Wait for the wheel (IV): Downward is heavenward

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“And through it all she seems secure that downward is heavenward…”

-“Afternoon With The Axolotls” by Hum

It was a late July night just beneath the mountains around Karakol, and my insides were grinding with food poisoning. My skin seeped with hot sweat while my arms and legs shivered as though I had been bathed in freezing snow, and my skull thundered. My Kyrgyz compatriots first force-fed me modern medicine and then gave me a large dose of ancient shamanism. They laid me down in the törof a yurt, wrapped me in shïrdak rugs, and lifting my head, had me drink an entire chainik of green tea. Then all save one, their baqshï, the shaman, exited.

A middle-aged man with a gravely voice, weathered skin, and deep eyes, he leaned over me and, gripping my hands and gently compressing my forehead, began to chant a prayer in Kyrgyz. He invoked the name of the Kyrgyz nation’s ancestor-leader, Manas, and he called upon the cosmos and the divine creator Himself. I remember feeling somehow both inside and outside my pain, almost as though it were a kind of searing pleasure, an embodiedness so intense that I was disembodied. Most of all, I remember feeling cared for. Western medicine can often be so sterile, heartless; this ancient method, by contrast, was so warm, attentive. And it was sublime. I managed to whisper, “Sonun” — “Beautiful” — to my chanting compatriot. I could sense him smile in reply, and he gently rubbed my forehead. I thought to myself, If I die, this is a wonderful way to leave this world.

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Ultreïa

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“The Truth doesn’t want to be proven; it wants to be believed.”
— Katarina Gritzer

Not long ago, I returned from walking the Camino de Santiago. Like most pilgrims, I started from Saint Jean Pied-de-Port on Halloween, end finished at Finisterre on 6 December. Although a writer by profession, I find myself at a loss for words to not only describe the outward journey, but to express the inward one, as well.

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On the edge of the mesh

A “professional n00b“: that’s how I introduced myself at the OHM2013 convention last year, and ever since that’s how I’ve taken to introducing myself whenever I encounter a gosu. My hacktivist colleagues tell me that I’m being too hard on myself, since I do have a determination to learn (albeit in fits and starts, time and money permitting). However, I do actually see it as something good, since it’s people like me who have an interest in cutting through the technical arcana of engineers in order to bring important digital and technical tools to journalists, entrepreneurs, and the general public.

My life as a professional n00b began in the summer of 2011, shortly after the mysterious explosion of Abadan in Turkmenistan. I was approached by some, let’s call them helpful folks, who wanted to know whether mesh networking, or “meshing” for short, would be a useful way to circumvent surveillance and censorship in the country. Oh boy.

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Крещенские морозы

The post-Soviet states have entered a sort of season within a season, called “Крещенские морозы” (Kreshchenskiye morozy), the “christening frost”. Devout Russian Christians perform a baptismal rite during this period, carving crosses into frozen lakes and rivers into which they plunge themselves. And indeed, the whole interior of Eurasia seems to have been bathed in cold white.

I don’t hide from the fact that I’m very much an amateur photographer. Nonetheless, I try to push my limited aptitudes for the sake of something rather, let’s say “concretely abstract”: to simultaneously reveal to my audience and understand for myself how the world is philosophically communicative. Significance is everywhere; deeper, higher meaning is encoded within the very empirical flesh of the universe. And insofar that humanity represents a universe within a universe, studying the interaction between the natural and the artificial can be particularly illuminating.

I’m inspired by cinematographers like Sean Bobbit and Vadim Yusov, who (depending on the film, of course) have a remarkable ability to simply dwell upon an image, giving it time to communicate various complexities to the viewer. Of course, I’ve nothing of the artistic skill or technological resources to come anywhere near their work, but I nonetheless like to emulate them in my own shoddy way. From what I’ve learned so far, a lot of the key to their success is simply knowing how to frame a shot, acquire perspective, and allow things to be.

I suppose in the image I find the patience for contemplation that, ironically, I haven’t been able or willing to find in academic philosophy. Perhaps it’s because academic philosophy, for all its desire to be contemplative, too often dissolves into contention and competition, of puffed-up (usually male) egos needing to crush phantom-opponents to demonstrate their superiority. But all the arcana and feigned transcendence really just hides an animalism infecting one of the most human of endeavors. And I suppose that having been confronted with it — not to mention having read way too much French phenomenology and having worked too many years as a worldly journalist — I instinctively want to invert the reaction: I want the world to be the space of my contemplation, not the nether realm of bodiless, riskless ideas.

Anyway, because I find Bishkek to be particularly provocative in this regard, I’ve made it my training ground of sorts. My first stab was back in August/September 2011, with my photo-essay “Bishkek in Ruins“, which I hope to follow up with a new series in the next month or so (also exploring the concept of “ruination”, but from a different angle).

