Sunday, August 30, 2009

No time for dancing, or lovey dovey

I ain't got time for that now

I'm a little late into the Talking Heads love, but man, how much fun would it have been to catch the Stop Making Sense tour? How obvious are the Ting Tings, Franz Ferdinand, Maroon 5, and generally any 21st century pop music cribbings from Talking Heads? Hats off to David Byrne...and some pretty solid lyrics, too, it must be said.

So unfortunately, a family tragedy took me away from classes and this blog this past week, making it difficult for me to think of anything clever to put here. So I'm just going to mention something briefly, instead.

The Aga Khan is really the Most Interesting Man in the World, much more than any of the Anglo pansies that Dos Equis is pimping. His mother-in-law is Rita Hayworth. He did ski for Turkey at the 1960 Winter Olympics, and Iran in '64. He is the leader of all Ismaili Muslims. He is incredibly relevant to anything this blog has to do with, most particularly the Award for Architecture and the Mountain Societies Development Support Programme. He does what you wish you would do if you had infinite wealth, not what you would do. What you would do is far more similar to Everyone's Favorite Central Asian.

Aga Khan does not do anything remotely political, because that is incredibly unbecoming for, you know, the leader of a faith. Any Friedman-esque "Amurrica needs to engage Mr. Khan in order to promote peace in Afghanistan" is, well laughably wrong-headed. HRH does what he wants, and we all fall behind that. Fortunately, he's kind of awesome.

So for further reading, check out the wikipage for his entire development network. And Archnet is an incredible resource that has helped me out in the past (when I was studying Ottoman Cities over in Ottomania). It's a lovely place to spend a few hours.

I point out Archnet in particular because the focus on Islamic Architecture is unique and, I think, worthwhile. Architecture and urban development must take on the local context in any situation. Look at the Soviet Bloc countries before you argue against me. And I believe that a solid sense of place and locality can help as much as Predator Drones can. I'm just too tired and busy to expound upon it right here.

A eco-conscious, historically-contextualized, forward-looking urban plan can do great things. The Aga Khan is doing great things. If he ever wanted to hire me, I would be doing backflips, let me tell ya.

Friday, August 21, 2009

There Must Be 50 Ways to Learn Some Uyghur

Do some Rosetta, Greta.
Class is a start, Art.

Yeah, not a terrible creative introduction, but please enjoy BTSTU, they're good peeps.

So this is another post bouncing off of Registan and Afghan Quest, but it bears mentioning. What's the problem with military translating? Translators are obviously invaluable when operating a counter-insurgency/counter-terrorist operation in a place where folks don't speak English. Duh. But then why are there so many reasons they tend to be treated poorly?

My assumption is that the problem lies in a simple distrust of foreigners by many folks operating in foreign theaters (not just Afghanistan and Iraq, but also all of the gentlemen and ladies of the intelligence community from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe). When you see Afghanistani Taliban folk killing your friends with all sorts of devious, insane, methods, I can understand a level of mistrust for the Afghanistani translater promising to help you out. That's human.

What is interesting to me is the sort of sea change in what makes a Good Soldier over the past few decades. It reminds me a lot, a whole lot, of the Sabermetric revolution in baseball. The metrics and thoughts about military production have been pretty concreted for a while. You get a good athlete who can follow orders and understand spacial relationships, you have yourself a soldier. Marksmanship is a plus. But now, I would argue that a good communicator who knows a few languages, who can make themself understood and think creatively. In short, the officer-level requirements now maybe ought to be NCO-level requirements. This would, of course, lead to a reorginization of the military of Russia-esque proportions. In short, it'll never happen.

So the other option, one would think, is to get more Americans to learn some crazy-cool languages. A lot of college kids haven't learned cool languages, because they all think this is cooler than this. Whatever. Also, the bigger, more popular, languages are always going to be easier to find classes in. French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Farsi are all awesome, of course. But it may not take a big push to get high school and college students, to say nothing of postgrads, looking in different directions.

First off, programs like my ex-school's FOLA were incredible. A low-cost (for the school) and low-pressure (for the students) way to get an introduction to the language. Both of my tutors were incredible people who bent over backwards to help me learn the language and were open to giving me opportunities after I graduated (I'm currently rueing not taking up my Urdu hoja's offer to teach English in Oman. I also spell-checked it, that is the correct present-tense-verb of "rue").

