Sunday, February 12, 2006

Black History Month

Since 1926, February has been Black History Month. In light of this celebration, I want to raise awareness of some amazing programming on PBS (Channel 13 in the NY-NJ area) -

One - the documentary African American Lives hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., which traces the family history and lives of eight prominent African Americans namely Dr. Ben Carson, Whoopi Goldberg, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Dr. Mae Jemison, Quincy Jones, Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Chris Tucker and Oprah Winfrey - oh and Henry Louis Gates Jr. himself too. All the stories are fascinating but the best I think are of Tucker and Winfrey.

Tucker's family on his mother's side is one of the few examples of black families and a community staying the south instead of being part of the largest migration in the US - of blacks from the south moving north after the Civil War. The most compelling reason for why Tucker's maternal family stayed back was the strength of the church where his great-great-great grandfather (maybe even another generation beyond) was pastor.

Winfrey's story is amazing simply for the fact that going back five generations (and maybe more); Winfrey men have been great proponents of the importance of education. Soon after reconstruction, her paternal grandfather five generations back taught himself to read and write in ten years; furthermore when the local black school was in trouble and was likely to be shut down due to lack of funds from Washington, he moved the school on to his property and supported it - he knew that education was the way to break the long legacy and chains of slavery and bondage. Watching Oprah now, it is clear that education is her mission too; it seems to be in her blood.

I could go on about this but I will not - instead, I would recommend highly, that everyone make an effort to view this series and appreciate the rich history, in a way, of us all.

Two - the film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman based on the novel of the same name by Ernest J. Gaines, which is a great epic story of Miss Jane Pittman - born into slavery in the 1850s to part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Amazing history. On a side note, Cicely Tyson won an Emmy for her portrayal of Miss Jane Pittman in 1974.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Cartography and Development

The NASA affiliated website Earth Observatory (EO) has some of the best images of Earth taken from space. These photos aren't just pretty pictures like the Aster Mexicali image at left; also check out this aerial of Rio de Janeiro!

On the development front, the Aiding Afghanistan section of the site talks about the efforts of the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), who using maps, "works to avert famine, particularly in Africa, Central America, and Afghanistan." Amazing work. Contrary to what one might think about the need for high-resolution and detailed images of land, the work of remote ecologists is based on wide, low-resolution regional images.

"The images [...] produced are not like photos; they are a vegetation “index,” or scale, based on the kind of light reflected from the ground or vegetation surface in a region. Plant leaves absorb visible light for photosynthesis and reflect near-infrared light. If a satellite detects significantly more near-infrared light than visible light, the region is likely to be densely vegetated. By comparing the difference in intensity between visible and near-infrared light measured over crop areas in current imagery with the difference measured at the same time in past years, Tucker can tell how leafy a crop region is compared to normal. Plotting out the anomalies reveals where vegetation is thicker than normal because of good conditions or thinner than normal as a result of drought."

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

satire or not?

The Danish cartoon-gate story has brought to mind the question of satire or not. What is the relevance of satire and when is it productive? I finally saw the much discussed cartoon by Kurt Westergaard and frankly, I don't think it is funny. Maybe I just don't get it. The issue really is the reasoning behind such a cartoon. Who is its audience? In this day and age - the whole world. What is its purpose? and Why?

I'm all for a good laugh but I really question the motives behind this particular cartoon. Shouldn't satire in the media be a way to make light of dysfunction common to all in society, like collective constructive criticism? Rather than to mock a particular group or way of thinking? Now, the competition to find cartoons that satirize the Holocaust is a knee-jerk reaction at best. I do not condone the violent reaction opposing the cartoon. This is just it - has the cartoon sparked any real, meaningful dialogue? From all the hoopla, probably not. There is much discussion about Islam but not much in a reconciliatory way.