So, here are a few videos and photographs which could perhaps be boiled down to “the sights and sounds of a very interesting de-industrial/re-naturalizing/post-communist/trans-ideological/Slavo-Turko-Mongolic metropol in the grips of a rather sloppily wet winter”, given with my little initial comments to give a sense of the living, dying, mutating Bishkek that I see… [I’ve re-edited this post and removed two paragraphs, which I want to use in a later reflection; best to focus here. So, please click “Continue Reading” to see the photographs.] Continue reading

First snow, first birthday

220px-National_emblem_of_Kyrgyzstan.svgToday was my sixth birthday far from home, but my first in Kyrgyzstan. To celebrate, Bishkek has donned a cloak of the winter’s first snow. Above is a crystal blue sky, and everywhere wet white co-mingling with lingering autumnal golds and crimsons. I can see why the Kyrgyz made көк (blue, but “асмандай”, sky-like or azure) and ак (white, but “кардай”, snow-like and brilliantly pure) the colors of their national seal, and why it appears so often in their various оймолор (symbolic tribal patterns).

I decided not to spend the day just “about myself”, so I shared the morning talking ideas and the future of Kyrgyzstan with two very interesting philosophy students (one of whom, like me, doubles as a journalist!); then I shared the early afternoon with a wonderful woman in blue strolling Erkendik boulevard, and then the late afternoon via Skype with a dear colleague; and then finally, I shared the evening with Begenas Sartov* over a bowl of Uighur-style лагман. [Update: And then my roommates surprised me with an early morning birthday cake!]

Ah, to my readers who’ve never been here: it’s hard to describe just how beautiful the day has been, not just externally, with the crisp, chilled air and the gentle, mountainous colors, but also internally, with the calm, cool breezes of the soul, and the good company of friends and noble ideas. I want some of you, in America, in Belgium, in Britain, in Italy, and everywhere else, to come here, even for just a day, to see with your own eyes why, at least in this very moment, I’m so glad that the Divine has led me here.

* Sartov was the Kyrgyz people’s first science fiction author [he was the Kyrgyz people’s first successful science fiction author; the crown of first-ever Kyrgyz science fiction author apparently rests upon the head of one Kusein or Kuseyin Esenkojoev**], who explored the interaction between tradition and modernity in his work. He is famous here for penning the novella, Мамыры Гулдөн Маалда, about a Soviet-educated shepherd and an extraterrestrial who are both vying for possession of a mystical flower in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The novella has been recently translated into English as When the Edelweiss Flowers Flourish, although I think the proper name of the flower in Kyrgyz is actually, “ой-кайндан”, [the proper name is indeed мамыры гул] a flow which the characters often refer to as, “тоо мамыры” (“soul of the mountain”).

** To learn more about Kyrgyz science fiction, check out this blog post (in original Russian or translated through Google).

Een vreemdeling altijd midden ouden / Жат кишинин түбөлүккө байыркы элдердин арасында

Салмоор ДЫЙКАНОВ, коомдук ишмер

I’m someone who always seems to half-learn a language. I can master the basics for negotiating costs and traveling, as well as the best snippets for intellectual conversation, but there’s a wide gulf of, let’s say “actual” or “useful” language in between. And although I typically turn out as a partial mute, paradoxically, I also typically end up with a pretty advanced reading comprehension (I’m most guilty about this with French: I can’t order a pizza but I can read Merleau-Ponty — not that I’d really want to, though).

I imagine that for all half-mutes like me, it’s a common experience every time we try our hand at another language, we inevitably have weird reactions inside our skulls. Sometimes my brain wants to reply in Dutch or Hebrew, even Spanish; other times, it can’t escape the grip of English, and the words of my conversation partner just seem to slam headlong against a blank concrete wall between my ears. Studying Kyrgyz has provoked yet another kind of reaction: fond recollections for Flemish, but also some regret about the language.

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The view from inside Mediastan

mediastan-the-documentary-about-wikileaks-that-assange-does-want-you-to-see-trailer-700x500The Kyrgyz have a proverb which goes, “Balaluu üi bazar; balasyz üi mazar”: “When there are children, the house is a bazaar; When there are no children, the house is a cemetery.” Although intended as an admonition for people doubting whether they want to become parents, it’s equally fitting as a warning to governments about the dangers of limiting the freedom of the press.

However, what Julian Assange and Johannes Wahlström seem to have discovered in their new film Mediastan is that there are, and shall always, be limits to the press – the expected political, legal, and financial limits, but also cultural, cognitive, and ethical limits. And as they endeavor to argue in the American context, it’s also dreadfully easy to mistake a mazar for a bazaar.