For post-grads or people who just really like summer school, programs like Indiana's CEUS is just wonderful. It's going to be tough to find Kyrgyz, Uyghur, Uzbek, Pashto, etc. most places, so these guys ought to publicize and advertise their offerings, offer some scholarships (if they can get the government money, which, well, they damn well should) and otherwise get their summer halls full of dudes trying to wrestle with Altai or something equally absurd. Thing of the networking that must go on over there, too. And because it's independent of the military, it'll be able to attract a more varied group than the Defense Language Institute.

Study and travel study and travel study and travel. As an ex-employee of a study abroad office, I couldn't be more emphatic that kids should travel, and travel to cool places. If I was a college counselor, I would tell everyone to just play around iiepassport for 10 minutes or something one day.

Of course, jobs have to be out there for kids who are learning all these languages, but that is a place where the government really could kick in. By making it very clear that a translator is not military personnel, you can attract some good people who are looking for more of a 1-2 year commitment than a 5-year one. And since they are Americans, the thickheads will approve of the translators, and the constituencies would be happy with some money being thrown that way. Construe it as a sort of Peace Corps-esque option, where people can work as translators in Dari or Pashto, Uzbek or whatever, without the military payroll or uniforms (though, of course, people always can become a military translator as well...this is more of a resource/logistics/econ problem after a bit).

Students will do it. I would gladly have spent a year figuring out Uzbek as opposed to Turkish as a post-grad, then hung out in Rashid Dostum's neighborhood for another year or two on rotations. That sure beats law school. I just am wary of the 5-year commitment that military would imply, and would prefer to work independently than for SecState.

If there was a graduated curve on how much work people wanted to do after grad school, and if there were more varied language opportunities, I'm sure they would be taken. American translators certainly could exist, they just need a big nudge from the government. I would certainly like to see it happen, but as long as the military sees drones and battalions as a successful Face of America, it'll always be seen as an occupation.

The languages are out there. Us Americans can learn them. We just need the opportunity, and the promise of employment opportunity. It'll certainly be easier to fix than changing an entire group structure and thought process.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

All the money that they're making is going to the man.

What makes a man a man?
Am I a man?
Yes. Technically I am.

I don't feel that I need to cite my sources if I am going to say that one of the prime issues facing US/"Western"/What-have-you investment in Central Asia is corruption. Every dollar sent stan-ward makes cents go to all sorts of fascinating places, usually not where they were intended.

However, endemic corruption isn't exactly a cultural phenomenon. People like to ascribe failed states to failing due to corruption, but I'm not sure how accurate that is. I would bet that corruption is a trailing indicator, that is, folks in high (and low) office tend to start looking out for themselves when it becomes obvious to them that nobody higher on up is. I, of course, have nothing to back this up.

But more likely, corruption is everywhere, from Illinois to India. The Susurluk scandal is still my absolute favorite example. And Every Day Should Be Saturday gets to the heart of the issue in a way only he can,
"Given the rump parliament of retards, kiss-ass ninjas, fuckwits, slaglobed shitboxers, lizard people, and sluts who ran student government at Florida, we assume the Alabama Student Government must be populated with the same type of half-people who always seem to pop up for these things."

So why is corruption so vilified over there, and shrugged about over here? Here it's institutionalized. Earmarks, pork spending, Bridges to Nowhere, lobbyists, the whole ugly shebang is simply How Democracy Works. But when institutions are built from the ground up, the Poli Sci majors running the joints tend to hope that We can build a really more perfect union over There. And regional experts tend to be blithely ignored, to the point where the Wall Street Journal wonders why nobody ever studied it, giving Christian Bleuer the opportunity to mock them and hard.

Corruption will exist. Everywhere. And USAID and SecState and all of those good folks in well-cut suits will not turn CAsians into little bureaucrats out of a BBC regency drama, these are actual human beings, with actual life goals and dreams. Not tools with which to solve America's issues.

On a very simple level, if you are trying to build a better stan, you have to deal the cards that are in the deck. It helps to know the area, and ask some stupid questions to some Ph.D. folks. A solely military solution is not the answer, and nobody is expecting it to be. But a solely governmental solution is likely not going to get anyone much further.