Here's an article by a Danish Muslim from the Guardian We have lost our voice that presents another point of view.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The - rigor - of Boxing

As much as I don't necessarily get the idea of boxing as a sport, time and time again, I am confronted with its positive force along with the belief that boxing is a thinking sport. I don't watch the sport not because of the violence per se but American boxing seems far too commercially motivated to be pure sport. But then I guess most sports in the US or for that matter, in the world are propped up by commercial sponsorship; nothing exists without money.

Back in 2004 when Clint Eastwood released his masterful film Million Dollar Baby, I went to see it in the theater and absolutely loved it. Maggie Fitzgerald's (Hillary Swank character) passion for boxing was deeply evident in every part of her being. And such rigor for boxing stood right alongside the harsh brutality of the sport. Maybe the truth is that boxing offers an avenue out of whatever and wherever one might be. It is not necessarily the nature of boxing that helps in the journey out... but one could find release and solace and acceptance via any passionate means - whether it be boxing (sport), or writing, or film, or social work.

For some reason, the rigor of boxing is very compelling. Today's Guardian online has Hanif Kureishi's interview with Amir Khan - 'the future of British boxing...' that sheds some light on the young boxer's life, his views on the precarious state of Muslims (young esp.) in Britain and the paradox of being British, Pakistani and a boxer.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Photo: a hippo enjoying the surf

You can find this photo by Michael K. Nichols at the National Geographic website, under their Photo-of-the-Day section for February 2, 2006.

Although this hippo enjoying the surf off the coast of Gabon appears cute and cuddly, I know from personal experience that hippos in general aren't so. In September 2000, I traveled to Africa, specifically South Africa and Zimbabwe, for almost three weeks. I consider this time of my life as the best I've ever had; maybe an upcoming journey to Mongolia might raise the ante.

In Zimbabwe, while at the Mana Pools camp, I decided to canoe down the Zambezi river a few miles. My guide for the day was Trust Moyo (I am not kidding about his firstname) and was only 20 I think - younger than me. In anycase, he proved his trust-worthiness on several occasions. Our first encounter with an elephant was when we came across an old female, happily chewing off the juicy insides of some exposed roots at the side of the river bank. Trust brought our canoe up really close to the her, challenging me on my request to get close to the animals as he said, "How close do you want to get? A foot away? Six inches? You want to touch the elephant?" Okay, so it was amazing but very scary too. We stayed by the old elephant's side for a while, against the down river current - enjoying her beauty, her long eyelashes, her dexterous manouverability with those wily roots. I did get very close to a wild elephant that day.

But Trust had more for me that day on the Zambezi. We kept out canoe close to the river bank in case we got into trouble - just a safety precaution. On one such occasion, we were so close to the river bank that we grounded our canoe. Trust and I got out and pushed the canoe back into slightly deeper waters.

We stopped for lunch under a shady tree along the river. Trust insisted on an hours siesta before continuing; I could hardly sleep since I could see crocodile in the distance basking in the sun, some antelope far off by the river's edge. When we finally set off to complete the last few miles of our canoe adventure for the day, is when Trust truly saved the day. We canoed past a pod of hippos and made sure to stay clear of them. Trust was regaling me with stories of travelers and guides alike who had gotten into tough situations with hippos. Although hippos are vegetarian, they will not think twice about attacking and killing anyone who threatens them, especially mama hippos with babies. And just then, out of the clear blue, I noticed a wall of water charging towards us. I had no idea what was happening and thus did not scream nor take any photos. I just was frozen at the site of the wall of water, fast moving towards us, with no effort to stop. Trust stood up in the canoe and brought the paddle high up in the air, flat onto the river water, right in front of the charging wall of water. It made that awful sound like when a diver into a pool falls flat onto their body - a painful sound. It worked. The wall of water stopped charging to reveal a young male hippo behind. We were going to be fine. Trust explained that it had only been a 'mock' charge. Were it not so, I might not be writing this blog today.

The above account is all true. But maybe time has replaced the grisly detail reality of the situation with nostalgic wonder and thankfulness of my time at Mana Pools and for Trust and his quick thinking. :)