I’ve been asked by WikiLeaks-Press.org whether I have any reactions to the film. They came to me because a little over two years ago, I published an academic essay about WikiLeaks’ complicated impact upon the region. I’ve decided to take this as an opportunity to update some of the things I said therein, as well as to articulate what I imagine will be the view on Mediastan from within Mediastan itself.

Today is Kurman Ait (Eid al-Adha), the Feast of the Sacrifice in the Muslim faith. It’s a universal holiday commemorating the necessity of sacrifice in the name of one’s beliefs and for the sake of the greater good. So, I suppose it’s an appropriate day on which to pen this review, since journalism should be, first and foremost, about such self-sacrifice.

In the spirit of sacrifice, then, I ask viewers to spend their hard-earned dollars, euros, rubles, tenge, etc. on Mediastan, rather than waste them on the Hollywood spectacle The Fifth Estate. In the least, reviews of the latter indicate that you will have a much more meaningful experience from the former. And even if you strongly disagree with Assange and his belief system, you should nonetheless trust the Kyrgyz proverb: ultimately, it’s definitely better to have those noisy children from WikiLeaks in the house than not.

But no matter which film you choose to see, keep the critical faculties of your cerebral cortex activated. For instance, Mediastan has been criticized as anti-American “agitprop” and biased by some, but this is an empty and facile criticism. The entire purpose of Mediastan is to raise questions – certain questions that arise from a certain perspective, yes, even a certain bias.

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Choosing Kyrgyz

Big decisions have been made this week, ending my brief “landing” phase in Kyrgyzstan, and starting a new, experimental phase. I’ll be moving in with a very interesting group of students close to downtown Bishkek. Also, I have made the unorthodox choice to try my hand at Kyrgyz before Russian (I studied the latter almost two years ago, but can barely speak it at the moment).

Hopefully the move won’t entail more “student life”. Truth be told, although appearances probably suggest otherwise, I’ve never been a fan of the student’s existence. Yes, I enjoy the late evenings of conversations and being able to crash on a friend’s couch without worrying about annoying a spouse or being too loud after the children’s bedtime. However, I’ve never been keen about the material poverty and the mental tyrannies often inflicted by ideas, insecurities, and professors.

When I left Belgium, part of me finally hoped to return to living the young adult’s existence, of which I had much too brief a taste during my closing years in Philadelphia. An apartment full of upstarts, living in an upstart city, trying to do upstart things. Strange how those years still seem so near, and yet there is nearly half a decade between myself then and myself now. And strange how, in a way, I sort of had such an experience during my closing months in Leuven. Well, I will just have to see what transpires.

As for Kyrgyz, where do I start about that? The language issue, as I suppose it inevitably would be no matter what the context, is a real knot of issues. Like Belgium, Kyrgyzstan has a serious language crisis, so any decision a foreigner takes is bound to disappoint and consternate someone. I still remember how angrily some of my Flemish friends reacted when I decided to learn French, as well as how many of my expatriate friends rejected the utility of learning Flemish — “a farmer’s language” they called it.

I would like to ask my readers: if you were me, which would you choose to learn? Please answer this poll. And click “read more” to read the pros and cons as I understand them.

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The future civilization has already arisen; we are its agents here in the past

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Things are moving quickly in Bishkek. In a single day, I already have several potential living spaces, including one for a measly approximately $37 per month (a fantastic place; the only problem is it’s practically in the foothills of the Ala-Too, far from the downtown where most of my daily work will be). The long-term visa is a situation that still needs some ironing out. Yet, although some anxiety simmers down in the depths, for the most part the foundations are calm. Something inside of me is saying, This should work, and even if it doesn’t, results per se were never the real point.

The city is even more energetic than what I remember from when I was last here, two years ago. A vortex of car traffic punctuated by pedestrian kamikazes; cracked pavement, or just no pavement at all, surging with plant life and petulant stone; orange and brown dust kicked up in the air; violet and turquoise neon lights bedecking chaikhana after chaikhana; sleek grey social-realist buildings, slowly crumbling or freshly renovated; the ubiquitous scent of burning metal, mountain, and chai — I feel as though I’ve found myself a character in what should prove to be a very interesting, and hopefully meaningful, science fiction film.

And speaking of science fiction, a strange time traveler-like feeling began to creep up on me in recent months about my and my friends’ various vocations as Bahá’ís, journalists, human rights activists, teachers, hacktivists, rogues, and the like. Somehow, being in this young, boisterous Asian republic, surrounded by all the hyper-ideological Soviet-era architecture — the living ruins of one of the great, failed grand discourses — have given me the words to describe it.

