counter told another employee in Spanish that she "speaks Spanish, and that she does not speak chinchas."  She had no idea that I could understand her perfectly clearly.  So... I was speaking "insect" to her...  I've never been insulted like this in France.  Not once.  Even though I probably deserved such a response on numerous occasions.
  • In Madrid, our first taxi driver was very upset.  Not at us, but at something else.  It made for a very unpleasant trip from the train station to our hotel.  My Brother could not get him to change his attitude, even with conversing in Spanish.
  • Also in Madrid, our "special" rate at the Westin could not be honored.  A family member had tried to arrange something that could not work the way they thought.  We were left hunting for a cheaper hotel, which cost us a day of sightseeing.  I really hate trying to fix things at the last minute.  Particularly after all the most favorable rates and best hotels are taken and booked.
  • Lastly in Madrid, the city is old, falling down, and filled with vast crowds of tourists in certain areas.  I now understand why Rick Steves said (diplomatically) that Madrid is trying to make itself into a people friendly city.  Rick Steves also said that Madrid's food was better than Barcelona's.  It isn't.  It has a LONG way to go in terms of livability and a few more improvements in their food, in my not so humble opinion.
Light in Barcelona
Good -
  • First, I must say that it was a Great Boon to have had my brother along.  He speaks beautiful Spanish.  I am convinced it was his language skills that "greased the skids" of our experience.  He worked his magic and we had wonderful experiences nearly everywhere we went.
  • Barcelona a fabulous city for incredible food.  We LOVED eating there.  Everywhere we went, the food was fresh, well prepared, and not too expensive.  The wines were consistently outstanding.  I feel only Florence surpasses Barcelona in flavorful foods and wonderful dining in small, out of the way places.
  • Barcelona is the "must see" city for architecture.  The Modernista building are incredible and well worth the price of admission to tour.
  • Barcelona's citizens are warm, open hearted, and wonderful to talk to.  They joke around and laugh a lot.  This city reminded me of the Italians we spoke with in Florence (which remains my High Water mark for warmth and open hearted-ness).
  • Madrid has the finest museum of European painters I have ever visited.  Simply incredible.  The Prado and Reina Sophia are "must see."  I particularly liked the Prado's vast collections of the very best works by the very best artists.  The Louvre comes a distant second, in this regard.
Light in Barcelona

What summed Spain up for me is this: We were out for a walk around Barcelona one evening when I heard a four cylinder motorcycle running through heavy traffic at nearly full chat.  The Man Was Moving!  While I've watched as someone pulled a wheelie down one of the quai's here in Paris along the right bank, I've never seen someone this determined running this hard through a big city like this.  No.  Not ever.  Not even I, when living in Los Angeles, ever rode my bike this hard.  If only that motorcycle flying through Barcelona had been a large displacement Ducati running with open pipes, it would have made for a Perfect Heaven.  I could have pass away right there a Perfectly Happy Man.

The experience helped me feel that Spaniards laugh loudly, live hard, and participate in life with strong determinations.

The first thing Jude and I noticed upon landing back on French soil was just how quiet and disciplined everyone is here.  The traffic is quieter than in Spain.  The people talk much more softly.  The pace of life is, well, to our way of thinking, better suited to us.

While we were very happy to have visited with family for as long as we did, we were equally happy to be home again.  I can't believe we have already set down such deep roots.

Light in Barcelona