So what is the solution? I don't know, these things are complicated. But my bet is that things like architecture, infrastructure, and a sensical legal code matter just as much if not more than poppy culling, baddie busting, and high-level talks. People, on an individual level, need to be involved, and that means much more than USAID and Peace Corps.

Corruption happens. It's something to be worried about, of course, but I sincerely doubt it's going to be seriously solved on the outside any time soon. There are other ways to get serious economic and quality-of-life progress going on. They may be more obscure, they may read like something out of bldgblog, but they're as worthy of serious consideration as anything else.

Context and creativity is worth more than teeth gnashing and moral turpitude. And complaining that Their corruption is so much more unseemly than Ours really doesn't seem too much like the former.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

What You Know About Xinjiang?

I know all about that.

This is going to be a relatively short post. I just moved into my new digs for the next few years, so I'm doing a couple hundred other things. And to top it off, this post is a solid month out of the news cycle and relevancy. But I was interested in it, so I figured I'd look up to see some answers and drop them here.

After the July riots in Urumqi, there seemed to be many questions around the thought of, "why should I care about Xinjiang?" And a whole big chunk of journalists went with, "uhh, because there's lots of oil?" Just shy of 34,000 people must have thought so, at least. Which is interesting to me, because I never really thought of that particular chunk of territory being Caspian East. But there must be SOMETHING there, otherwise China wouldn't fight to have it, right?

So Xinjiang alone has 19.2 billion USD worth of exports, mostly to Kazakhstan (h/t: wiki) in '08. Compare this to only ~3 billion worth of imports, and you can see that Xinjiang is an absolute mint for Beijing. This doesn't include intrastate trade: 730 million tons of iron reserves are nothing to sneeze at, to say nothing of saltpetre and all sorts of salts and sulfates I don't know nearly enough about (but are apparently really key for heavy industry). In short, Xinjiang is almost a d├ępartement d’outre-mer for China, without having to be actually overseas. It's where China gets the resources to keep their Eastern factories humming. So I can understand why they ain't messing around with anything that smells remotely like the FLN.

But how about energy? Something I've noticed a lot of people do is put oil and natural gas together. In the website linked earlier, they mention "30 billion tons of oil and natural gas," but those are two awfully different things. And it is, to this point, hypothetical.

The biggest upstream energy company in Xinjiang appears to be the Xinjiang Oil Field Company, but they're only in the Dzhungar (Junggar? Xungar?) Basin, claiming a capacity of "
8.6 billion tons...petroleum and 210 thousand cubic meters...natural gas." So that's not nothing, sure, but again, not Caspian East. Any talks of a Kazakh-Chinese pipeline are kind of key to this...that pipe is bringing oil into China...and not from Xinjiang, but from Kazakhstan. Xinjiang may be able to supplement this, sure, but it don't hold the answer.

Oh, and "38 percent of China's coal reserves" do a hefty chunk towards making this a moot point, anyways. That's the resource that makes more sense for those factories I mentioned earlier, so it's making a far more dramatic impact than oil so far. And in the future? This rose-colored review says that Xinjiang is going to be a primary strategic region for petro-development in the 21st century. Which is nice, but, I mean, it states this by showing that all of these banks are investing into the area, not by saying that anything is actually HAPPENING and MOVING FORWARDS or anything, which is a big difference. Just ask Nabucco.

So yeah, Xinjiang is worth fighting for, certainly. Not necessarily because of oil, sure, but "oil-rich" sounds a lot better than "saltpetre-rich" in headlines, I assume. I just hope it's not some sort of "Uighurs are Muslim, Saudis are Muslim, Saudis have oil, so..." sort of thinking on the part of writers.

The thing is, Imperialism is what all the cool kids did to become superpowers. Russia, United States, Britain, etc. So China is going to want to, too. And it doesn't matter what the G8 says, it will matter if the Uighurs come up with something that the Pechnegs, the Cherokee, or the Marathas didn't. The odds aren't with 'em, for sure, but thats an awful lot of billion of dollars worth fighting over.

And just as an addendum, in my "research" for this I stumbled upon this documentary, which looks moderately fascinating.