How often have we felt that we are fighting, even resisting, as though we were some lunatic minority bestriding the fringe of history, struggling to make a better world? How often have we felt that the horizon is dim, and our lot is merely to be stoic the face of human self-defeat? In fact, it’s totally the wrong way of viewing things.

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The coming Global War on Hacking?

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I’ve got a suspicion that 2013 could very well go down as a fulcrum point in contemporary history, as well as in my own meager part in it. Julian Assange’s pinprick has now become Edward Snowden’s stab to the jugular vein, and meanwhile, I’ve had to provisionally decide how I’m going to steer the imminent deluge.

Here’s my thought process, and I’ll put it frankly to my audience: we should all be expecting in the near future the replacement of the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism) with the GWOH (Global War on Hacking). Consider: all it would take would be one massive power grid failure or some other similar immense infrastructural disruption, and then a logical but ultimately evidence-independent speculation (“we have reason to believe hackers were behind it”) to roll out new Patriot Act-like powers that effectively render criminal any technological attempt to maintain individual or collective privacy, much less to peer into the secrets of power.

The idea is not strictly-speaking mine. I heard it mumbled about in some quarters at the recent OHM2013 convention. However, other than an obscure comment to a 2011 editorial (copied in the post-script of this post), there’s nothing about in on the public web. So, let me spell it out a bit here, and then explain my own position, which I hope is moderate. And if not moderate, then at least independent…

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Looking through a prism darkly: citizen-spy epistemology

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So, this post is regarding the Prism program, and the phenomenon of mass-level metadata accumulation and pattern analysis that it represents. ProPublic has published an extremely useful timeline about how the United States intelligence community has developed to this point (such as we can know on the outside, given the high amount of top secret classification). Meanwhile, my colleague Joshua Foust (who has testified before Senate about over-classification and other problems in the intelligence industry — among other things, that it’s an industry), has published nine points about Prism that the public should think about. The most important are points #3, 7, and 8.

Joshua’s remarks border on the cynical, but nonetheless he is onto something. With respect to his last point, my job here is to explain about why this shouldn’t be a temporary outcry. And the explanatory methodology is simple (and I would say, spiritual). The consequences, however, are complex. (I) On the one hand, the citizen and the spy need to put themselves into each other’s shoes; and (II) on the other hand, the citizen needs to really understand what is being asked of him/her by the spy, but also why the spy shouldn’t be asking this of the citizen, either.

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Habermas @ Leuven: the EU as enormous labor union?

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None other than Jürgen Habermas has come to speak at Leuven, and about nothing less than the future of the European Union – to be precise, “Solidarity, Democracy, and the European Union”. God bless him, Habermas is nigh unintelligible when he speaks (fortunately, the university distributed copies of his lecture), but no one can question that his heart is in the right place. The question is whether his heart possesses the best possible argument; that seems doubtful to me.

Arguably, Habermas is famous among philosophers, social scientists, and activists for making a Golden Age out of the Enlightenment era, and drawing abstract models therefrom. The best example is his famous description of how the public sphere and liberal democracy came to emerge. Historically, a crucial institution was the coffeehouse, which philosophically becomes liberal democracy in ideal form: a common, agreed-upon space wherein interlocutors agree to rationally and coolheadedly debate an issue to a consensus. Elections, in their best form, resemble such a debate; so, too, legislative discussions.

With respect to the European Union’s present troubles and its future solution, the historical model for Habermas, at least as I understand him, appears to be the late-nineteenth century labor union, which philosophically becomes supranational democracy in ideal form. This time, the idea is of forging a cohesive fraternity with a democratic (i.e., rational, deliberative) but still collective decision-making process with a wealth-sharing agenda. I presume that because everyone is acting and thinking in solidarity, and because the European Union’s various institutions are driven to work for the best interests of this collective, the notorious “democracy deficit” that besets the Union today would evaporate. So too would disappear the clash of national self-interests that are threatening, says Habermas (and we all sort of feel it), to rend asunder the northern and southern economies.

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Kyrgyzstan versus Belgium [perpetually updated]

2010706-kyrgyzstan-april-coup We find comparison lists all the time on the Internet, but I never thought to make one of my own. Well, it’s been almost one month since my relocation to Kyrgyzstan, and I figured, Why not try my own hand at it? And so, without further ado, here’s a comparison between Kyrgyzstan and another obscure society I happen to know somewhat well… Belgium!

BelgiumThis is intended to be a tongue-in-cheek and decidedly not spiritually-inclined list, so take it as you will. It may or may not always induce a chuckle, especially at the start. And indeed, recognizing that, to a large degree, this is an exercisn id stereotyping; and moreover recognizing that, as an American, I’m a visitor to both of these societies, I welcome any additions, corrections, rejoinders, etc. So, please leave a comment at the end of this post.

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